The Table Podcast

Millennials Reaching Millennials

In this episode, Dr. Darrell L. Bock and Janie Stephens discuss ministering to millennials, focusing on Bible Study Fellowship (BSF).

Timecodes
00:15
Stephens work with Bible Study Fellowship
3:17
What is Bible Study Fellowship?
10:44
How does BSF reach the Millennial generation?
17:48
How do the discussion groups meet?
23:17
Developing a new young adult class model
29:33
Challenges facing Bible Study Fellowship
36:48
The need to differentiate groups
44:04
The ministry reach of Bible Study Fellowship
Resources www.bsfinternational.org
Transcript
Darrell Bock
Welcome to the table. We discuss issues of God and culture, and our topic today is millennials ministering to millennials, and Bible study fellowship. And my guest is Janie Stephens, who is executive assistant to Susie – is it Rowen?
Janie Stephens
Rowen –
Darrell Bock
Rowen, okay. And is she in San Antonio or is she in Dallas?
Janie Stephens
She’s in San Antonio.
Darrell Bock
Okay. And talk a little bit about your background. How did you get into BSF and how did you end up being next to the one who runs the show?
Janie Stephens
Well, yes, I’m still trying to figure that out, actually. BSF has really been a part of my whole life. My mom began doing BSF when I was little, probably about six or seven. I was, by that point in time, too old for the children’s program. She was in a day women’s class, but she was a children’s leader, and so, she would come home and teach the children’s lesson to my sister and I.

And I remember as a little girl, that was really kind of the catalyst that helped me, or made me realize, “Oh, wow, that’s in The Bible, I didn’t realize that was in The Bible.” And so, as a little girl, I remember, just BSF was a tool that the Lord used to intrigue me to want to know more about The Bible.

And so, then I eventually, when I – I went to UT in Austin, and so, when I was there, I had joined my first young adults BSF class –

Darrell Bock
So, this is a UT alum meeting that we’re having now.
Janie Stephens
Yes, it is. Good morning.
Darrell Bock
Exactly.
Janie Stephens
Yeah, and so, yeah, that was about 14 years ago, and I’ve moved around different cities, all throughout the years, but was always able to find a BSF class, and just stuck with it, and loved it, and it’s continued to be the thing that the Lord has just challenged me, and used in my life to help me know and love him more.
Darrell Bock
Now, you’re here in Dallas or in San – how does that work?
Janie Stephens
Right, so I actually just moved to San Antonio about three weeks ago, so yes, it’s a new foray for me. But yes, I’ve been in Dallas for about ten years, and then just moving to San Antonio –
Darrell Bock
Okay, very, very good. So, our core topic is to talk a little bit about BSF and then about this adjustment, which is one of these strange things that BSF did something, and then it just kind of made the news. I actually did an interview myself within the last few weeks. In fact, a strange thing, I was literally out of the country for two straight months, and I literally got back, and as soon as I got back, Christianity Today called, and said, “Would you be willing to do an interview on this?”

So, that’s how I became aware of the change at BSF. So, let’s talk about what BSF is, and then we’ll transition into what you all are doing in a conscious effort to reach out to the millennial age group, so BSF –

Janie Stephens
BSF, Bible Study Fellowship, is a global, in-depth, inter-denominational Bible study. So, we’re in now over 40 countries, serving people on an international basis, and really kind of the core of BSF is what we call the four folds approach, which is doing the lesson at home on your own throughout the week, answering questions, and then coming to class, having small group discussion.

Then sitting through a time of teaching that the teaching leader gives a message, regarding the passage, and then also the BSF notes. And so, all of that four folds package incorporates the in-depth study that is BSF.

Darrell Bock
And it is amazing, I not only have a – not only has my wife been teaching for a while in this, but also, I have one of my daughters, who’s participated on a pretty regular basis, and she’s moved, so she’s gone from – she’s been from Nashville to Indianapolis, and Sally sometimes travels, and she’s able –

The odd thing is, she’s able to almost plug in no matter where she goes.

Janie Stephens
Yes, that is one of the really cool things about BSF. Because it is an international Bible study, it really makes the world just a little bit smaller. You have that community wherever you go. I’m the same. When I travel, I find a leaders meeting or a class that I can go to, and plug right in, and you all of a sudden have that community with people that you otherwise –
Darrell Bock
And people don’t realize that every group is studying the same thing at the same time, basically, isn’t that right?
Janie Stephens
Yes.
Darrell Bock
Is that true globally as well?
Janie Stephens
It is, yes. So, with the – there’s schedule A and schedule B classes, so the Southern hemisphere is a little bit just like a semester behind us, just simply because of the calendar year, but so someone in Paris, France or wherever is studying the same thing that I’m studying in San Antonio.
Darrell Bock
Ain’t this fascinating? Let’s walk through a little bit more in the detail, the four fold. So, you said there’s the home study, which is one of the things, I take it, that isn’t change, but it’s one of the places where there’s been some adjustment to deal with people’s schedule, so there’s the home Bible study, there’s the small group discussion, there is the teaching time, and then there are the notes.

