3 Bottom Line Things You Must Know Before Studying the Bible with Secular People (#2 is Huge!)
I love studying the Bible with secular people.
In fact, if ministry meant I could spend 40 hours a week doing nothing but life and faith with secular folk, I would be the happiest dude in the world. Not saying I don’t enjoy ministering to the saints, I totally do! But there’s something about exploring faith with secular people that is on a whole other level.
But that’s not to say I always get it right. One of the realities I have to embrace when it comes to studying the Bible with secular culture is that I have zero idea what it means to be secular. I might read a book about secular culture, philosophy and experience. I might even sit down with secular people and listen to their stories, ideas and perspectives. But one fact remains: I have never been a secular person. I have never shared in their experience. I have no idea what its like to live any part of my life without a theistic metanarrative that makes sense of my existence and the brokenness of the human story. I have always had a worldview that placed my identity and perspectives within an enthusiastic and hopeful framework. So I simply don’t know what its like to live, even for one day, without that framework. Even on the days that I doubted it, it was still there in my subconscious stringing my existential quest together.
Secular people, on the other hand, have lived with different frameworks or no frameworks at all. Whats it like to navigate life like that? I don’t know. The best I can do is listen and try and understand. In doing so, I can frame the message of scripture in a way that connects with their experience instead of assuming that framing it according to my religious experience is the only right way. This is the first lesson I have learned from studying the Bible with secular culture. Listen, listen, listen!
The second lesson is also embedded in there: Re-frame. The biggest mistake I have made when studying the Bible with secular people is framing the story of Jesus in language and archetypes that make sense to my religious psyche. But what I have found is that the angles that I find meaningful on the spiritual search many of my secular contacts find pointless.
Let me share a quick story. Last year I was studying the Bible with a group composed of 3 Adventists, 1 Catholic and 1 secular guy. During one of the studies, the topic of assurance of salvation emerged. The Adventists went on to dominate the conversation for the rest of the study. Because of a shared background in legalism, both the Adventists and the Catholic found meaning in the discussion. About 40 minutes in, I turned to our secular mate who had been awfully quiet the whole time and caught him desperately struggling to keep his eyes open. The poor guy was so bored! He later told me that he felt really disconnected not only at that study, but also the following studies in which the Adventists controlled the framework of the discussion due to the questions they were asking. He personally found the questions pointless and irrelevant, so he checked out and stopped attending.
Framing the biblical adventure in a way that connects with the present experience, value structures and concerns of the secular person is super important in keeping them engaged. Don’t assume that just because its seems important to you then it must be important to everyone. In the same note, don’t assume because X worked for that guy then X will also work for the other guy. Even when gifting books and resources, be careful to not give them something that you find insightful that they will find repulsive (I have seen this many times with secular people being scared away from further exploration because someone gave them a book or DVD loaded with bizarre apocalyptic imagery). People must be met where they are and led gently toward Christ in a diversity of ways.
Jesus himself exemplified this. To one person, Jesus preached the gospel of “you must be born again”. To another, he preached the gospel of “I am the living water.” And to another still, “Sell all that you have and you will have treasure in heaven.” These diverse frameworks were intended to meet people where they were and lead them toward his heart. He never used the same framework twice. And yet, we do it all the time!
The key to studying the Bible with secular people is 1) Listen, listen, listen! and 2) Re-frame. (PS. You will find re-framing much easier if you first take the time to listen.)
But there is one more lesson I want to share.
When studying the Bible with secular people, it is important to make a meaningful connection. It’s not good enough to just disseminate doctrinal information. Instead, you have to invest in connecting deeply with them on a personal level. As the studies progress, if the person feels connected to you they will be upfront about the areas they are struggling to understand and embrace. However, its not enough to simply connect with them yourself. Instead, aim to establish 2-3 good connections with church members. There have been two instances in which a secular person completely pulled out of studies simply because I went away for a number of weeks and they had no one else to keep them connected and engaged. During that time, Satan sows seeds of doubt and discouragement that can be overcome when a person has connections they can reach out to. But because these students of mine only had me as their primary connection, they didn’t have anyone checking up on them during my absence. In both cases, by the time I got back, they weren’t interested anymore despite the fact that when I left, they couldn’t wait to keep going.
So three simple lessons: Listen, Re-frame, Connect.
Of course, there is more to studying the Bible with secular people. I’d love for you to share your experiences and lessons below! Is there anything else you have learned from studying with the secular world?
Also, don’t miss this Free eBook I wrote that goes deeper into this topic: “How to Study the Bible with Postmoderns”. Free download below!