What Prayer and Ministry of the Word can never do.


So, you preached your heart out last Sunday, and you’re revving your engine for the next one. Prayer and the Ministry of the Word are setting your agenda, and your next sermon is an essential part of equipping the saints for their work of service.  The Greek New Testament is sitting there waiting to be cracked open.  What’s missing?

The hours of preparation, the hours of thought, the careful application, the stopping to pray – those are all part of your task, and you must never drop them.

But here’s a sobering survey conclusion. (No, it’s not the one about attention spans, nor the one about how much people remember).  Willow Creek Community Church outside Chicago has been running a major internal audit which they have made public, and which many other churches have completed with much the same conclusion.  The heart of it is about whether Christians are growing and maturing, or perceiving themselves to plateau in their walk with Christ.

Most think they are plateauing.  That’s not the sobering conclusion either.

The survey dug down into a number of different Christian habits and practices (what older theologians called, ‘the means of grace’, fifty six of them) and found that while many helped many, a few helped almost everyone.

Breathe slowly and relax, because near the top was the sermon.  Your prayed for, thought through, life-changing sermon was almost the most important fact in their Christian growth.  Almost.

Right at the top though, consistently across all those churches, and keeping its top position whether someone was a new believer or a saint of many years was something else.  This one thing made all the difference between growth and stagnation.  Have you guessed it?  Personal Bible study.

This was true, from what helps a sceptical enquirer to what helps the most mature: “the Bible is the most powerful catalyst for spiritual growth.  The Bible’s power to advance spiritual growth is unrivalled by anything else we’ve discovered”. Reflecting later, and on more churches, they say, “Truly, if a church could do only one thing to help people grow in their relationship with Christ, it would be to get them immersed and in love with God’s Word.” This was particularly true when it came to personal Bible study, but that other forms of biblical teaching contributed too. Their summary is clear: “Nothing beats the Bible”

Why is that finding so sobering?  Because it is completely out of your control. You can no more get people to have a Quiet Time than you can get them to go to the gym if they don’t want to.  You can try all the meanest tricks in the pastor’s armoury, right down to plain old guilt manipulation, but nothing you can do will make people open the Bible when you’re not with them.

So, here’s the challenge from this survey.  If personal Bible Study is the key differential that determines whether people are growing are not, what will it take to get people to do it?  If you decided that for the next twelve months your focus was going to be getting the Bible opened by as many people in your church as possible – on their own – what would you aim to do?

  •  At a guess, roughly what percentage of people in your church open the Bible on their own at least once a week?  Be honest with yourself
  • What would be the main reasons that would get in the way of them doing it?  Grab a coffee and a pad, and take your time to compile a list.
  • For each one, think through how you could help people, in a twelve month period, to dismantle that reason.  Come up with several different actions that you can take, small and large.  Again, think this over slowly.
  • Talk this issue through with others in leadership in your church, and develop a proper action plan for 2013.

References to:

G.L.Hawkins and C. Parkinson, Follow Me Barrington:  Willow Creek resources, 2008 p116-7

G.L.Hawkins and C. Parkinson,  Move Barrington:  Grand Rapids: Zondervan 2011 p223

5 comments on “What Prayer and Ministry of the Word can never do.”

  1. I find that this has pushed me to think about how, what and why I preach what I do. I find that it is a place of encouragement to also talk about what I don’t know or what bothers me in a text. Because I have questions lots of questions. I have found most help to set an ethos stance in church that learning matters, and all learning begins in the Bible. I have given away copies of Grasping God’s Word to people just want to have a better set of tools to feed their own spirit and life. Please keep pushing me, don’t let me rest on my laurels

  2. I’m curious whether or not “personal Bible study” refers only to a “quiet time” or if it could possibly also to group Bible study.

    I, personally, do not believe that “personal quiet times” are even biblical! We were meant to live in community, and that includes learning in community. I do spend time with the Bible when I am alone, but it is the time spent in group discussion and small group community that I grow the most. This is the example I see set forth in the scriptures as well. I am afraid that our westernized, individualistic society has pushed the “personal quiet time” upon us, rather than the Bible.

    1. I made this comment in a talk the other weekend, and someone else made the same comment.

      1. The data is referring to individual study, and small groups were listed as a different small groups. People reported a greater measure of growth within small groups if they were simultaneously reading on their own.

      2. Fair point about individualism, but wouldn’t you say that the psalms contain a significant measure of individual encounter with Gods word? Psalms 19 and 119 are both written in the first person singular.

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