Standing on the verge of action, why take the time to study first? Why not just roll up our sleeves and get to work? The immediate problem with this scenario may be action leading to outcomes we had hoped to avoid and leaving us frustrated at falling short. We might have stopped the clock for a moment to examine the options first.
More fundamentally, study may be needed to get some church leaders to act at all. Study of the Bible and Christian ethics can correct a strong tendency to privatize American religion. Robert Bellah observes that Americans often misread the Constitution’s disestablishment clause, thinking it forbids religious involvement in political life, when to the contrary it separates church and synagogue and mosque from government interference. By the early 19th century, “Privatization placed religion, together with the family, in a compartmentalized sphere that provided loving support but could no longer challenge the dominance of utilitarian values in the society at large.” Church leaders should root out this tendency to privatize religion wherever they find it. It starts with study.
It may seem surprising to realize that the Mainline Protestant church does not expend much energy on the study of their faith traditions. Sociologist Nancy Ammerman finds the Mainline Protestant church weak in the area of adult faith formation. Most congregations, Mainline or not, have at least one study or prayer group, yet less than half (40%) of them hold any classes during “prime time” on Sunday morning before or after worship. Overall, Mainline churches set a low bar of expectation for adult education. Conservative Protestant and African American churches, that leaders will participate in adult education. In addition, only 14% of mainline churches offer regular classes for new members, even though half of their members grew up in other denominations.
By paying so little attention to adult education, less than any other American faith group, “white Mainline Protestants seem to be putting all their eggs in the basket of morning worship and children’s Sunday school. Why? Unlike other groups such as Catholics or Jews, Mainline Protestants do not see themselves as outsiders to American culture. For much of American history, they were the leaders in education, the government and business, so they have felt less need to reinforce the basics of the faith.
Dick Murray offers suggestions for making adult education and Bible study more central to church life, including offering a variety of classes on the Bible throughout the year, not just during Lent and Advent, scheduling more classes in mid-week in order to allow more time for in-depth study, and sometimes supplementing the sermon with an assignment of a Bible passage for the whole congregation to study in the coming week.
Carl Dudley suggests preparing for a community ministry project by engaging in a study of the congregation’s particular history. Ask how the community project you are about to start aligns with the congregation’s unique identity. He notes the impatience of some mission and outreach teams. “Some committees never listen, but always talk, trying to persuade the congregation with a sales pitch for their idea.” Slow the process down by exploring congregational identity first. How does your church use the Bible in worship music, spoken prayers, sermons, or at times when critical decisions must be made? What creeds, doctrines and denominational policy statements does the church treasure? What heroes and heroines are celebrated from your past? What church stories are told repeatedly, about the church’s ethnic-cultural journey, its location, or its service to the world?
Another method involves integrating study with an “immersion experience” in a community you serve. Journey to Justice, a weekend retreat designed for Roman Catholic parishes, combines study of the Bible and Catholic social teaching with a community tour guided by local leaders. Friday evening participants learn about “the preferential option for the poor” and the concept of social sin (unjust systems that oppress the poor). Saturday morning the group studies the parable of the Good Samaritan, with its focus on serving neighbors who are radically different from us. That afternoon the group visits a social agency guided by a group of the “empowered poor” who serve as community guides. In debriefing that evening, participants share what they experienced and felt during the visit, revisiting church teachings and examining the root causes of poverty. The retreat ends on Sunday morning with a guided imagery exercise and the Mass and an invitation to commit to follow up steps. In this retreat, study encompasses the whole experience, with students spending more time in the classroom than on the site visit. The assumption: Study can lead to changed experience.
Study can to lay the foundation for a new action. The town of Comanche, Oklahoma experienced economic hardship after the closing of two factories. In a school system serving five towns and 1,000 students, a majority of children were eligible for a federal free meal program twice per day. First Church, a small church with only fifty members, began studying Matthew 25: 31-46, the Great Judgment in which Christ’s followers are separated into sheep and goats based on how they treat others. Church leaders asked, “How can a church find Christ in a town that has lost hope?” They also read the Great Commission in Matthew 28:16-20 with its commandment to make disciples, baptize and teach the gospel. Church leaders asked, “How do we ‘go into the world’ of Commanche, Oklahoma?” In response, church leaders started a free breakfast program on the last Saturday of each month, placing newspaper ads and posting signs that read “Free Breakfast.” After a few months, they drew fifty or sixty persons. Next the breakfast committee decided to remove the word “free” and simply call it a “community breakfast.” Younger families who came to breakfast had told them they felt singled out as persons who needed a handout. After the name change, attendance grew to 125. The church had moved from study to practice.
Who benefits from study? Could we expand beyond church providers to include the people we target as the recipients of our aid? Circles USA, an organization seeking to empower the poor, uses a method that assumes the poor should be use study to improve their situation. First United Methodist Church in McPherson, Kansas hosts a Circles chapter. In the Circles process, education provides a foundation for actions as families living in poverty sign up for a twelve-week class called “Getting Ahead.” The course teaches the causes of social causes of poverty as well as matters of individual responsibility, such as personal financial management.
The Circles method relies on a combination of personal goal setting and group support. After graduating from the twelve-week course, a Circles participant makes make a commitment, usually for eighteen months to five years, to get out of poverty permanently. That person, now called a “Circle Leader,” is surrounded by a group of supportive persons, yet personally responsible for achieving his or her goals. After making the commitment, the person is matched with an Allies. “Allies are not mentors. They are intentional friends,” according to Rebecca Lewis, the Circles Coach in McPherson. From this point on, the Circle Leader is invited to participate in monthly training sessions alongside a group of their peers, others committed to similar goals. This group-centered approach, involving classes, Allies, and signed pledges of responsibility, makes the task of study so much more enjoyable than it would be in isolation.
For the impatient activist, taking time to study, study, study may seem a needless waste of time. Yet reading the Bible, analyzing the social context, and learning financial management offer significant ways to ground our work. Study can open up new visions for what needs to be done, serve as a guide to action, and make it more likely that the action we undertake will achieve its desired effect.
 Robert Bellah et. al., Habits of the Heart, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008), 224.
 Nancy Ammerman, Pillars of Faith: American Congregations and Their Partners (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 272-273.
 Dick Murray, Teaching the Bible to Adults and Youth (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993), 21-22.
 Carl S. Dudley, Community Ministry (Hernden, VA: Alban, 2002),66.
 Dudley, Community Ministry, 63-104.
 Jeffry Korgen, My Lord and My God: Engaging Catholics in Social Ministry (New York: Paulist Press, 2007), 55-71. Journey to Justice Guidebook (Washington, DC: U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2014), https://www.wearesaltandlight.org/files/4514/8407/9231/Journey_to_Justice_Day_Guidebook.pdf.
 Jeanne Stevenson-Moessner, Prelude to Practical Theology (Nashville: Abingdon, 2008), 13-17.
Photo: Louise 971, Morguefile license.