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RELIGION The Bible As Hot New Group Experience

By DOUGLAS TOUSSAINT |

IN A CONFERENCE ROOM OF A DOWNTOWN Dallas law firm, several men and women shifted in their seats, obviously torn between wishing to remain anonymous and coveting a little reassurance and human contact. The reassurance came quickly as the leader stepped to the center chair of the long conference table, sat down with a big, friendly sigh, and told the group, “Let us pray.”

Bible studies, Bible fellowships and prayer groups like this one, formerly considered little more than day-filler for pious housewives and the feeble, have become hot spots for the motivated and the powerful. During any given week, scores of men’s, women’s and mixed-gender Bible studies flourish throughout Dallas-from evening classes at the Jewish Community Center to big Monday Bible studies at Bent Tree Country Club. Executives from Texas Instruments, NationsBank and EDS, and government leaders from City Hall to Lew Sterrett Justice Center, meet to study Scripture, pray quietly and swap advice on keeping families centered and together in this complex age.

A recent estimate puts it at more than 400 weekly studies meeting citywide, which actually seems conservative as you check around. Easily half-again that number meet monthly.

This spiritual surge is more than a Dallas phenomenon. From HBO to the Internet, journalists, entertainers and webheads alike are tapping into it. A sloppy holiday film like Michael, featuring John Travolta as an improbable angel, pulls down $63 million in a month. An ad for Time magazine shows a portrait of Jesus surrounded by the familiar red border mounted over the caption, “Our Father, Who Art Online?” Best-selling author Mary Gaitskill pens the line, “It was just another example of the boundless human potential for loveless-ness,” and means it, in her story collection Because They WantedTo, And Louis Oliver Gropp, editor-in-chief of House Beautiful magazine, replying to a question concerning the country’s embracing of feng shui, the mystical Chinese art of placement, says “[it] represents the public’s growing need to bridge the physical and spiritual worlds.”

On PBS, Bill Moyers’ thoughtful, 10-part televised Bible study on Genesis draws a national audience of more than 2.1 million weekly viewers. Prominent New York City conservative rabbi Burton Visotzky, on whose book, The Genesis of Ethic, the Moyers show was based, says that regular, weekly Bible studies are one of the most effective tools for moral education in this country today.



SMALL-GROUP BIBLE STUDIES

BY VIRTUE OF THEIR RELATIVELY INTIMATE nature, small-group studies like the law-office group are superb for personal interaction: Their size makes give-and-take a snap. For the most part, skepticism is checked at the door, frailty is allowed and bravely searching for answers is encouraged. From this commonality springs a sense of unity, of “belonging”- something more of us wish for today than we would probably like to admit.

Many small-group studies are open to one and all but aren’t advertised or spoken about generally. Members prefer instead to remain modestly low-profile. A first-rate example is the long-standing study group at the prestigious Dallas Aerobics Center/Cooper Clinic complex on Preston Road. There, a core group of 15 to 20 entrepreneurs and executives convene with Dr. Tim Warren, a professor at the nondenom-inational Dallas Theological Seminary, “to discuss things going on in our world, our lives, families and the Bible and then pray about them,” Warren says.

In an attempt to bring a Bible-centered outlook into more prominence at SMU, the noted Dallas Christian Leadership Ministry holds regularly scheduled lectures for SMU faculty and staff members and interested outlanders. Recent DCLM programs featured addresses by prominent spiritual thinkers Kay Coles James, dean of the Robertson School of Government at Regent University in Virginia, who was formerly a part of both the Reagan and Bush administrations, and Dr. Armand Nicolai, professor of psychology at the Harvard School of Medicine.

Similar Bible studies are active at UTD and other area schools, including all the Dallas County community colleges. Groups like Navigators, Campus Crusade for Christ and Fellowship of Christian Athletes hold regular studies for all comers. On the professional sports front, John Weber, locally of Athletes in Action and chaplain to both the Dallas Cowboys and Texas Rangers, heads up Bible study and prayer groups for our turf heroes.

In South Dallas, Tony Evans’ vital congregation at Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship has developed a number of excellent ongoing groups, as have churchgoers at most of the predominantly black churches throughout the city. In addition, there are several service-oriented classes sponsored by North Dallas churches working in West and South Dallas, among them Carole Sonju’s highly touted Academic Academy tutoring outreach in the West Dallas projects area.

