In the post-service Bible study time that my current church has (Americans, strangely, seem to know this pre- or post-Sunday service event as “Sunday school”; to me that still tends to primarily mean what Americans call “children’s church”) we recently watched the Christian film The War Room. And now we’re going through the associated Bible study.
For those of you who haven’t seen it, it’s basically about the power of prayer, and is centred around a “normal” churched-but-barely-Christian couple with relationship issues. You ought to be able to guess most of the plot from that.
Surprisingly, I actually found it basically enjoyable. It’s not a great film as films go. It’s not Oscar material. But it’s enjoyable enough. Enough that I might have to revise my rock-bottom opinion of Christian filmmaking up a little.
I have to confess to being the arch-cynic of Christian media. My overarching impression is that 98% of it is lame, amateurish, preachy and contrived.
My being impressed by The War Room is at least in part simply because I have the bar set so low that merely not being total crap would impress me.
I think War Room is better than that. It has high production values and is very well-acted. Most of the characters actually come across as real people, not actors hamming it up. It has a few issues, but most of the time it’s not being annoyingly preachy. At least, none of the occasional preaching from the mouths of the main characters was ever out of character. It was… all right.
So now we come to the Bible study, tying in to a film about the power of prayer.
Now, my personal bar for Bible studies and guided prayer workbooks is about as high as my bar for Christian media is low. I want real, meaty content, practical pointers and encouragement for the mature believer and seasoned pray-er as well as ground-level introductory material for the clueless. I want to be treated like a literate adult with a functional brain at minimum; fill-in-the-blank reading comprehension questions are something I would have found simple as a ten-year-old.
I want to be challenged and I want to be taught something.
In short, I want quite a lot.
But apparently, even though this is the consumers’ paradise of the United States of Walmart, I’m going to be somewhat disappointed.
As I consider the film, I’m almost wondering why there’s a tie-in Bible study at all. Jesus didn’t provide the solutions to His parables for all the crowd to examine, and many of those were a lot less straightforward than The War Room. He let people figure it out.
Let’s take, for example, the “lukewarm coffee” scene. If you are trying to tell me you missed the point of that, then I begin to seriously doubt whether you have a functioning brain. This is, cinematically, Jesus’ words to the Laodicean church: “you’re lukewarm and it makes me want to puke”. And I’m using “puke” deliberately; this is the literal meaning of “spew you out of my mouth”.
Ok, if you’re a new believer you may not have read that verse, but still, the point is made abundantly clear solely using movie material. Do we really need an entire group Bible lesson rehashing it?
I mean absolutely no disrespect to our Bible study leaders. They’re a good couple and the themes raised by this film are worth delving into. Prayer is something we ought to know how to do, something that we ought to study in the Scriptures. And the film was even quite a good encouragement to get off our fat, lazy arses and spend time in prayer. Not really a practical “how-to” guide or theological treatise on the subject, but no-one should be expecting that. It’s a movie. Its purpose is to entertain.
This is absolutely not about our study leaders. It’s about published Bible study guides in general, and this one in particular.
I come to this Bible study guide and I notice that it has a lot of features in common with the Pray31 national prayer initiative guide that I was so disappointed in last year. Like that guide, it’s glossy and slick and very professional-looking. Really, it looks great. Someone’s really gone to town on the presentation.
But unfortunately, like the Pray31 guide, it’s rather more disappointing in the actual content department.
If you want a ground-level introduction to basic Christian discipleship that ties in to this movie, this is what you’re getting. Honest assessment of where you are right now, accountability, grace and works, forgiveness, foundational spiritual warfare, identity in Christ. There’s some meaty subjects right there. It could be challenging for anyone.
But like the Pray31 initiative, I find myself asking why it’s pitched so very, very low.
I understand that it can be a good idea even for the most mature Christian to refresh the basics once in a while, and I’m by no means that Christian yet. But there is a point at which we leave the elementary teachings about grace, faith, obedience to God and righteous living. There ought to come a point at which we exchange milk for solid food for the bulk of our intake.