So, let’s kinda go through those a little bit one at a time. Home Bible study, this is daily Bible study that we’re talking about. It’s intentional and scheduled. Right?

Janie Stephens
Yes, so the lessons are formatted. It’s split up into days, and so, there’s about three to four questions per day, and so, you can – yeah, it helps you to – for a 30 minute time period per day, I can go through these four questions, and really get good meat out of this passage, and time to really think it through. So, yes, it’s scheduled on a daily basis.
Darrell Bock
And then the discussion time is led by a group, I take it a group leader who is responsible for that, and that’s a – that’s just a group that gets together to talk about the past year together, and what they’ve studied. Is that basically correct?
Janie Stephens
Yes.
Darrell Bock
And do they pray together and that kind of thing, as well, or is it just strictly focused on the Bible study?
Janie Stephens
Both. So, yes, they also have what we call in BSF, ASKs, Ask-Seek-Knock. And it’s the –
Darrell Bock
We gotta break down the code. No one’s gonna know what an ASK is.
Janie Stephens
Yeah, that’s one thing, BSF is very good at abbreviations, and so, yeah, hard to communicate. But yeah, that’s pretty much a prayer request time for the group, and so the group leader, on a weekly basis, is shepherding it, and keeping it –
Darrell Bock
That’s Saturday for Sally.
Janie Stephens
Yes. I know that well. So yeah, just keeping up with your group members, and then sharing it with the group members. So, the whole group just knows where everyone is, and is constantly just keeping up and praying for one another, so that just further builds that community aspect.
Darrell Bock
And then there’s the teaching time, and I take it each major meeting place has a teacher who handles that location, or is that beamed in?
Janie Stephens
Well, actually both options are now available. Which then that gets into some new models that BSF is doing called satellite discussion groups, and so, that, we can talk more about that –
Darrell Bock
We’ll go there when we get there.
Janie Stephens
But for the majority, the basic class is, yes, a teaching leader kind of leads and guides, and directs that class, and teaches that class.
Darrell Bock
And those groups usually are meeting in churches in various locations in the city, or are there other venues that can be used?
Janie Stephens
So, again, that’s another new thing that kind of – I’ll talk more about, but yes, the traditional model has always been to meet in host churches, but now, more and more, that’s branching out.
Darrell Bock
That’ll be fun when we get there. And then the final thing are the notes. So, they come with notes, and there’s – my wife has connection to textbooks, but what I don’t know, I actually don’t know the answer to this, is whether this is for her, or they end up being for everybody.
Janie Stephens
The – ?
Darrell Bock
The stuff that helps them prepare as group leaders.
Janie Stephens
OK. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. The notes, that is for everyone. So, everyone gets – yes, the notes are – I mean, they’re amazing. They’re commentary level notes that really help break down the passage, and make it on a practical level for the class members. So, yes, all class members and leaders get hold of those notes.
Darrell Bock
And there’s, at least for some of the groups, my wife is buying what I guess our textbooks or other supplement to help her with what she does, does that go to everybody, as well, or is that just to the leaders?
Janie Stephens
No, that’s probably just for –
Darrell Bock
Just for the leaders –
Janie Stephens
Yeah.
Darrell Bock
And you guys have done some interesting things. For a long time, you were on a five year topical rotation, so every five years, you’d rotate through the same things if I’m remembering correctly. Is that right?
Janie Stephens
Yeah, or about seven years, yeah.
Darrell Bock
Okay, so there’s Genesis, right?
Janie Stephens
Genesis, Exodus and Apostles, let’s see, Romans, there was a history of Israel, that has now changed into a new study. I’ll talk about that. We’ve got Isaiah, Revelation –
Darrell Bock
Gospel of John is in there.
Janie Stephens
Yes, John.
Darrell Bock
But you don’t have a synoptic gospel?
Janie Stephens
I know – well, we do have Matthew.
Darrell Bock
All right, okay. Don’t let me go there. There’s the schedule that you’re also on. This is a regular, very intentional program that’s kind of designed to get people familiar with the whole of the Bible. There’s Old Testament, there’s New Testament. I seem to remember at one point, there was a series, was it the minor prophets or something like that?
Janie Stephens
Yes, so that is, the history of Israel and the minor prophets, that’s now been developed into a new study called “People of the Promise Land, Part I and Part II.” That is actually going to be unveiled next year.
Darrell Bock
Oh, wow. I know what questions are coming up –
Janie Stephens
Yes, there’s a lot of new things.
Darrell Bock
Let’s work back now. So, you’ve had this very traditional package. I’m gonna try and work through to this as opposed to just go there. This very traditional package, and I take it you were getting feedback or something that caused you as an organization to stop and say, “All right, we would like to be intentional with the younger group, as well, and here’s what we’re finding.”

