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Book of Faith Initiative gaining momentum in ELCA

A stream of materials are flowing from Augsburg Fortress for congregational, individual use

A student enrolled at an ELCA college took a part-time job with the grounds crew. While working with the supervisor, an older Lutheran layman, the conversation turned to what constitutes a good work ethic. Suddenly the supervisor declared, “God helps those who help themselves. Isn’t that what the Bible says?”

In a word, no. He might have heard that on talk radio, but he’d never find it in Holy Scripture.

Lack of knowledge and understanding about what the Bible really teaches led some East Coast Lutherans to request a new Bible study initiative for the ELCA four years ago. Their concern was, in part, the prevalence of comments like this one. They also wanted Lutherans to rediscover how to understand what they already knew about what the Bible says.

The ELCA’s “Book of Faith” initiative, launched at the Chicago Churchwide Assembly in 2007, asked church members to spend the following five years in study and conversation about what Scripture says. Since then, the denomination’s publishing house, Augsburg Fortress (AF), has offered a steady stream of materials, including a new incarnation of the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) Bible itself.

The NRSV is the officially endorsed Bible translation for use in the ELCA.

The Lutheran Study Bible (LSB), a hefty 2,212-page tome, appeared last year. “It was designed to be marked up,” says Dr. Diane Jacobson, coordinator of the initiative. The Luther Seminary Scripture scholar says the disadvantage of having a study Bible of such size is overridden by the fact that the reader can write in the margins. “People can personalize this book. That’s important,” she argues.

And, adds Jacobson, LSB is really a Lutheran resource. “It doesn’t cater to any point of view, except Martin Luther’s. He said the purpose of Scripture is to point us to Christ. That’s what LSB does.”

Beth Lewis, CEO at Augsburg Fortress, told Metro Lutheran, “We might have been too conservative, trying to guess how this new Bible would be received. We blew through the first-year sales forecast in three months!” That led to a second printing.

Originally, AF intended there to be two options for LSB — softbound and hardbound. But, says the Rev. Scott Tunseth, AF’s point man for Book of Faith, “Sales were so strong that we were able to add deluxe (leather) and large print versions to the line.”

In support of the study Bible, a wide range of other resources have now begun to surface. AF decided to create five kinds of study helps. One, “Leading in Faith,” offers help for leaders of Bible study groups. A second, a series of foundational courses, is intended to help Lutherans rediscover Scripture, overcome their reticence to open the Bible and then make sense of what’s inside.

“Expecting people actually to get inside the Bible and then make sense of it is not a given, not even for Lutherans, who cherish Scripture,” Jacobson explains. “There are all kinds of challenges. We live in a secularist culture, which means some people think Scripture has nothing to say to them. People are really busy today, which means they may not even take time to open a Bible. And, if they do, they find that Scripture is confusing. Suddenly they’re reading something that requires help so they can understand it. Add to that the reality that a lot of would-be Bible readers are ashamed — of what they don’t know about the Bible. That’s enough to keep them from even starting to read this book.”

And, while she says it pains her to have to say it, as a seminary professor, “A lot of pastors have no idea how to teach Scripture. We stress preaching, and that’s appropriate. But we need to do better with Bible teaching.”

The components of the Book of Faith Initiative

The other three types of Book of Faith-related materials from AF are study courses based on Scripture. One set invites Lutherans to explore individual books of the Bible. So far there are seven courses available: Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, the Gospel of John, Romans, Galatians, and the First Letter of John. Lewis says more in the series will be added over the next two years, although there are no plans to cover all 66 biblical books.

Another series focuses on “people of faith.” In a single course, a student could encounter Adam, Abraham, Sarah, and Jacob. There are four such courses available now, with more to come. (Each four-person set includes at least one woman.)

Finally, there is a series linked to the Sunday lectionary.

Lewis is quick to point out that the Book of Faith initiative is really wider than materials specifically created for this emphasis. “We’re doing a lot with young people right now. There’s the AF ‘Spark Bible’ — both a kids’ Bible and a story Bible. And the ‘Spark kids’ Sunday School curriculum’ relates really well to Book of Faith.” Both the Bibles and the curriculum, she says, are selling impressively.

New devotional materials and social media

The initiative hasn’t stopped with Bibles and Bible studies. Last year AF published a set of daily devotions for Lent and a second for Advent. Tunseth says both have been well received and, therefore, will see new incarnations during 2010.

And, then, there’s “NING.” This Internet-based social networking site allows Lutherans to talk to one another about their Book of Faith experiences and discoveries. Jacobson laughs when she talks about it. “Older Lutherans won’t know what to do with this, unless they’re into Facebook or something similar. But it’s great for younger adults — exactly the kinds of people the church really needs to reach with Bible study opportunities.”

Tunseth agrees. “The NING site [bookof faith.NING.com] has over 3,000 participants. There are numerous conversations and ideas flowing there. I think we can say it’s a success.” He also points to the fact that a number of synod assemblies have used the Book of Faith theme lately. “There is definitely a lot of buzz about Book of Faith.”

Jacobson, whose work with the initiative runs for five years, says a key to building and maintaining interest lies with support from parish pastors. “There is considerable grassroots response. In some places people are really excited.” She admits there are places where there appears not to have been any response at all. “For this thing to work, there will need to be a sea change in the way we think and behave.” She thinks she’s seeing signs of that happening.

Each of the 65 ELCA synods has a Book of Faith coordinator. They’re listed at www.bookoffaith.org, along with their e-mail addresses. Those serving synods in the primary Metro Lutheran readership area include the Rev. Mark Wegener (Minneapolis Area), the Rev. Sara Vanderpan (St. Paul Area), Jay Dahlvang (Southeast Minnesota) and Greg Kaufmann (Northwest Wisconsin).

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