Yet although we have plenty of Bibles on hand to own and look at, very few of us really spend much time seeking to read and understand its message. The most recent Australian Church Life Survey showed that only 19% of church attendees read the Bible daily or on most days, with another 46% reading it only occasionally and 37% hardly ever or never at all.
The Bible may be perhaps the most owned (US Statistics point to an average of 6.8 Bibles per household) but least read of any book ever printed.
And not only least read, but also least understood of any book. Those Sunday school bloopers - "the epistles were the wives of the apostles", "Solomon had 300 wives and 700 porcupines" - are humorous, but also are sadly true of many people in our churches for whom the Bible is largely a mystery. The old saying, "Wonderful things in the Bible I see, most of them put there by you and by me", is often an all too common experience.
It was with this in mind that the leadership team of our church devised a 10 week series called the Hitchhikers' Guide to the Bible to help our church members and visitors understand something of the big picture of the Bible and thus make it more accessible and able to be read and enjoyed.
The plan began after a successful 40 Days of Purpose programme in 2005 in which the preaching programme and small group programme of the church were tied in together. In spite of the "American-ness" of the teaching and video presentations, the leadership of the church was impressed with the sense of intentionality that the 40 Days of Purpose programme had, with its idea of multiple reinforcements and accomplishment of short term discipleship goals. As a preacher I also found that having set material to prepare from and make my own, made the sweat of sermon preparation less of a burden and released me to be able to send more time in training leaders and accomplish other key tasks.
This experience led us to develop a more intentional plan for small groups in the parish – with a 3 year programme of alternate compulsory and optional studies devised for all the groups.
Different churches I have been involved in have used one or other approach – some allowing each group to do its own thing, others being more centralised with set studies that every group had to follow. Both approaches have their strengths and weaknesses. Our plan was to do both:
* Term 1 – Begin each year with a set programme of studies linked to a sermon series across all three congregations;
* Term 2 – allow freedom for the groups to choose their own themes;
* Term 3 – another set programme; and
* Term 4 – optional studies to finish off the year.
It was decided to begin the 3 year programme with an overview of the whole Bible. This was especially needed with the Old Testament being less well known by so many people.
The book we decided to base our preaching and small group programme upon was Vaughan Robert's excellent publication God's Big Picture (IVP, 2003). Vaughan is the Rector of St Ebbe's Oxford and is an excellent preacher and communicator. (Incidentally, his book is based on Graeme Goldsworthy's book Gospel and Kingdom, which only goes to prove the dictum of Ecclesiastes 1:10: "Is there a thing of which it is said, 'See this is new'?" – and the famous sentiment of Ecclesiastes 12:12: "Of the making of books there is no end"!)
Following the example of the 40 Days of Purpose we began the programme with an official Launch, at which people were encouraged to sign up for small groups. The next ten weeks then consisted of a sermon based on the theme of the kingdom of God – God's people in God's place living under God's rule and blessing – with small groups during the week discussing in greater depth the passage that had just been preached.
Launch The Greatest Book of All 2 Timothy 3:1-17.
Week One The Pattern of the Kingdom Genesis 1 and 2
Week Two The Perished Kingdom Genesis 3
Week Three The Promised Kingdom Genesis 17:1-8
Week Four The Partial kingdom – part 1 Exodus 1 and 2
Week Five The Partial kingdom – part 2 Exodus 19 and 20
Week Six The Partial kingdom – part 3 2 Samuel 7:1-17
Week Seven The Prophesied Kingdom Hosea 1 and 2
Week Eight The Present Kingdom Mark 1:1-15
Week Nine The Proclaimed Kingdom 2 Corinthians 4
Week Ten The Perfected Kingdom Revelation 21 and 22
In keeping with the principle of multiple reinforcements, an A5 folded sheet was produced each week which included a summary of the teaching for the week, a blank section for sermon notes, and questions for the small group discussions. An A5 ring binder with an attractive cover was sold to enable people to keep their sheets together and be used as a useful resource for the future.
One key element in the Hitchhikers' Guide series was to present the Bible not just as a collection of 66 books divided into Old and New Testaments but as one Book with one Author and one overall Message. I wanted our church members to grow in their confidence in the Bible and its unity as they saw the story of salvation unfold week by week.
To assist in this we ensured that each Sunday we recapitulated where we had come from and where we were heading via a "map" of the major themes we had previously covered. The final "map" showed how all of God's purposes have been fulfilled in Christ and are finally completed in the new heavens and the new earth of Revelation 21 and 22.
|The kingdom of God
|The pattern of the kingdom
|The perished kingdom
|The promised kingdom
|The partial kingdom
|The prophesied kingdom
|The present kingdom
|The proclaimed kingdom
|The perfected kingdom
|Adam and Eve
|Remnant of Israel; inclusion of the nations
new Adam; new Israel
|The new Israel:
Jew and Gentile believers in Christ
|Multi-national family of God
|The garden of Eden
|Canaan (and Jerusalem and temple)
|New temple; new creation
|Jesus Christ: true tabernacle; true temple
|The individual believer; the church
|New creation. New Jerusalem, new temple
|God's rule and blessing
|God's word; perfect relationships
|Disobedience and curse
|Blessing to Israel and the nations
|The law and the king
|New covenant; new king; great blessing
|New covenant; Holy Spirit
|Throne of God and the Lamb; perfect blessing
For many people this was the first time that they had approached the Bible in this way before. We can all too easily presume that fellow Christians, even those who have been part of evangelical churches for many years, know how the Old and New Testaments link together, but I suspect many have never had it explained to them in a systematic way before. Giving people a key to help them unlock the treasures of Gods word is vital if they are to be "fully equipped for every good work" (2 Tim 3:17).
Other benefits have included:
1. A deeper understanding of the message of the Bible and a growing hunger for God's word. I had previously taught a one day Bible overview course "See through the Scriptures", but this series reached a far greater number of people, including many on the fringe of the church. We even had people come along to hear the series from an advertising billboard on the street.
2. Increased attendances on Sundays and in small groups. Somehow this particular series fired people up to greater commitment and I suspect that this was due not only to the subject matter, but also to the intentional link between the Sunday preaching and the small groups.
3. A helpful hermeneutic to apply to other sermons and teaching series. Having looked at the Bible in this way has given church members a useful road map to apply to their study of other topics in the Bible, e.g. The Holy Spirit, Money, Marriage. Another of Vaughan Robert's books Life's Big Questions (IVP, 2004) gives helpful examples of how to do this.
St Chrysostom once wrote "Read all the prophetic books without seeing Christ in them and what you will find is insipid and flat. See Christ there and what you read becomes fragrant". It is the fragrance of Christ that keeps us going and keeps us growing. We've found that the Hitchhikers' Guide is a helpful one way in which this can be done.