What was that process like?

Janie Stephens
Yeah. Kind of the whole history about it, about two years ago, really January of 2016, the board, yes, just kinda decided to be more, wanted to be more intentional to listening to just this generation, the culture, seeing the cultural changes and stuff occurring.

And so, they took an intentional weekend, quiet retreat, just spent time in prayer, and really nailed down the strategic plan for the organization for the next five years. And so, out of that, out of just cultural context, and seeing what the needs of rising generations were, they developed this five year plan, and they’re calling it BRIDGE, meaning for the purpose of bridging in-depth Bible study from one generation to the next.

Darrell Bock
Interesting.
Janie Stephens
So, from that, it’s kind of an acronym. The six objectives of this strategy, number one, build upon the momentum, and history, and community that has always been BSF. And so, that’s one thing that we always want to keep up with and acknowledge, just the legacy that has always been BSF, and that we wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the history of BSF.

And so, just using that as a springboard to then develop new studies, like People of the Promise Land, and all those new things. So, build upon that, reach millennials in new markets. They’re really honing in on Spanish initiative, and Chinese translation of their notes. And so, really exciting things like that.

Innovation, I was trying to innovate, that includes technology and all that type stuff. Developing the satellite discussion group model, which yes, we can talk more about that. That’s really exploded and just created so many opportunities.

Grounding in doctrinal fidelity and – that will never go away, the truth of God’s work never changes. And then enhancing just the brand and facilities, and staff, and everything.

Darrell Bock
And in the midst of this, like I said, I think originally there were the five, and then you branched out with different kinds of studies. So, a few years ago, you did Revelation, which was a challenge.
Janie Stephens
Right.
Darrell Bock
Because you’re walking into a room with people who belong to churches that are as in eschatology is true, generally, in the church, kind of all over the place. So, you had to negotiate how to do that as a group Bible study, and my understanding –
Janie Stephens
Yes.
Darrell Bock
Is a lot of work and time, and reflection went into that.
Janie Stephens
Yes. It was really interesting. I was a group leader at that time, during that study, and it was just – yeah, I just felt like BSF did such a great job of presenting the truth, but not in a way that would alienate or isolate anyone, ’cause yes, they knew we would have people from all backgrounds and walks of life coming into the study, and we want that.

And so, they presented each eschatology –

Darrell Bock
Each approach –
Janie Stephens
Each approach, and never necessarily said BSF holds to this. They presented the truth of Scripture, and were transparent with, “You know, yeah, Scripture’s hard to interpret in this area.” It’s fine, people in your group may have different beliefs, but they never swayed from just simply stating the truth of God’s word.

So, I just felt like that was really cool and helpful for me just to hear different people’s perspectives, and how they view Scripture to be interpreted in that way, and so, it was really neat to just discuss that with people from all different backgrounds.

Darrell Bock
By it, it made for a different kind of discussion than what sometimes what you would normally have.
Janie Stephens
Right, yes.
Darrell Bock
OK. I guess you announced the bridge. You didn’t build the bridge. And in the midst of that, began to think about, “What can we do differently than what we’ve done before?” Let’s talk a little bit about that. What exactly has BSF tried to do that is – you say you’re trying to build the bridge from one generation to another, but you’re also organizing that the way in which the younger generation process and responds, and engages is slightly different than the older generation.

So, what did that entail for you all?

Janie Stephens
Yes. So, many things. It kind of – I would say it probably started with the satellite discussion group model. And so, just recognizing A, people with this – especially with Millennials, and just more and more people just nowadays, traveling and moving a lot, and so the satellite discussion group model originally started with – it’s a discussion group tied to a base class, and then you watch a video lecture from the teacher of that class.

You can establish a satellite discussion group really wherever is convenient for you. And so, that began to unlock the limitations that possibly were there from only being hosted in a host church. So, now you could be – you could have these satellite groups in a coffee shop, or in a nursing home, or wherever is needed.