And, frankly, if you look hard enough, there seems to be a small-group Bible study for just about everybody. A famous one for businessmen experiencing financial difficulties is held every week in the back room (formerly reserved for card games, crap shoots and sundry wildness) of Smokey John’s Barbeque, an old-time rib shack and BBQ Mecca on Lemmon Avenue.



MEMBERS OF ^AFFINITY-TYPE,” SMALL-group Bible studies typically share a profession (in this case, the law) or gather in a common locale (say, Thanksgiving Tower). Affinity-type Bible studies are essentially private studies, promoted solely through word of mouth. At one meeting, the leader, an attorney and longtime Bible study chief, kicked things off with a quickie overview of the study’s intentions-in this case, in-depth looks at sequential Bible passages of particular interest to the group. He explained the group was currently studying the dense New Testament Book of Romans and assured everyone that if they faithfully read a few verses of the book in private each day, writing down questions or comments along the way, everyone would profit.

He then proceeded to glide through a relatively detailed exposition (these were lawyers, after all) on the chapter of the day and then asked for commentary. As is often the case in small groups, three or four alphatypes sprang into action, presenting their takes on the passage, while the majority silently took notes or listened with quiet attention.

At the end of the hour, the leader asked for prayer requests, and a surprising number of voices offered personal hopes, fears and needs into the by-then well-warmed air. Several people prayed for the mentioned requests, and it was over. To be resumed again the following week, same time, same place. The participants entered their workdays with smiles. It was 8 a.m., after all, time to reenter the real world.

But, interestingly enough, reentry seemed generally anticipated, as if shields had been securely set into place to buffet the troubles of the day.

LARGE-GROUP STUDIES

BIBLE STUDIES IN DALLAS CAN ALSO TAKE on a more wide-open, populist approach. These large-group studies, most of them come-as-you-are (no pre-meeting Bible reading or preparation required), are the most rapidly expanding Bible study format. Large-group studies tend to host a wide array of participants, and their undemanding, spoon-fed meetings are frequently both soothing to the soul and modestly entertaining.

On a recent Thursday noon, a large-group Bible study lunch, called “Fast-break,” cranked up at Park Cities Baptist Church. The lunches are open to one and all: Secretaries, hair stylists, bankers, attorneys, even the Dallas-area development director for Texas Tech’s athletic department, all sat still and good-naturedly munched $5 meals of lasagna and salad while the featured speaker. Dr. Jeff Warren, discussed “New Perspectives On Work.”

His new perspectives went down as smoothly as the chess pie. Actually, the perspectives were classics restated: work is of inherent value; work is worth doing well; that God intends us to work honestly and work well; and developing healthy, supportive working relationships as our foremost commitment in the workplace. His words brought a happy burble of assent throughout the meal, and when a local singer closed the meeting with a touching song, there was a general nod of peaceable contentment.

Giant Prestonwood Baptist Church sponsors two similar business-day Bible study lunches each week, both named “Powerlunch.” The lunches, only loosely related to the church’s own ministries, each draw several hundred regular attendees of all denominations for a practicality-based spiritual lecture, a little interaction and a special musical guest. The groups meet at the church at noon on Thursdays and in the former garage of the old Henry Butts Oldsmobile dealership in Carrollton, now Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, on Wednesdays.

Catholic parishes are well-represented across the city with come-as-you-are Bible studies. Most revolve around specific parish needs and are held at parish churches, rather than at outside venues, although groups like Charismatic Catholic Services are involved citywide. At St. Monica’s on Walnut Hill, home to 3,000 families, a wide array of Bible studies for different ages and walks of life are offered, including adult Scripture studies like the Little Rock Study on Sunday mornings-held entirely separate from the regular mass.

In addition. Church Women United groups and Opus Dei, an international Catholic organization, meet monthly at St. Rita’s and St. Monica’s, respectively, and draw their audiences from the entire area.

