The Joy of Theology Reading Groups

Pastor, I want to thank you. My marriage has been totally turned around.

These aren’t the words you expect someone to write three months after their spouse began reading a 1,291-page systematic theology book, yet that’s exactly what I was being told in a card. My prayers had been answered. I’d prayed that God would give people such a love for him and his Word that it would begin to affect all areas of their life. I’d also prayed that reading and discussing a systematic theology book with others would be one of those means.

Soon after I came to my church in 2008 and began preaching expositionally, I realized many of the men had only a cursory knowledge of the Bible. Further, I observed most of the young men had been neglected in any intentional pursuit. I prayed for three months about what to do and whom to pursue. I decided to start a theology reading group with eight men.

The journey began in January 2009. We met in my basement every Friday morning at 6:00 a.m., for an hour and a half, for 16 months. The men were told they must be committed, which meant be present, on time, and prepared to discuss their reading of that week’s assigned chapter. I didn’t think I would retain all of them. But the more they studied God’s Word and discussed it together, the more hooked they became. How hooked? One guy was out of town for three months and would drive to a rural McDonald’s for free WiFi so that he could Skype with us. Another had appendicitis and needed emergency surgery. When Friday came around, the discussion time moved to his hospital room.

Why Theology Reading Groups?

Though God has revealed himself in his Word and preserved that Word for thousands of years, so many of his people don’t know it well. They haven’t thought deeply about the wonder of the Trinity, the significance of the resurrection, or the promised return of their Savior. It’s not that they don’t believe it. It’s that they largely defer to their elders and pastors to know it, believe it, and tell them it’s true. Theology reading groups allow the believer to wrestle with verses and the truths contained therein. It helps audit the bad theology that has crept into all of our minds based on experiences or tired truisms that turn out to not be true (such as “God helps those who help themselves”).

I wanted to see the people entrusted to my care know their God better and live lives reflecting joyful devotion to him. I wanted that for myself too. I also wanted to provide an environment where Christians would enjoy discussing truth and working out its implications together. In other words, the goal of a theology reading group is to get people reading, thinking, talking, and living in light of God’s revelation.

Here’s how you can begin.

1. Select the book. I chose Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology. I wanted a book that directed the reader to application with each truth. I also know Grudem has smaller works (Bible Doctrine or Christian Beliefs), but I wanted something that would offer a real challenge for all of us.

2. Plan the schedule. The book you choose will greatly shape the length of time it takes to cover the work. We scheduled the reading, including the appendix, to cover the span of 13 months. Perhaps in your context smaller time commitments would serve you better.

3. Set the expectations. Christians often attend Sunday school classes and other additional gatherings where their attendance alone is considered a win. I encourage you to raise the bar. In our case the expectations were twofold: (1) you always read before you come, and (2) you’re always there unless you’re out of town or in the hospital. Sounds strict, I know. But you’d be surprised how much people will step up when challenged.

4. Share the discussion. I launched the group with the clear expectation that I’d facilitate the discussion for two months. Then I’d assign all of us to a rotation of leadership each week for the remainder of the time. I’d also give feedback after each meeting. This approach keeps you from being the “answer man” and identifies potential future small group leaders, whether for theology reading groups or other areas of ministry.

5. Encourage regularly. You’re asking people not only to read a book (something 28 percent of Americans didn’t do last year), but also to read a significant book. It can appear daunting at first. I encourage them like crazy for the first three months. I find once they cross the three-month mark, however, their own excitement for what they’re learning rubs off on each other and helps carry them to the end.

6. Pray for fruit. Some people will think theology reading groups make people proud in their knowledge and apathetic in their life—”They should read less and evangelize more.” I disagree. Pray earnestly that people would be amazed at the God who created them, saved them, and promises to return for them. In simplest definitions, I define evangelism as taking your worship public. Pray that as people are amazed at God’s love for them in Christ they’d grow contagious as Christians, whether they are talking to other believers or not.

Take the Plunge

It’s now been five years since that first cold Friday when those eight men met with me to discuss theology. Since then our church has enjoyed four generations of men’s theology reading groups and three generations of women’s theology reading groups. Young and old, single and married, teenager and parent—you name it, they’ve all participated in these groups.

Though reading together isn’t the only means we use to put the truth of God’s Word before God’s people, it’s been a profitable way for us to challenge people to know and love the God who has rescued them. Don’t take my word for it. Try it for yourself.

  • Curt Day

    Having watched “The Big Bang Theory” on tv with the wife, it is one of her favorite shows, I would hope that if we do start theological reading groups, that we don’t read so much that we don’t have room for other kinds of reading. Why?

