When government officials lifted the COVID-19 lockdown in Benin in July of 2020 and churches re-opened, we organized two church services to respect the social distancing rules. We invited all adults to come in the morning while children and young people were encouraged to come in the afternoon. We kept the afternoon church service short as we followed it with a study of our 28 fundamental beliefs tailored especially for teenagers. When we concluded the doctrinal studies and social distancing rules were no longer in place, everyone returned to morning church services. Some young people, however, desired to continue studying the Bible in the afternoon. I gladly consented and pondered what format we should use.
The primary teaching method in the Beninese school system is passive learning. The teacher instructs from up front, and the students copy from the blackboard. At home, students memorize but are rarely challenged to reflect or apply. This type of education is partly due to classrooms filled with 60-100 students, where interaction is virtually impossible. To some extent, this learning method carries over into the churches. People want to learn about different topics, but many think they are incapable of studying for themselves, let alone teaching others.
For our afternoon study sessions, I wanted to use a format that would eventually enable the youth to lead a Bible study group without using commentaries, concordances or Bible study guides (which most of them do not have access to). I also wanted them to experience firsthand how interesting and relevant the Bible is.
I remembered the Bible study groups I participated in while attending university. We used to pick a book of the Bible and read it together, one chapter or paragraph at a time. We would read the text, sometimes in different translations, and share our thoughts. There was no preconceived list of questions, but most of the time, questions arose during the discussion. Sometimes someone was prepared to share some background information. But even if nobody had studied the passage in advance, our different ways of thinking and different perspectives brought new light to old words. Our studies were enriched as people shared what a verse meant to them.
I decided to try this approach. At first, people were skeptical. They had never heard of this kind of Bible study. We started with a group of three to four young people, but soon the number doubled, then tripled. First, I led the study every Sabbath, but when I left Benin for a few months last year, I put a young man in charge, hoping the group would not die out during my absence. Instead, the group met with steady numbers the whole time I was gone. We finished one book of the Bible, then another, and when we started the third book, we decided it was time to take turns leading out. Now every Sabbath, another person leads, each having their own way of doing so, which makes discussions even more interesting.
I hope and pray that at some point, each of these young people will feel confident to invite a friend or a neighbor to read the Bible together, thus sharing with others the blessings they have experienced in our group.