We even now have prison satellite discussion groups, which is really cool. So, it kinda began with that, but then also reaching, specifically, the younger generation, really utilizing technology, social media, putting the notes online now, like an e-Pub version, and audio notes. Just really the whole idea is to break down any barriers or obstacles to the Gospel, and really just go to the people, listening to what they need and want, and going to them, making it accessible for them, knowing that their schedules are busy, and that freedom and options are an important thing for interaction.

Darrell Bock
I wanna stay focused on this for a second. How actually does that work? Does someone come along and say, “I’m located in such and such a location and would like to connect to BSF”? Or are you advertising where the satellite connection classes are and people sign up? How do they – it sounds like there are all kinds of options as to how that might work?
Janie Stephens
Yes, we have as a part of bridge and this new technology, we have kind of redone our whole website, and so, we have all these satellite discussion groups on the website now, so you can’t – that’s one option. You can go onto the website, and see where a satellite discussion group is located, and register for that group.

So, that’s depending on if you want to choose with location.

Darrell Bock
Yeah, we probably ought to tell people what that website is.
Janie Stephens
Oh, yes, that would be good. So, yes, this would be www.bsfinternational.org.
Darrell Bock
Oh, so it’s bfsinternational.org.
Janie Stephens
Yes, bsfinternational, yeah, yeah. That’s a good point. Yes, you can choose your satellite group based on location. You can also choose, so just this year, we’re unleashing virtual satellite groups, and so you can now choose your satellite group depending on what time works best for you.

I’m leading a virtual satellite discussion group this year, so I’m really excited. You sign on, you can find it on the BSF website. You log in –

Darrell Bock
BSFinternational.org. Go ahead.
Janie Stephens
Little promo. You can just say whatever time you wanna meet. And so, the neat thing is this will be connected to people all over the world. So, if your lunch break at work is convenient for you, someone who maybe works the night shift or something, or has weird hours, they may be plugged in, it may be 2:00 a.m. where they are, and they’re able to plug in with you.

And so, you’re meeting with people all over the world at whatever time is convenient for you. That’s an option.

Darrell Bock
So, that’s a different element than the thing, this meeting in the coffee shop or whatever. You come to the webpage, and you’ve got these options, I take it. There are the – and what do you call it? Is this a satellite class or is it the virtual class? How are they labeled so that you know what’s what?
Janie Stephens
Right, so the virtual classes is actually on a separate webpage, so that’s – and really, we’re actually just no unveiling that. We actually haven’t done any formal announcement of these virtual groups. And just from word of mouth, we have about 575 people who have signed up, but we really haven’t done anything.
Darrell Bock
You have 575 virtuals?
Janie Stephens
Yes, yeah, the virtuals. We’ll start calling them that. So, yes, 575 virtuals, but then the satellite discussion groups, we have almost 3,000 of those.
Darrell Bock
Oh, wow.
Janie Stephens
Those are on the website, and you just go to find a class. It’s a tab on the website, and you can find either a physical BSF. You just say, “I’m in Dallas, Texas,” and it’ll just pull up every satellite class –
Darrell Bock
Here are the locations –
Janie Stephens
Yeah, and then you just join the class.
Darrell Bock
And they can be in all kinds of places. And if you join that class, are you going to that location, or are you connecting through your computer to people who are located proximate to you? How is that part of it working?
Janie Stephens
With the actual satellite discussion group or actual class, you’re actually going to that location. But the virtual satellite discussion groups, that you can do from home on your computer, and it’s through zoom technology, and your whole group –
Darrell Bock
We know how Zoom works.
Janie Stephens
Your group is there, and you just discuss the passage together.
Darrell Bock
Now, we’re coming up at the break, so we need to continue to deal with the various ways in which you’re innovating, but then I’m gonna walk into some of the things – one, that motivated you to go in this direction, and two, some of the criticisms that people have about working in a virtual environment, which I think I’m gonna be able to contribute to, because we do a lot of online classwork here, and so, we’ve gone through many of those kinds of discussions in thinking about seminary education, as well.

And so, one other quick question: what are you guys working on this year? What’s the Bible study for this year that you all are currently into?

