Studying the Bible can be intimidating for those who haven’t had some practice, or at least a few years of Sunday school. And face it, a bit daunting for those who have not opened their Bibles in a while.
For a few years, Fr. Robert Stiefvater, pastor of Holy Family Parish, Fond du Lac, has been trying to reach out to those who don’t normally attend Scripture studies. Whether it is intimidation or the result of overscheduled lives, the turnout is often low for in-parish Bible study groups. The past few months, he looked online for an alternative – a free, online Bible study course for Lent.
“I wanted something interesting that gave good solid scriptural theology,” he said. “I found the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology from Steubenville two weeks before Lent, and knew that I couldn’t pass it up, because it was exactly what I was looking for at the time.”
He chose the Covenant Love and Introducing the Biblical worldview online study and posted the course in the Sunday bulletin the week before Lent. The course looks at the five key covenants God makes in the Old Testament in order to see how they are fulfilled in Jesus and the church.
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Anyone interested in the course could sign in on the Salvation History website, and begin with the first lesson. Every Wednesday, Fr. Stiefvater posted study questions for the next lesson and offered the options for comments or dialogue; and monitored all comments and participated in the discussion. While the initial feedback from parishioners on the course was positive, it has not turned out the way Fr. Stiefvater had anticipated.
“I made the first posting on Ash Wednesday and posted the questions at the end of each chapter to see if it might start an online discussion,” he said. “But it hasn’t come about as I hoped it would. There seems to be at least 100 people following this study, but there are only a couple from our parish who are commenting.”
Despite the lack of participation, there are Facebook members, such as Patti Reese, a member of Holy Family Parish, who appreciate the Bible study and feel it has helped them draw closer to the Lord.
“I felt something pulling me back to the church as Lent approached and I was very happy to see this Bible study option in the bulletin,” she said. “
I am seeing signs all around me that God wants me back in his family. I must admit that Ash Wednesday was the first time I had set foot in the new building and I have been a minimally contributing member since my children were raised.”
The preparation for the course requires about an hour a week for Fr. Stiefvater, who reads the assignments a week ahead of time, and prepares the postings for the questions. Aside from the five-seven people – some of whom do not attend Holy Family – who respond to questions on the Facebook page, Fr. Stiefvater doesn’t know whether people are actually following along with the readings because there is little interaction.
While the course on the Salvation History website is comprehensive, the problem with it, according to Fr. Stiefvater, is that it is not interactive.
“It is just like reading a book,” he said. “People can read the coursework online or download the pages offline and use with a Bible,” he said. “I would like something more interactive and dynamic and would like to design my own course, but I have no time to do so right now.”
Reese suggested Facebook might provide more communication among those doing the study.
“I think that on the Facebook option that if every question was posted as a separate status, it might be easier for people to comment,” she explained, adding. “When I was a young person our Catholic education was not centered on the Bible and I am really enjoying this Bible study – the online option is ideal for me and very honestly I am a little bit sad that more people haven’t joined in.”
Fr. Stiefvater has investigated several interactive Bible study options, including a Power Point style, but with one priest short on their team for three parishes, he has little time to create something new.
“This course will end at the conclusion of Lent and then I will look for something else to do,” he said. “I was also thinking about asking parishioners if any of them would like to do a course online with me. We could have a group of five or so who would pay to take a course online and we could form our own discussion group.”
Especially in this Year of Faith, Fr. Stiefvater takes Bible study seriously in light of the new evangelization. He also explained that with the eyes of the world on the church in welcoming Pope Francis, Catholics need to be prepared to share with others their faith, traditions and practices.
“Often people will come up to parishioners as they go to church and ask what we think of certain things about our faith. We can’t shrug this off because they need to know why we do what we do. We want people to see what is going on, and we take the future of our church very seriously.
“We are looking at changes in our parishes; perhaps a new priest in the spring and hopefully we will be burning our mortgage within the year,” he said. “We need to know where we go from here. There is so much we can do to learn about our faith and how to care for our people as church.”