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Words upon the Word

Words upon the Word: An Ethnography of Evangelical Group Bible Study

James S. Bielo
Copyright Date: 2009
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 208
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  • Book Info
    Words upon the Word
    Book Description:

    Evangelical Bible study groups are the most prolific type of small group in American society, with more than 30 million Protestants gathering every week for this distinct purpose, meeting in homes, churches, coffee shops, restaurants, and other public and private venues across the country. What happens in these groups? How do they help shape the contours of American Evangelical life? While more public forms of political activism have captured popular and scholarly imaginations, it is in group Bible study that Evangelicals reflect on the details of their faith. Here they become self-conscious religious subjects, sharing the intimate details of life, interrogating beliefs and practices, and articulating their version of Christian identity and culture.In Words upon the Word, James S. Bielo draws on over nineteen months of ethnographic work with five congregations to better understand why group Bible study matters so much to Evangelicals and for Evangelical culture. Through a close analysis of participants' discourse, Bielo examines the defining themes of group life - from textual interpretation to spiritual intimacy and the rehearsal of witnessing. Bielo's approach allows these Evangelical groups to speak for themselves, illustrating Bible study's uniqueness in Evangelical life as a site of open and critical dialogue. Ultimately, Bielo's ethnography sheds much needed light on the power of group Bible study for the ever-evolving shape of American Evangelicalism.

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-8999-5
    Subjects: Anthropology, Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction: Group Bible Study in American Evangelicalism
    (pp. 1-20)

    My alarm rings at 6:15 a.m. I am up, through the shower, dressed, and ready to go by 6:40. I kiss my girlfriend on the forehead, jealous she can sleep in at least until the sun rises. It is the first week of January, and, predictably for mid-Michigan, several inches of new snow has fallen overnight. The wintry air wakes me, along with an anxiety that the extra minutes of scraping windshields could make me late for the seven o’clock start. I begin the short drive east, cautious of my speed and traction. Luckily, there are few other cars on...

  5. 1 Doing Bible Study Ethnography
    (pp. 21-46)

    On two occasions—for two months in 2006, and a four-month stint in 2007—I lived with a host couple from a United Methodist Bible study. My final meeting with a Lutheran women’s group in December 2005 took the form of a “good-bye” party the group insisted on throwing for me. A Vineyard group, whose Wednesday night meeting happened to fall on my birthday, replaced their weekly study with a celebratory dinner. I spent a hot July afternoon helping one Bible study facilitator jackhammer his decaying asphalt driveway. A difficult end to a three-year relationship was eased by the friendship...

  6. 2 Reading the Bible
    (pp. 47-72)

    Every Thursday morning at seven a.m. a group of fifteen to twenty-five men gather at a local restaurant to eat breakfast, socialize, pray, and study the Bible. They are part of a growing congregation affiliated with the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS). Unlike most Protestant traditions in America’s subculture of conservative Evangelicalism, the LCMS denomination has been declining in membership for decades (Jones et al. 2002). In spite of this national trend, the local congregation of the LCMS Men has steadily increased over the past three years. The registered membership now exceeds 700, and the weekly worship attendance tops 350. This...

  7. 3 Cultivating Intimacy
    (pp. 73-92)

    Darren and Beverly are a married couple in their early fifties. They own a modest, three-bedroom home nestled in an affluent neighborhood. Beverly is a dental assistant at a local practice, and Darren is a formally trained engineer. Since 1995, though, he has been the executive director of an international ministry organization he founded after leaving a part-time position in university campus ministry. Every other Thursday night they host a Bible study in their living room. The group is one of twenty-seven groups offered by a local Restoration Movement church (RMC). Unlike the LCMS Men’s group that places great value...

  8. 4 Integrating Participant Interests
    (pp. 93-112)

    Janet Simmons is the small group director at a suburban United Methodist Church. Once a month she holds a leadership “huddle” after the second Sunday morning worship service. The monthly huddle is a gathering of the church’s Bible study facilitators, usually between ten and fifteen individuals. The primary goal is to have facilitators exchange updates about their groups, discuss ideas for improvement, and trade potential study resources. Ethnographically, it was a convenient way for me to monitor what each group was doing. More important, it was an opportunity to hear evaluative commentary from the facilitators of groups I was observing....

  9. 5 Preparing to Witness
    (pp. 113-134)

    Since 1992, the Tuesday Men have gathered weekly at 7:30 a.m. at Inner-City United Methodist Church (IUMC). The church building is located in the heart of the city at the corner of two high-traffic streets. The surrounding neighborhoods are ethnically diverse and predominantly working class, though a large number live below the national poverty level. Established in 1912, the building barely reflects its surroundings or its age. It is a two-story, red-brick structure that is neatly kept, with several newly refurbished sections. The group meets in a second-story classroom overlooking the rear parking lot. Four fold-out tables are arranged to...

  10. 6 Negotiating Self and Other
    (pp. 135-154)

    Meet Sandy. She spent most of her adult life raising two children and leading sales seminars for a management company. When she retired she was able to focus on a lifelong passion—teaching. Every year she makes multiple visits to parochial schools affiliated with nearby Lutheran churches to give lectures on Christian history and theology. And every Thursday from 10 a.m. to noon, she serves as the facilitator for a women’s Bible study group at her own Lutheran church. Sandy values this responsibility, diligently preparing for each week’s lesson, rarely devoting less than four hours to the task. While she...

  11. Conclusion: Group Bible Study in American Evangelicalism (Reprise)
    (pp. 155-168)

    Evangelicalism has helped shape the course of American history, and this influence shows no signs of disappearing. As I begin this final chapter, Sunday morning news plays in the background, questioning the role of each candidate’s religious faith (Evangelical, Catholic, Mormon) in the 2008 U.S. presidential election. In late November 2007, Rick Warren and his “Purpose Driven” community hosted their annual “Global Summit on AIDS and the Church,” garnering national and international media attention and praise. One year earlier, a far more negative media campaign reported on Ted Haggard—Colorado megachurch pastor and then president of the National Association of...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 169-172)
  13. References
    (pp. 173-182)
  14. Index
    (pp. 183-186)
  15. About the Author
    (pp. 187-187)