Janie Stephens
Romans.
Darrell Bock
Yet again, huh?
Janie Stephens
Yet again, no, yeah, it’s good. We’re just kicking it off. We’re excited.
Darrell Bock
What some people don’t know is that there’s a lot of sacrifice on the group leaders. My wife is up at very early in the morning. She helps God get up in the morning one day a week to attend this class that they meet and plan. I wanna say it’s like 6 or 5:30 a.m. or something like that.
Janie Stephens
It’s 5:15 a.m. I used to be in her group.
Darrell Bock
You could tell, I’m not awake during that time.
Janie Stephens
But I will say – yes, I am a millennial-aged person. Mornings are not my exact favorite hour, but to start the day off with my BSF people at 5:15 a.m., actually was lovely. I actually loved it.
Darrell Bock
Let’s talk about these – what led to the decision to meet outside the church? What created that desire?
Janie Stephens
Yeah, we really kinda started – last year, BSF headquarters did, it was kind of an innovation year where they were experimenting with new, young adult class models. And so, with that idea, they just kinda started thinking, walking into a church, for someone who is totally unchurched, or who’s never been to a Bible study, could that possibly be a barrier to them ever just even wanting to check it out?

And so, they just started kind of loosening the reins a little bit in that – just saying how can we meet these people who otherwise would never even right now want to step into a church? How can we meet them where they are and just provide a welcoming atmosphere for them?

That kinda caused them to begin exploring, “Yeah, what about coffee shops?” Or just a main, center place in the center of the city or in arts district or something. And so, that just –

Darrell Bock
These are just different kinds of meeting venues. It wasn’t just coffee shops, but it could be – I think I heard you say a nursing home was one example?
Janie Stephens
Yeah.
Darrell Bock
Which is interesting. I’m not sure too many millennials you can find –
Janie Stephens
Well, yeah, we won’t reach the millennials, yeah.
Darrell Bock
Fair enough, but the point is, you’re actually trying to go to where people are, and invite them into Bible study without them having to think, “I’ve gotta step into a church, this is a foreign world to me.”
Janie Stephens
Right, yes, going to where they are, and just again, it goes to just breaking down any barriers that could possibly be there to having people hear the truth of God’s word.
Darrell Bock
I take it the virtual groups were something different, that they were motivated by the recognition that not everyone’s gonna be located in a major metropolitan area or something like that, where getting to the alternate venues that a city might provide becomes possible. This allows you to reach people in more rural and detached settings, and internationally, I imagine that even opens up things an awful lot more.
Janie Stephens
Yes. So, actually, we were just in a meeting yesterday, and reading off comments from people who have just heard about these virtual satellite discussion groups, and it was so encouraging, things that I had really not even thought about could be used, but that the Lord is using.

There’s one guy, he just graduated high school, and he had some type of illness, or disability, I can’t quite remember, but it was making it hard for him to go physically to a BSF class. He had grown up in the school program. Towards the end of high school, he wasn’t able to go to BSF, but now he was so excited that he now had this virtual option that he could do it from his house, and still be a part of BSF.

Encouraging stories like that, and yes, people, we’ve seen it now with missionaries who are in just real remote countries, they’re now able to still do BSF or do BSF for the first time. Or yeah, people who – I have a friend, actually, who moved for a job to a real rural area in Iowa, and he was wanting to do these virtual options, so yeah.

So, I didn’t ask you this earlier, I probably should have. Although, I think you alluded to some languages besides English that BSF works in. So, are there a variety of language groups that BSF is working in, or is it still primarily an English program?

Janie Stephens
It’s still a primarily in English, but we have a new Spanish initiative, and Chinese translation initiative, and so, those are the two languages we’re focusing on right now. But there’s always – I think thoughts to continue expanding that.
Darrell Bock
Yeah, ’cause once you open it up, then you’ve got the possibilities of going to those places with those languages. Interesting. And how new is all this? I take it this has been happening over the last year, year and a half, or is it even younger than that in terms of implementation?
Janie Stephens
It’s been about the last year, year and a half, the satellite discussion group model, I feel, like was really kind of the catalyst to all this innovation and change, and that happened about maybe three years ago, I wanna say. But really, just the last year and a half or so has been a lot of this major change.
Darrell Bock
Now, some people came along, and said, “Okay. You loosed up the rules.” I won’t give too much away, but one of the things that struck me about the interview that I had was that actually at one point, I said to the reporter who asked me a question, “There’s an assumption in that question that I’m not sure I buy.”

And it was that somehow, BSF was making concessions to millennials who aren’t as serious and engaged – I think that was part of the assumption – and therefore, it was loosening or lowering its standards. It’s kinda like what you hear in relationship to online teaching in general, which is you really end up giving up on the fellowship side of what you’re doing, and the relational side of what you’re doing when you go online, because I can’t relate to a screen, is kinda the way it’s pictured.

So, how has – so my question is, it’s a two-fold question, I guess. One, I’m sure BSF is aware of those kinds of criticisms of you, and secondly, how would you address those kinds of concerns that say, “There’s something different if you do it that way.”

