During my college years, nothing impacted my walk with Christ more than reading Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology in a group led by my pastor. I can remember it like it was yesterday—the thrill of unpacking election for the first time, the joy of seeing my union with Christ, and the glorious headache I received comparing and contrasting pre-, a-, and postmillennialism. Of all the things my pastor did, I’ll never forget how he invested in that rag-tag group of college guys through what he dubbed a “Theological Reading Group” or “TRG,” for short.
Early in my pastorate, I resolved to take a page out of my former pastor’s book and experiment with a TRG in my own context to see if it would work. Two and half years later, I can honestly say it has been one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had in ministry. Because of this, I want to challenge pastors to consider adding a TRG to their already full ministry calendar.
What is it?
A Theological Reading Group, or TRG, is a study group devoted to reading and discussing a theology text, all for the purpose of mutual edification and Christian growth. It’s not a community group or prayer group. It’s not an accountability group or a time to catch up on the latest SEC scores. A TRG is simply a forum for taking a deep dive into the great truths of our faith.
Why do it?
“Now, Chris, why would I want to add another program or group to my an already packed schedule? What about my full slate of small groups and Sunday School classes?”
Without de-emphasizing the value of what you already have going on at your church, here are some reasons why you might consider adding a TRG to your church programming:
1) It’s an Opportunity for Those Who Want to “Go Deeper.”
Every church has people that are sitting on go, ready to learn more about the Bible. They may be Sunday School teachers, deacons, young men called to ministry, or faithful members geared toward study. Granted, they may be few in number. They may be a remnant. But they are there in your churches.
The truth is these “over-achievers” are going to get their theology somewhere, whether that is from Jesus Calling or something you pick out. Why not let it be you? If you never offer your members a forum for wrestling through the great truths of the Christian faith, sadly, they will turn elsewhere to get that teaching. And believe me, you don’t want Joel Osteen filling that void. Be wise and give your people an opportunity to go deeper.
2) It’s a Vehicle for Training Leaders
Many pastors complain their church leaders aren’t where they need to be theologically. Instead of throwing a pity party, pastors should create avenues where they can grow step-by-step in their understanding of God. TRGs afford this and more. The wise pastor seeks reformation not by forcing his will on the people but through patient instruction. A great way to train that core group of yours is through the use of a TRG.
3) It Gives People Space to Ask Hard Questions
Without taking anything away from our Sunday morning preaching, the truth is many people never truly “connect the dots” of sound doctrine until they talk it out with another person. A TRG helps you start that conversation. A TRG creates a safe environment for people to ask hard questions and raise objections they would never voice in public. If you lay the proper ground rules early and create an atmosphere of encouragement and respect, a TRG can be a great place for your church members to work out what the Bible really teaches on a given topic.
4) It Will Sharpen Your Own Theology
Each time I go through a TRG, I find my own theology sharpened. As I hear others’ objections and insights, I grow in my ability to articulate God’s truth. Fresh illustrations and new lines of reasoning constantly come to me as a result of hashing out a doctrine with my fellow TRG members. I wouldn’t trade those moments for the world.
5) It Will Refresh Your Soul
Let’s be honest. Being a pastor—especially a pastor in a context of church revitalization—can be lonely and difficult. A pastor and his wife may be the only two church members with a hunger for God-centered doctrine. For pastors living in a parched land, a TRG is like being handed a Dasani by John Owen himself.
I’ll never forget when one particular gentleman was working out the doctrine of God’s providence aloud for the first time. After a long week of ministry, his words were a balm to my soul.
“How could anyone not believe that God is sovereign? All I have to do is look back on my own life, and I can clearly see how God is in control.”
Apart from seeing a new soul won to Christ, there is no greater joy in ministry than watching the Lord move a person from a man-centered view of reality to a God-entranced view.
6) It’s Easy to Implement
Finally, did I mention TRGs are easy? If a pastor selects a well-written and theologically sound text, the prep time for running a TRG is minimal. The group leader merely facilitates discussion, encouraging TRG members to share with the group what stuck out to them in a given chapter.
How to Do It?
So, maybe I’ve convinced you to start a TRG next month. Here’s what you need to do to get started:
1) Choose a Theology Text
Are you working with mature believers? People who quote Nehemiah Coxe in their sleep? A solid elder board? Consider working through James Boyce’s Abstract of Systematic Theology or the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith (here’s a handy study guide).
Is this your church’s first foray into Reformed Theology? Maybe choose something a little more accessible like Wayne Grudem’s Bible Doctrine, R.C. Sproul’s Everyone’s a Theologian, or J.I. Packer’s classic Knowing God.
Explain to your group that they may or may not agree with every jot and tittle in these works. Be sure to tell them that’s okay. These works are simply a springboard for discussion. After that, turn them loose! Assign readings, meet back together, and let the sparks fly! After you’ve finished a systematic theology text perhaps your group could benefit from a church history, biblical theology, or Christian ethics book.
2) Pick a Place, a Pace, and a Meeting Time
TRGs can meet in homes, on your church campus, or in restaurants. They can be co-ed, gender-specific, or age-graded. A TRG is adaptable to a church’s individual needs. Wherever you meet, find a non-distracting place where people feel free to open up with their insights and objections.
Also, determine how often you will meet. In my particular context, I ran an all men’s group, we chose a monthly meeting time (the last Sunday afternoon of the month), and we met for an hour, discussing only one chapter at a time. This was just right for our men, who had never done anything like this in their lives. Other groups might choose to meet on a weekly or biweekly basis. Whatever it is for your group, find a convenient time and then you’re off to the races!
3) Meet to Discuss
Finally, remember a TRG is primarily a time to discuss what members have read. It’s not a time to catch up on the town gossip or the latest Braves game. It’s a time to dig deep into God’s Word. As my men read in preparation for the TRG, I encouraged them to highlight or underline anything that stood out to them as they read. Then, as the group leader, I would walk through the chapter, asking group members to share what jumped out to them in a given section. This led to more rabbit trails than we could possibly chase. But isn’t that music to a pastor’s ears? Trust me. Give your group an hour to discuss angels and demons or the doctrine of predestination, and I promise you the time will fly!
Truthfully, I don’t know if I would be a pastor today if my pastor in college hadn’t taken the time he did to invest in that group of young men. For the unconvinced, I’ll leave you with one final memory from this past TRG.
As we wrapped up our two-and-a-half-year trek through Wayne Grudem’s Bible Doctrine, here’s what one sixty-year-old man said to me: “I’ve been in Sunday School my entire life and have never gone this deep before in the study of the Bible. Never. Thank you so much.”
Moments like that make the plodding worth it.
So pastor, what’s your excuse? In the spirit of Isaiah 40:9, why not grab a few interested church members, start up a TRG, and watch as your men and women “behold our God”?