Ed Stetzer on Bible Study and Church Growth
- Tim Newcombe Contributor to Bible Study Magazine
- 2013 5 Nov
“Christians must not come to church every week expecting the preacher to chew up their food for them,” says Ed Stetzer. “Growing and mission-focused believers are self-feeders. God has given us His Word to correct, rebuke, train and reprove us—to train us in righteousness. The Word of God is given to us as a means of spiritual maturity and it must lead to transformation.”
Stetzer, 43, is the President of LifeWay Research. After receiving two master’s degrees and dual doctorates, he began to focus full time on training pastors and church planters. He has done so on five continents and has planted churches, or turned around dying ones, in four states. He preaches most weeks at Two Rivers Church in Nashville. Stetzer has written or co-written nine books, including Comeback Churches, Breaking the Missional Code, Compelled by Love, and the just-released Transformational Church.
He believes that a lack of biblical knowledge is hindering people from understanding and walking with God. A lack of biblical grounding is limiting their spiritual effectiveness. When Bible Study Magazine recently interviewed him, Stetzer addressed this and much more.
BSM: Why is reading and studying the Bible important for you personally and for Christians in general?
STETZER: For me, reading the Bible is essential to my spiritual growth. I make a habit of consistent and regular study in the Word of God—not just simply studying for messages I preach on Sunday, but for being changed by the Word of God. Every time I open the Word of God and teach at church I ask the Lord to speak through it. It is essential that we read, memorize, study, and meditate on the Word of God.
For Christians as a whole, we have research that shows the correlation between spiritual maturity and reading the Bible. In Brad Waggoner’s book The Shape of Faith to Come, which is based on a LifeWay Research study, we found that reading the Bible was the best predictor of spiritual maturity. In other words, if you were in the Bible, you were growing spiritually.
I think right now we’re in a season where a lot of people are realizing that we aren’t making as many disciples out there as we would like. Our LifeWay Research studies show a lack of discipleship among many evangelical Christians, and so people often wonder, what’s the answer to that? Issues such as preaching, missional living, and belonging to a covenant community are all part of the solution. But I think there’s no question that an essential element is leading God’s people to consistently engage God’s Word through reading, studying, and memorizing it. Biblical illiteracy is prevalent and personal commitment to God’s Word is the only real answer.
Church leadership must challenge people to be in the Word of God—consistently growing in their knowledge of the Scriptures.
BSM: How do you read the Bible?
STETZER: I take it in its simplest form. I just open it and read it. But I prefer to do my devotional reading in a Bible edition without notes—I just open up the text and get to it. I am easily distracted by notes, footnotes, call outs, and margin notes. So, I intentionally find ways to simply read devotionally. I love study bibles and am even working on editing one, but when I read, I want to focus on the text and what God is saying through it.
I also read with a pen and a highlighter. The things I highlight are things I’d stick on my refrigerator to see every day. I also write in the margins of my Bible and underline those phrases that show me places where I need to change at the moment. So if you ever open my Bible, you will see the stuff I like (highlighted) and the stuff I need to fix (underlined). That’s why I don’t let people see my personal reading Bible!
I also try to read the Bible in the way it unfolds. The Bible is not a series of isolated morality tales. Instead, look at it as a whole through a Christ-centered lens, and as an unfolding drama. I read the Scriptures with the whole story of redemption in mind. Look at it as a series of acts that are God centered—focused on His redemptive plan.
BSM: What is something that is surprising about your Bible study habits?
STETZER: Probably one of the biggest surprises is that I don’t read the Bible every day, seven days a week. I read the Bible consistently.
I used to proclaim, “I will read the Bible every day!” It became a point of legalism and pride in my life. Instead of cherishing my time in the Word of God and prayer with the Father, it became, “Oh, I must do my thing today.” So instead, I simply make it a consistent habit to read the Word of God. And maybe that concept is freeing for some who have legalistic tendencies like me. So I’m consistently in the Word of God. For me the issue is the desire to consistently be in the Word of God, not a legalistic checkmark about my time in Scripture.
BSM: What about memorizing Scripture? How important is that?
STETZER: Very important. But we need to get people reading first. I typically tell them to begin at the Gospel of John and read until they get to the end of the Bible. That often puts them in the mindset of “Hey, I can do this.” Then I ask them to begin at Genesis chapter one.
Scripture memory is something that comes along with some other disciplines like prayer, meditation on Scripture, and study.
Psalm 119:9–11 was the first passage I memorized. It says, “How can a young man keep his way pure? By living according to your word. With all my heart I have sought thee; do not let me wander from thy commandments. Thy word have I hidden in my heart that I might not sin against thee.” I memorized this because as a 14- or 15-year-old boy, you can guess that I needed to battle temptation in my life.
I could pray against it, and the more I would pray against a given temptation, the more I would think about that given temptation, so that didn’t help. Ultimately I needed to replace it with something else. And so when I was tempted, I would simply quote the Word of God, “Thy word have I hid in my heart that I might not sin against thee.”
Memorizing Scripture allows people to properly handle temptation. But, it also shapes our life. I find that it teaches me to be more like Jesus. In a sense, memorizing Scripture is remapping my brain. Romans 12:1 commands, “Do not be conformed to the world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” I think my mind is being transformed and renewed the more I fill it with Scripture. And so I think that it matters deeply that I make memorizing Scripture a habit.