    The show “The Big Bang Theory” explains it. The show is about 4 nerds and a girl. The 4 nerds are highly proficient when talking about their areas of expertise or the nerd games and entertainment, but they are highly deficient when relating to the outside world. Reading too much theology could make us into religious nerds who could start our own theological “Big Bang” group. And the more difficulty we have in relating to the outside world, the less we can effectively apply the Gospel to the different issues that people face while living in the world. Theology can be very deceptive. For the peace we gain from it might very well be the result of living in a theological bubble rather than the result of the Spirit working in us through faith in Christ.

    Yes, we need to know and study theology. But, as we can learn from Bonhoeffer’s example, we need to be involved with the issues in which people we wish to share the Gospel with are involved. And if we fill our plate with theological readings, we cannot be adequately be aware of the issues to which we need to apply the Gospel. And we can’t adequately be aware of issues unless we read about them not from theological social commentators, but from people in the world who must live with these issues.

    Also, we must exercise caution so that reading theology does not usurp our study of the Bible. Reading too much theology can all too easily divide Christians into theological camps. Such divisions give birth to a multitude of sins.

    • Windy Pitts

      I can’t believe that anyone would be worried about the study of theology turning us into empty theology nerds, especially since most Christians only have a rudimentary understanding of the basics of our faith, if that? Yes there is danger in anyone making knowledge their idol but still not living it, but…….a a good many Christians are not living it to begin with! Maybe a better understanding of theology, what we believe and hold to is what’s needed!

      • Curt Day

        I am speaking from observation. Sometimes, we use theology to hide from the world, not to better share with the world. And that occurs when we don’t keep up with the issues by learning from those who are battling the issues and who do not share our faith.

        • Jesse

          Perhaps a way to alleviate your concerns is instead of a Theology reading group, a Bible reading group. Read systematically through a book or part of a book in the Bible. This could then include theology as pertinently raised by the Bible study and include how what you learn to the outside world. A few of us in our church have been doing this for nearly two years now and found it very fruitful and edifying.

          • Curt Day

            What would alleviate my concerns is to combine reading those who are outside the faith along with reading the Bible and some Systematic Theology. My concern is that we isolate ourselves by not reading those outside the faith. When we stay just within the Bible and trusted theologians, the possibility, not certainty, exists that we are living in a bubble. And it is that bubble that gives us peace rather than a faith that gives peace despite what we see up close and personal in the world.

            • James Dawes

              ‘Theology’ and ‘the real world’ seem very distinct in your mind. But reading good theology actually shows us reality more clearly. And God uses it to shape our attitudes towards everything else for the better.

              You’ve probably experienced Christians who’ve failed to join their theological knowledge with their everyday lives. They’re doing it wrong. The kind of ‘theology reading group’ described in this article sounds like an excellent way to address head, heart and hands with the truths of the faith.

        • Michael Herrington

          I think it is pertinent to the discussion that Eric begins with a quote from a spouse who sees the practical outworking of one of these groups in a “turned around” marriage relationship. A God-oriented marriage is a picture to the world of Christ and his church, and in my experience with transformed marriages the ripple effects are very real and powerful to both the church and the world.

        • Ryan

          I think theological education is an excuse, but I don’t think it’s ever the culprit. I suspect that those who use theology to create their bubbles would, had they never studied theology, find themselves in that bubble regardless.

      • taco

        I’m not sure how one makes knowledge of the holy an idol. Like a man desiring to know his wife, her thoughts, her desires, how she thinks, what more should a Christian desire than even just that of God?

        • Curt Day

          People are quite adept at making idols of everything. In addition, we need to distinguish theological works, as helpful as they can be, from God’s Word.

          • Res


            Yeah, some people go as far as making theological agnosticism an idol. Where the possibility of making an idol out of systemizing the knowledge of God is a justification to be lazy in the discipline

    • Clint Eberspacher

      It is true that theology divides, but it does not necessarily divide a church. Rather, it may help develop and create distinctions within a church among varying views among members. What it does a fantastic job of, however, is that it disrupts a false sense of unity.

      God’s revelation to his people is a great grace which must be studied fervently, if we are to honor the one who gave it to us. None of this is to denigrate the need to involve ourselves in the world around us. But it is usually going to be a false dichotomy when we say that we must “either” read theology “or” involve ourselves in our communities.

      I think what you’re pushing for is some kind of balance between the two. It seems, however, that you are asking for a 50%/50% balance (or something of that sort), when really we should be shooting for a 100%/100% balance. Should we read theology or spend time serving? The answer is yes.

      What I think this article has demonstrated–at least indirectly–is that grace is given through study of the Scriptures, and we should remain encouraged that the intellect is an important aspect of our faith which should be exercised.

