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Crossways International is marking is 25th year

Crossways, a Minneapolis-based Bible study program which many people say has been “life-changing” for them will mark its 25th anniversary with a five-day celebration in the Twin Cities October 2-6.

It was in 1979 that an Australian Lutheran pastor, Harry Wendt, accepted the invitation of a parachurch ministry in Indianapolis, Indiana, to bring his Crossways Bible survey course to the United States and launch a nationwide training program. It was designed to greatly enhance literacy in the Scriptures, among both clergy and lay people.

Wendt and his wife, Chloris, made Crossways an independent international operation several years later and in 1989 moved its headquarters to Minneapolis (Bloomington, actually, just off the north frontage road of I-494 between France Ave. and Hwy. 100).

Biblical literacy had been a passion of Wendt’s since the late 1950s when he took his first call out of seminary at parish in New Zealand with a very diverse membership. He found that the only way to build a sense of community and answer the deep spiritual hunger of the members was to help them know and grapple with the truth as it is revealed in the Scriptures.

He also found that teaching the Bible in the context of its complete narrative — the “Big Story,” from the first book to the last — was the only way to go. Wendt, once a budding artist, also discovered that liberal use of graphics greatly enhanced his teaching.

Through successive calls in Australia and completion of a doctorate at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, the pastor worked at plumbing the depths of every book in the Bible and putting together a written teaching text. A neighbor of his in St. Louis, Kenneth Bailey, who went on to complete 40 years of teaching Biblical studies in Egypt, Lebanon, Israel and Cyprus and is fluent in many Middle Eastern languages, contributed valuable historical and cultural insights for Wendt’s work.

By the time he came to Indianapolis, Wendt had a 700-page, 60-unit manuscript that served as the first Crossways Bible study and continues to be the underpinning of the whole program.

Since then he has reworked this basic material into studies of various sizes depending on the background of the target audience, all the way down to flash cards for youngsters. And he has continued to incorporate the latest graphics tools and employed the newest communications technologies, including powerpoint and DVD, as he produces new editions of the various versions.

The Divine Drama, a popular version produced a year after Crossways was launched, is now in its fourth edition. It consists of 136 colorfully illustrated pages and is divided into two parts — the Biblical story line (16 units) and the main teachings that emerge from the Scriptures (14 units).

The latter include the person and mission of Jesus the Messiah, prayer, discipleship, life in God’s family, and how these apply to Christians today.

Seven short courses are also included, dealing with such topics as the Christmas story, Jesus’ parables, stewardship and one designed to help people sort out what Wendt calls “the mess in the Middle East” today.

Wendt’s extensive travels and those of other Crossways staff members have resulted in the spread of the Bible study program throughout the United States and in about 40 other countries

The largest number of users in North America are Lutherans, especially in the ELCA, but Wendt says Crossways is bridging denominational lines and attracting users among Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Methodists, United Church of Christ and Reformed church members, a few Baptists, and, recently, Roman Catholics.

The biggest impact overseas has been in South Korea, where 15,000 pastors have attended Crossways workshops. The majority of the 12 million Christians in that nation are Presbyterians, according to Wendt.

Other nations where Crossways is making substantial headway, he said, include the Philippines, India, East and West Africa, and, currently, the Anglican Church in England.

Wendt obviously feels Crossways International has had an impact in reducing Biblical illiteracy and sees a future in which representatives of the organization will train more teachers to further spread this instruction method at home and abroad. The constant work on updating the content of Crossways course offerings will also continue.

“So many people have gone to the seminary and Bible schools as a result of studying our courses,” Wendt said. “We’ve also had ever so many evaluations from people in the clergy saying these materials changed their whole life and ministry. I’ve had pastors come to me and and hug me and say, ‘For the first time I’ve unraveled The Story.'”

Wendt emphasizes that one of the biggest challenges the Christian Church faces today is this one of having its professional workers really understand the “Big Story” that runs through the Bible.

“Otherwise,” he said, “we reduce the Gospel really to this: that Jesus came and lived and died and that we have forgiveness and eternal life.

“That’s all true. But the real emphasis in the Bible is that He was the Messiah. And if He was the Messiah, what kind? He was a servant Messiah.

“We’re not saved by good works — that’s nonsense. We’re saved by Grace, through the Cross and forgiveness. But He now calls us to serve each other in community. He’s not interested in flags, borders, skin colors. He just wants to get us back into living as a big family.”

Paul Harrington, senior pastor at Shepherd of the Valley, a big ELCA congregation in Apple Valley that will be host to several of the 25th anniversary events, is an enthusiastic supporter of the Crossways study program. His church has been using it for six years, and participants take the course over a two-year period — one in the Old Testament and one in the New Testament.

“The beauty of the program is that Harry Wendt is very much interested in seeing how that all [Old and New Testaments] fits together,” Harrington said.

“They see the big picture. They do in-depth things along the way, but he wants you to see the totality of the witness and the radical nature of Jesus’ ministry is His call to discipleship.”

Duane Paetznick, the pastor who handles education programs at Shepherd of the Valley, added. “People who’ve been through Crossways say it’s changed their lives. It’s a whole different way of looking at the Bible. People say they know how to talk to their friends about the Bible now where before they might have been reluctant.”