BSM: How can pastors better encourage people to read the Bible more consistently?
STETZER: I think it begins with the way pastors preach.
It is helpful to have people open the Bible when you preach. I use video projectors and screens when I preach, but it is essential for people to grow accustomed to opening their Bible and finding the passages related to the message.
Also, preach the way people read the Bible—moving through the text. I am not one who believes that the only biblical form of preaching is verse-by-verse exposition. In fact, we don’t have any real record of it until John Chrysostom in the fifth century AD. So I try to avoid the unhelpful position that verse-by-verse is the only valid form of preaching. But I do preach a majority of the time through texts. Why? Not because expository preaching is modeled in the Scriptures, but because of what the Scriptures are, and because it best reflects the way I hope believers will study the Scriptures.
Let me say to my friends who preach topically, I think that’s fine. I do it regularly. I have no difficulty with that as long as you are letting the Word of God set the agenda and you are not finding a topic and squeezing a few passages in to match your opinion. Teaching people to study the Bible is not a game of bobbing for apples where you just stick your head in, clench down with your teeth, and take whatever comes out. That type of study or preaching teaches people to be irresponsible with the Scriptures.
BSM: Why is it so hard for people to read the Bible?
STETZER: I regularly hear of people who would rather read devotional books than read the Bible. Now I understand that when you begin wading through Leviticus and come to the chapter on identifying and treating skin diseases, it doesn’t exactly bring great joy and warmth to the heart. But we need to remember that even that passage plays a part in the unfolding plan.
All parts of the Bible are equally inspired, but not all are “equally applied to my life in this very moment.” I recognize my view can be easily misunderstood, but I think that I probably need to spend more time praying on and thinking through Philippians chapter 2 than I do Leviticus chapter 13, the skin disease chapter. So, I think what we have to do is remember why they’re both there.
With that being said, one of the things I do is make it a habit to read through the Bible once a year. If I simply read the parts I think I need the most, I will miss a big part of God’s design for my growth. If I did that, I would only spend time in the New Testament. I would have a Marcionite canon. Marcion wanted to believe in the God of the New Testament, but not the Old Testament. Well, I think a lot of Christians are that way. I think they just can’t figure out a lot of what’s in the Old Testament, so they just skip it. But it is essential for believers to get the full picture of God’s revelation.
BSM: Can you give us an example of digging deeper into the Old Testament?
STETZER: I think a perfect example is creation. It is a remarkable picture of God unveiling His plan from the beginning. For example, God puts the sun and the moon in their places. Why does the Bible tell us that? Perhaps, maybe even most likely, because God is pointing out that He rules over the objects that some use as the object of their worship. The Canaanites worshipped the moon, and so God makes a very distinct point of saying, “You’re amidst a people who worship the moon. I created it. I put it in place. I even call it a ‘lesser light.’ ” In the creation account, He’s describing several essential things. He’s teaching about the supremacy of God in all things. He teaches His “otherness.”
Let’s move forward to Babel. God comes and scatters the people across the world by giving them many languages. Why? Look to the theme of languages in the Bible; don’t read Babel as an isolated story. Much of the rest of the Old Testament is taken up with the need for the people of Israel to gather the nations in Jerusalem. Why? So that God would be worshipped by the tongues that He scattered.
To fully accomplish His mission, He sends Jesus. In Acts 2, Pentecost comes and the Holy Spirit comes down. We see the nations in Jerusalem praising God in their own languages and the gospel being told through the tongues of the nations. But it does not end in Jerusalem. God spreads out His new missionaries. Again, a foreshadowing occurs of God’s intention throughout the Scriptures: To bring His mission to every tongue, tribe and nation.
And then finally look in Revelation, and you see this picture of the New Jerusalem. It is filled with men and women from every tongue, tribe and nation who are singing, “Thou art worthy, thou art worthy.” That was God’s original intent.
He scattered people in Babel, but His ultimate agenda, traced through this linguistic thread throughout Scripture, was to bring the languages and the nations together in the praise, honor, and glory of His name. So when we get that, we get the picture of what’s going on here. The story of Babel is not some isolated morality tale; it is part of God’s grand redemptive design.
The Bible is made up of many different genres, but the Bible is not to be read as a series of isolated incidents but as a whole. People should read through the Bible with a Bible without notes (at times) in order to simply learn the story of God’s redemptive plan.
BSM: You have written about some of the challenges in churches today. How do you think Bible study relates to that?
STETZER: I think there are some big challenges. One of the greatest is the Evangelical angst occurring in North America. Evangelicals in our country are just not sure of who they are or where they’re going. I think they need to engage the Scriptures to find the answers.
Perhaps what Evangelicals need most right now is a strategy for biblical literacy. We need to get—as one organization is named—“back to the Bible.” It will help us be more gracious and winsome in the way we communicate, and some evangelicals need that. It could help some evangelicals have a clearer view on controversial issues. It will help us to understand and communicate a clear gospel as laid out in the Scriptures—a gospel of the cross and of the kingdom. The Word of God is essential to where we are right now.
Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Logos Bible Software. Each issue of Bible Study Magazine provides tools and methods for Bible study as well as insights from people like John Piper, Beth Moore, Mark Driscoll, Kay Arthur, Randy Alcorn, John MacArthur, Barry Black, and more. More information is available at http://www.biblestudymagazine.com. Originally published in print: Copyright Bible Study Magazine (May–June 2010): pgs.10–14.