Across town, the Jewish Community Center serves up its well-attended Dallas Community Adult Jewish Studies Series. Taught by local scholars and occasionally featuring international figures such as Simon Wiesenthal, Leon Uris and Alan Dershowitz, the successful classes draw hundreds of Jewish adults interested in the origins of their faith and the language of the Bible as well as social topics of general humanitarian interest. The Center also offers two-year Melton M Mini-School courses designed by a team of educators and scholars at Hebrew University in Jerusalem for adult learners interested in in-depth understanding of Judaism.

Not all large-group studies are general-ist; a growing number are affinity-type studies aimed at groups with a common interest. Norm Miller, well-liked head hon-cho of Interstate Batteries, sponsors a monthly Bible study and lecture by a prominent value-oriented public figure solely for his employees at the company’s headquarters at LBJ Freeway and North Central Expressway.

SUPER STUDIES

THE MOST ELABORATE BlBLE STUDIES feature a rigorous preparation schedule and long-term commitments by participants. These self-actualizing “super studies” are, over the long haul, the most satisfying for purposeful Bible students. Exhaustive workbooks and study-sheet handouts facilitate home study time. Super studies also strongly encourage regular interaction with other group members, and discussions are often lively. Highly interactive, super studies rarely become routine, and diehard participants often end up leading studies of their own.

Notable among the city’s super studies are those sponsored by both the men’s and women’s outreach programs of the Christian Women’s Club and especially the renowned Bible Study Fellowship studies, favored by everyone from Catholics to Church of Christ members.

In Dallas, there are eight women’s BSF classes, with the largest (550 attendees) meeting at (but not related to) Northway Baptist Church, on Walnut Hill Lane between Marsh and Midway, and at another venue between Hillcrest and Preston. There are three large men’s BSF classes, with the Park Cities class home to 250 to 300 men of all ages and the cross-town venue at King of Glory Lutheran Church, with 350 or more on a typical Monday night. A coed singles BSF group, more than 500 strong, meets each Thursday at Prestonwood Baptist on Hillcrest Road.

WHAT’S HAPPENING IN DALLAS IS MIRrored all across the country as a reawakening to the spiritual gathers steam in the hearts of men and women.

“People are finally realizing in our rationalist culture that each of is are more than just a physical body,” says Steve Sternberg of SMU’s Dallas Christian Leadership Ministry. “We are spiritual creatures, and we must satisfy the yearning of our spiritual natures. There’s something in us that cries out for this.

“It’s no surprise that individuals in our city are looking for meaning and significance,” he says. “Sadly, many times people aren’t even finding that kind of spirituality even in churches. Bible studies are places to go that aren’t in any way threatening, are obviously geared to the individual and not the institution, and concentrate on the most important things of all: our individual relationships with God and with others.”

Bible Studies List

COME-AS-YOU-ARE VARIETY:

● PARK CITIES BAPTIST CHURCH

● PRESTONWOOD BAPTIST CHURCH

● DALLAS AEROBICS CENTER

● CHARISMATIC CATHOLIC SERVICES

●ST. MONICA’S

Little Rock Study; Opus Dei

● ST. RITA’S

Church Women United

● JEWISH COMMUNITY CENTER

Dallas Community Adult

Jewish Studies Series

Melton Mini-School courses

(Hebrew University, Jerusalem)

● OAK CLIFF BIBLE FELLOWSHIP

● SMOKEY’S BARBECUE



MORE INTERACTIVE VARIETY:

● CHRISTIAN WOMEN’S CLUB,

MEN’S AND WOMEN’S OUTREACH

●BIBLE STUDY FELLOWSHIP

ORGANIZATION

For women: Northwest Baptist

Church. Hillcrest & Preston

location

For men: Park Cities class. King of

Glory Lutheran Church

For co-ed singles: Prestonwood

Baptist Church

● DR. BILL LAWRENCE

For all ages, genders, marital status: Northwest Bible Church



IN-HOUSE AND AFFINITY GROUPS:

● INTERSTATE BATTERIES

● CHRISTIAN REALTORS GROUP

● DALLAS RANGERS

● TEXAS RANGERS

● SMU-DALLAS CHRISTIAN

LEADERSHIP MINISTRY

● UTD

●DALLAS COUNTY COMMUNITY

COLLEGES Navigators

Campus Crusade For Christ

Fellowship of Christian Athlet