This study seems to be pitched at churched people who have been challenged by the film to get more serious about their faith.
That’s ok; they had to make some kind of a decision about what their target audience was. But my question is why decide to pitch it to churched near-pagans? I’m not sure they will be that likely to be watching the film in the first place, and I’m fairly certain that unless they’re already reasonably serious about their faith they aren’t going to make the time for a Bible study that purports to be on the power of prayer.
If you need to go over salvation-by-grace-not-works in a Bible study on the power of prayer, it doesn’t say good things about the state of the church at large.
And I know enough pastors and church leaders to be really doubtful that this stereotype is as prevalent as it appears from where we pitch our published teaching. Just about all of the pastors I actually know are good, well-informed servants of Christ who preach the whole Good News and teach the whole Scripture. They aren’t keeping their flocks in the dark about the truth of the Word. So who is, if the church at large is really this clueless?
I’m not saying that there isn’t a need for introductory-level material on a number of different discipleship topics. But I am saying that there is also a need for deeper studies as well.
Some of the questions are pretty good. A few of the “honest evaluation” questions are questions we really should ask ourselves if we want to evaluate our spiritual life.
But others are just annoyingly brainless. I know every Bible study guide under the sun has a tendency to ask “fill in the blank” questions and “did you actually read the Scripture we told you to?” questions. And I never have seen the point of them. I’m a literate adult. I have a functioning brain. We cease giving our children these sorts of reading-comprehension questions when they reach high school. Why do we think they are appropriate for adults?
Surely I can’t be that much smarter than the average bear? Am I really alone in a nation full of third-grade readers? I expect more from my ten-year-old, to be brutally frank.
From what I remember (and it’s been a while, so time may be clouding my memory), if you go into a Christian bookshop in the UK looking for Bible study material, you’ll be presented with a range of options, and the sales assistant might say something like “if you want something introductory, this one’s a really good basic overview, this one’s a little deeper and that one’s really practical but not much theology.”
My experience of American published Bible study material is that it all seems to be pitched at the lowest possible level.
America has produced some of the greatest preachers, Bible teachers and Christian writers of this present generation, and I’m including the entire world when I say that. And when I come to studies like this I’m really baffled as to how.
Reading through the whole guide, this is not really a Bible study series on the subject of prayer, like you might expect from watching the film. It’s an introduction to basic discipleship for non-believing church attendees. You can tell that by the subjects it covers. Honest assessment of where you are spiritually, Christian accountability and fellowship, grace and works (why on earth does Christian accountability take precedence over this, if this is the basic discipleship workbook it appears to be?), basics of spiritual warfare, and identity in Christ (another subject that I’d consider significantly more important than accountability) – this is a lot more foundational Christian discipleship than it is power of prayer.
There’s a need for this sort of thing, I’ll acknowledge that, but I have serious doubts that those who actually need this will make the time to participate, and I have even stronger doubts that those who are actually likely to participate – the already-committed Christ-followers – will really be brought that much deeper into the knowledge of God.
Ok, I admit that my expectations are high. But why shouldn’t they be? Why do we assume that American disciples of Jesus are necessarily ignorant of the One they serve?
It was quite a good film, and the studies are well-tied to both the film and the Scriptures. But this isn’t the study we need.
I reiterate, this isn’t about the study leaders. They’re actually doing a great job of mitigating the worst of the stupid. And it’s not everyone that can write their own Bible study materials – I’m currently making my first attempt, and it’s hard – this is why published materials exist in the first place. It’s not about their selection of this; you’d expect that a tie-in Bible study to a film about the power of prayer to concern, well, prayer, right? Well, I would, anyway.
No, this is about the assumption of those who write and publish such things that the church at large is only ever in need of basic introductory-level materials. Can we have something deeper? Please?