    • xavier

      Curt, How one can “do” Theology without reading the Bible is nothing but an American anti-intellectual platitude that doesn’t even make sense when one realizes that Theology is derived from the Bible not external to it. It would be more helpful to call people to live out their lives in a consistent matter with what the Bible teaches I.e. theology and to meditate and consider their ways instead of setting theology apart as a bogeyman.

      Psalm 77 & 119

      • Ryan

        First, the dig against Americans is a little unnecessary, don’t you think? I mean I’m not American myself, but come on. Second, your perspective really doesn’t make any sense. Of course one can do theology without reading the Bible, and of course theology is not solely derived from the Bible. The entire purpose of reading the Bible is correcting, changing and reshaping the theology we’ve already got. I would go so far as to say that the single most important step in properly interpreting and understanding God’s Word is the acknowledgement that we come to the table with theological preconceptions, and that these preconceptions will form a barrier in attempting to grasp what is actually being said.

        This is one of the biggest reasons why it is important to read theology. Through interacting with a variety of different perspectives, our own inherent theological blind spots are exposed, and we are better equipped to approach the Scriptures humbly, seeking to be shaped and transformed, rather than to be reaffirmed in what we already believe and do.

        In other words, you are correct in your assertion that the study of theology and the study of Scripture are very closely linked and that to present them as one or the other is a false dichotomy, however in arguing that they are one and the same, you go too far to the other extreme.

        • taco

          It seems as though the two of your are equivocating on the word Theology. Between theology being done rightly or wrongly.

          Everyone is a theologian and has a Theology, the question however comes down to: Is what we/I believe about God true?

  • Lauren

    I love reading and studying theology, ‘the study of religious faith, practice, and experience : the study of God and God’s relation to the world’ Webster. I have a question however, why do you segregate your study groups by gender? In my experience, women who have studied theology or who are even interested in it are few and far between or are less experienced in its study than their male counterparts. Why then the segregation when a integrated group could offer a richer environment to both genders but possibly women the most. I believe that Jesus allowed Mary to sit at His and learn. I don’t believe she was sent away to learn only with the women. Thank you for a well written piece. I will continue my solo study and love of theology and pray that one day our church leadership will include women in the pursuit of deep biblical knowledge.

    • Nancy Guthrie

      Lauren: I was thinking the other day that I might start a reading group like this in the fall that meets on Sunday afternoons and call it “Football Widows in the Word.”

    • taco

      It depends on the purpose. Some contexts it may be more about calling men to be men in the homes.

    • EMSoliDeoGloria

      I so would love to be part of such a reading group. My former church had one but, like the one described here, it was for males only.

      • Lauren Tong Fenner

        My church too. I really don’t understand it. Are we not the ones teaching our future pastors and leaders from birth? Shouldn’t women be well founded in biblical doctrine? The more I study doctrine the more I understand that it impacts every moment of life…for both men and women. We are the ones, generally, who still ‘rock the cradle’. For now I am satisfied with my solo studies and an occasional ‘fluffy’ women’s study.

    • Mary Gray Moser

      Good comment, Lauren. I agree with you all the way.

  • Justin M. Davito

    That is awesome! I am encouraged by this!!!


  • Nathan Williams

    Thanks for this Eric. This is a great reminder to me! Hope all is well for you and your family.

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  • Patrick

    Man, what a great idea! I’ve been longing for something like this for years. A few years ago I incorporated Systematic Theology into my morning quiet time, it was great! I learned so much, and surprisingly Curt, I didn’t turn into a rabid theologian! I was wowed by so many deep things of God and the stirred my soul to want to know more of him.

    Thank you for sharing how God has been working in the life of your church, it’s so encouraging!

  • taco

    I have been a recipient of this kind of study since about 2008 as well and the impact it has had on all of my life is much like a new conversion experience. I triply recommend this to post and this type of study with the men in your church!

  • Jason

    Well done, Eric Bancroft. I am often amazed at how many people show up at Sunday School most weeks but don’t really know what the Bible says beyond John 3:16 or Matthew 7:1.