Janie Stephens
Yeah, so I think – yes, we are aware of some of those criticisms and views. And I really think, we come back to really just what God’s word says. I think of First Corinthians 9, Paul, who is saying, “I have become all things for all men, so that by all possible means, I may reach some.”

And so, we’ve taken that thought, and just wanting to, again, break down any barriers or obstacles that could possibly be in the way of people coming to God’s word. So, we’re changing up possibly some of the vehicle for how the truth of God’s word gets to people, but in no way watering down the truth of God’s word, and the doctrinal fidelity, that’s one of the main objectives of the Bridge strategy.

And they made sure and said that, because they were like, “No, we’re not throwing the baby out with the bathwater, just watering down everything. We are staying true to God’s word, and the principles of God’s word, and the doctrinal fidelity, but recognizing that even in God’s word, God used different means and methods to reach different people in different times.”

And so we just recognize maybe there’s not one solid answer for all people, a way of the vehicle and format can kind of change that with technology, and as that comes along. But – it’s really just differentiating between what does not change, which is God’s word in the Gospel vs. the things that do change, which is culture and technology, and those types of things.

So, just trying to be wise to realize what those things are that can change without ever changing God’s word.

Darrell Bock
I tell people that I really had in my own experience a shift in the way I viewed online and virtual communication and satellite communication, however you want to put it. When I was asked to teach a class in a summer, this was four years ago now, almost five, actually, in Perth, Australia.

So, I’m sitting in Dallas, students are in Perth, Australia, and we sign up, and my responsibility as a teacher, before I ever go to Perth – it’s a hybrid class, so I’m going there for a week, eventually. But in the six weeks before that, every week, I was asking them a question, to which they were responding.

I wasn’t hooked up by Skype, so I wasn’t seeing them face to face, but I was interacting with them almost by e-mail. It wasn’t quite that, but it was almost like that. And so, I’m asking them six questions, and I’m watching them respond to six questions in the area of the stuff we’re gonna study, and they’re giving me feedback on a regular basis, and I’m engaged with them. It’s a typewriter conversation, if I can say it that way.

And I actually found myself walking into that class six weeks later in Perth, knowing more about the students and where they were, and how they responded, and what they needed from me as a teacher than I had in the first 30 years of my teaching here at Dallas in the class that I had.

Janie Stephens
Oh, wow.
Darrell Bock
Because, one, I was interacting with every student, it wasn’t just the ones who were talking in class, and two, is I could see this student gets it, I can push them a little further. This student’s still struggling to get their hands around it. This is what they need in order to enhance that –

I can almost much more personalize the teaching as a result. So, sometimes, the impression that’s given that you can’t do that through the technological means, I think is not really true. And since that time, it’s interesting, in fact, within the last month, I have sat in on a doctoral oral exam for the University of Otago, which is in New Zealand, and I’m one of the examiners, and instead of getting on a plane for what would probably be 25 hours, a lot of swimming, and land in Otago, we could connect by Zoom, and I’m interacting with a panel that is gathered in Adelaide, New Zealand, and then someone else was in Melbourne, Australia, and I was in Dallas, I was in my study in my home in Dallas, ’cause of the time difference.

And we were having a conversation with each other that was one of the people who was on the examining board with me is a fellow Exodus commentary writer, who I’ve known for a long time, so we were catching up, etcetera. It isn’t like you’re detached.

Janie Stephens
Yeah, I totally agree, ’cause I even have relationships with people that I’ve known for, yes, years, but we may be apart, but you still, through Facebook and e-mail, we are still able to keep that up, and yes, actually you sometimes do share more just in writing and having time to really think through like if you’re in a Bible study, context – thinking through your answers as you’re writing it, two people.

Yeah, so I totally agree. It’s just a different way of communicating, a little bit, but yeah, nonetheless, there’s – it’s not Bocking anything.

Darrell Bock
I like to tell people, I often get asked about the difference between boomers and millennials, and I say, “There are some differences. I was taught to think and engage with what I would call an outline mentality.” You structure your thought, and if you’re gonna present an argument in a paper, it just kind of sequentially move through, you think through what the Roman numerals and subpoints are gonna be, and you build your argument accordingly.

And I say, whereas, younger people, because they’re more used to a web page, which is a little more dynamic and free-wheeling, they don’t tend to think as easily in a structured outline form, but they’re very good at dynamically connecting things, and moving – I tell someone, “You don’t go through the webpage, ‘I’m gonna start at the top of the webpage, I’m gonna click this, and now I’m gonna click this.'”

Janie Stephens
Right.
Darrell Bock
You don’t go through a webpage that way.
Janie Stephens
That would be weird.
Darrell Bock
That would be weird, exactly right, very weird. So, you don’t go through, but there is thinking and association going on that’s driving you to go where you go on the webpage. And so, I said, “People are processing information slightly differently.” I think that’s true in the way in which they’re connected. But the flipside of it is that different isn’t necessarily worse. It’s different.
Janie Stephens
Yeah, and I do think that sometimes, yes, we can just say, “Wow, that’s different, we’ve never done it like that, so it must be wrong,” but yeah, I don’t think so at all.
Darrell Bock
Tell us a little bit – are there any other things that you’re hearing that explain and maybe we haven’t gone through all the innovations yet. We’ve talked about the virtuals, and we talked about the satellite classes. I know that some of the way in which the expectations in the Bible study have been set up have been changed, as well. Why don’t we talk about those a little bit, ’cause I think you’ve made it a little more flexible, in terms of the way people participate.
Janie Stephens
Yes, and so, this is another new thing that we’re just unveiling this year for Romans, which I think is really cool. So, yes, there was also a recognition that BSF has always, for great reasons, had just been known as a rigorous Bible study, which is –
Darrell Bock
The Marines of Bible study.
Janie Stephens
Which I have loved, which is great. But yes, there was a realization, “Hey, we want to make this available to everyone, not just seminary students or whatever. We want someone, again, who has never studied the Bible to be able to come in and not just feel totally overwhelmed.”

And so, this year, we’ve unleashed options for discussion groups, and so, this is utilizing something that’s always been a part of BSF, which we call the three question method in BSF, which is really just observation, interpretation, application, but with these options, we’re now giving group leaders who know their group and know the level of Bible knowledge of each of their group members, giving them options of how they want to study and discuss God’s word.

And so, using this three question method, you can have one group that simply, you don’t necessarily have to go through the lesson at home throughout the week. You can just come to class with no preparation, and we just as a group are going to go through this three question method together, and so just going through it. What do you see? What are the who, what, where, when, why of the passage, and then what truths do you pull out, or what promises of God, what commands do you see in this passage?

And then, finally, how can you apply that to your life this week? And so, that’s one group, and so, that’s probably for people who are brand new to the Bible, just teaching them, and training them to then really be able to understand the Bible on their own.

Darrell Bock
Learn how to study the Bible, yeah.
Janie Stephens
So, that’s cool. And then, we have kind of these flex groups, which are I guess kind of as people graduate, then using that three question method as a grid for deciding which questions on the lesson to discuss. Everyone will do the questions at home on their own, but then coming to group, you might only discuss maybe five questions or so, and based on some observation question, some interpretations, some application, and that gives you more time to discuss each question, and so, you can really dive in and some of the group, you can ask questions like, “Hey, I really didn’t understand what was going on here. Let’s talk about it.” All that type of stuff.

So, that’s one group, and then you also have then the traditional BSF group, where you’re going through all the questions. So, yes, all that to say they’re, again, breaking down some of the structural barriers that have possibly been there for people. It’s worked great for many people, but it maybe didn’t work for everyone.

And so, yeah, just creating options for people who are at different levels.

Darrell Bock
So a person off CNN says, “I just wanna come and talk about this when I attend,” or is this all happening within one group?
Janie Stephens
Within one group, and so, yeah, it kind of – yes, the group leader, as they get to know their group members, and just hearing feedback from their group members, they can decide as a group, “We want to do it this way.” And that will –
Darrell Bock
The group decides what level they’re gonna operate at, we’re gonna be a traditional BSF group, or we’re gonna do the fewer questions more depth, or no, we’re just gonna come and talk about this.
Janie Stephens
Yes.
Darrell Bock
And the group as a whole makes that decision?
Janie Stephens
Yes. With wisdom from the group leader and teaching leader, so yeah, it’s not just everyone is doing their own thing.
Darrell Bock
Just a natural logistics question that comes to my head, someone’s in there, and they say, “I just want to do the explorer, but my group has decided to be a traditional,” then do you allow this person to move, or how does that work?
Janie Stephens
Right, yeah. I think – well, really, how it will – again, we’re just unleashing this this year, but I think the group will be designated at the first of the year in that way.
Darrell Bock
So you know what you’re joining?
Janie Stephens
Yes.
Darrell Bock
And so, yeah, so it’s not gonna be a fluctuating thing. You’re not caught by surprise is the point.
Janie Stephens
Yeah.
Darrell Bock
I guess in about a year or two, we’ll have you back. How did all this work?
Janie Stephens
Yes, and I’m sure we’ll – we’re constantly – that’s also, we’re constantly saying, “Be ready to pivot when we say, ‘okay, maybe that didn’t work, so let’s try this.'” It’s a fun time to be in BSF and working with them, yeah.
Darrell Bock
And so, it’s early days yet, but are you getting a sense about whether or not you’re beginning to reach the audiences that you were hoping to be able to tap in as the flexibility and the news of the flexibilities come out, are you having a sense that yeah, we’re getting some people perhaps involved in BSF who might not have done it before, because they would have felt too restricted in terms of – or their travel prevented them from doing it, that kind of thing.
Janie Stephens
Yes, I really do think so. Just even that one statistic that I already mentioned, the virtual satellite discussion groups, just from word of mouth, no formal announcement from headquarters, already having 570 people or so wanting to sign up for that. And yes, I’ve seen in that in our young adult group here in Dallas.

Before I moved to San Antonio, I taught in the Dallas young adult group, and so, just watched that group grow and multiply with the satellite discussion group model and all of these new implementations that headquarters is enacting. So, yeah, I do think – yes, and we’re just in the beginning year or year and a half, so I think as time goes on, and as word gets out through social media, and technology, all of that, I think it’ll just continue.

Darrell Bock
Now, I think you mentioned this before, but this is a good time, since we’re coming to the end. You’re in how many countries?
Janie Stephens
Now over 40. I think that’s about 43 or so.
Darrell Bock
Is there any total number of groups that we’re talking about here? You know what that number would be by any chance?
Janie Stephens
Yeah, so we have about 1,200 physical classes, but then, it’s something like 2,925 satellite classes. I just saw the numbers this morning.
Darrell Bock
Oh, wow.
Janie Stephens
That is only – those developed all within the past three years –
Darrell Bock
Yeah, that’s what I mean.
Janie Stephens
It exploded.
Darrell Bock
It has exploded. It’s become the dominant model.
Janie Stephens
It really has, yeah.
Darrell Bock
And then the virtuals you’re building, because you really haven’t announced that yet. Do you have any idea how many total – my impression had been, and this is a wrong impression – in fact, my wife corrected me about this, is this isn’t just for women. This is for anybody. Anyone can come to BSF?
Janie Stephens
Yeah. So, we have evening men’s classes. We have day women’s classes, and evening women’s classes, and young adult classes, and then also children’s program, and school program. So, the children’s program is for five years old and younger, and then school program is first grade through 12th grade.

And the school program’s attached to the evening men’s and evening women’s classes.

Darrell Bock
Now, I’m hearing something, so these are gender separate, so you don’t have a couples class, per se?
Janie Stephens
No, we don’t.
Darrell Bock
Interesting.
Janie Stephens
That is an idea that has been thrown around, and who knows, I don’t know.
Darrell Bock
Well, with as much innovation as we’ve seen so far –
Janie Stephens
This is true.
Darrell Bock
There’s only one place to go.
Janie Stephens
Yes, that’s true. I will say that the young adult classes are co-ed.
Darrell Bock
Interesting. We thank you for coming in and telling us about BSF and what’s going on, and just the way in which you’ve tried to reach out and make it available to people. It’s an exciting program. It certainly involves a lot of people in Bible study. It’s kind of outside the normal models. It does keep them regularly in the scripture, and so that’s great to see. Thank you, Janie.
Janie Stephens
Thank you for having me.
Darrell Bock
We appreciate you coming and being a part of The Table, and we hope you’ll be back again with us soon.
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Darrell L. Bock
Dr. Bock is senior research professor of New Testament and executive director for cultural engagement at Dallas Theological Seminary. He has authored or edited more than 40 books, including Jesus according to Scripture: Restoring the Portrait from the Gospels, Jesus in Context: Background Readings for Gospel Study, Studying the Historical Jesus: A Guide to Sources and Methods, Jesus the Messiah: Tracing the Promises, Expectations, and Coming of Israel’s King, Who Is Jesus?: Linking the Historical Jesus with the Christ of Faith, and Key Events in the Life of the Historical Jesus: A Collaborative Exploration of Context and Coherence.
Janie Stephens
Janie Stephens is Executive Assistant to the Director of Bible Study Fellowship (BSF), a global, in-depth Bible ministry with over 2,200 locations, in more than 40 nations, serving over 400,000 members. Janie previously served as Teaching Leader for the Dallas Young Adults BSF class, and is currently working towards her ThM at Dallas Theological Seminary.
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