  • Giles Beynon

    I study alone but would love the opportunity to join such a group. I’m currently reading D A Carson’s book ‘A Call for Spiritual Reformormation’. I find the more I have read the Bible (I read between 2-5 chps of the law, 2-3 chps of history, 3 chps of wisdom, 3-5 psalms, 1-3 chps of the prophets, 2-4 chps of the gospels and least 6-8 chps of the letters and espistles). What I have found is my prayer life has been transformed. Deeper communion with Abba Father. I know more about the very faith I am practing and have learnt more about the very God I’m praying to. This due to Christ revealing more about the Father. My practice in turn has improved and even though a sinner I not only don’t do some of things I used to do but also am aware of other sins in my life. Things like use of money and time have become more important. My attitudes and focus have more Christ centered and inspired to glorifey the father through being more like the son (Christ). I pray more for other believers and have concerns for them not only materially but spiritually. I understand that peoples situations not only can change but people can change in situations. All by the power of God. This has been a process which books outside of the Bible have helped. Martyn Lloyds Jones ‘Studies on the Sermon The Mount’, D A Carson ‘Sermon on th e Mount’ (also the book I mentioned earlier), J I Packer ‘Knowing God’. I’m currently doing a study of Job and that has also had a bearing (I’m using a book called Conflict and Triumph, Willaim Henry Green). At the same time I’ve been studying the begining of Gensis and that has profound impications. With that I’ve also look at the Gospel of Matthew. These studies have opened the word and not only brought more revelation but more questions as I dig deeper with the use comentaries. Also various theories I’v held are being put to the test. Ultimatly though my faith has grown. Great idea and any serious disciple of Christ should jump at the chance to have a mature christian guide through the Bible. At the same time disciple them through prayer and the practical aspects of the faith would be in my opnion a good idea.

    Your Brother in Messiah.

    Giles Beynon

  • Eric S.

    Thanks for the encouragement :)

  • Kurt Michaelson

    This is certainly a very encouraging post and a great idea for men’s ministry too.

    Almost 6 months ago, I began pastoring a small church and there are a few more men in the church today than when my family and I arrived. We’re growing, slowly, but that’s good.

    I think that a systematic theology reading group would greatly benefit the church and encourage more people to become more active evangelistically too.

    Great post. Thank you for sharing what you’re doing Eric and to the others as well, for what is being implemented within your church ministries too.

  • Mike

    Should try this with the Church Dogmatics. It will be a test of perseverance. But seriously, all joking aside, I like this idea. Good article.

  • Jeff Spry

    We just started doing this very thing on January 21, 2014. We have two groups: one meets at 6:30 AM on Tuesday and the other meets at noon on Tuesday. We tried to set up the groups to benefit the men’s varying schedules. After four week, we are averaging 20 men in the morning and 15 at noon. Technically, we are working through Grudem’s “Bible Doctrine” but several of the men wanted to purchase Grudem’s “Systematic Theology.” So far the discussion has been great, the mutual encouragement has been mutually edifying, and the camaraderie has been a great blessing. I thought of doing this for years since hearing of Buddy Gray’s church and the incredible number of men who have completed the group study. Yet, I always talked myself out of doing it for various silly reasons. I am so glad we finally started a group and I anticipate taking these men through another work (maybe Biblical Theology) and starting another group with Grudem.

  • Ryan

    It’s a great point, but I think that it’s a travesty when these groups are used only to endorse our pet authours. The one real advantage of a theology reading group is the opportunity to hash out ideas and topics in a way that often isn’t possible in Sunday School or Bible studies – they provide a unique and powerful opportunity for us to learn about and explore a variety of different perspectives, and I think that to use that opportunity to only present the perspectives that we happen to agree with is a tragic waste. In-depth study of theology is often a catalyst for the maturity of Christians. Done properly, it can breed a deeper appreciation for our beliefs, a deeper respect for our brothers and sisters who happen to hold other beliefs, and a deeper love and reverence for God.

    Unfortunately, this can be very difficult to accomplish in an environment where people are only taught that which they already agree with, which often has the opposite effect – breeding a feverish devotion to beliefs that are often superficial and lacking in nuance; regarding brothers and sisters who hold other beliefs with fear and suspicion, and a very rigid view of God.

  • Mary Gray Moser

    I’m printing out this article! Further. I am delighted that so many women responded with interest in being in a theology study group. I’ve got Grudem’s Systematic Theology. I am going to see if I can’t scare up a few women who also have it or will get it and who want to discuss it.

    • Ryan

      At the risk of sounding like a snob, if you’re going to go in for a Systematic Theology, it may be worth grabbing one with a bit more depth and nuance than Grudem’s.

    • Ryan

      Sorry – hit post when I wasn’t finished.

      As I was saying, Grudem isn’t really my first choice for Systematic Theology – in fact, in my opinion, he’s the bottom of the barrel, or near enough. Millard Erickson writes from a very similar theological perspective, but in a way that is more thoughtful and intellectually rigorous. This does make him a bit less accessible, but I think it’s worth it. Stanley Grenz also deals with a similar theological framework, but his work is far more ecumenical in nature, and is concerned with establishing conservative evangelical theology in dialogue with the rest of Christianity. This makes him a rather polarizing figure – some love him for his even-handed approach, others are appalled at his soft stance towards certain teachings or thinkers. Your mileage may vary, but I think that either way, it is beneficial. While I have not read it myself, I have heard Alistair McGrath’s Systematic Theology is also worth perusing.

      It’s also worth looking into the Systematic Theologies of antiquity. Calvin’s Institutes is an obvious choice here, and of course Luther as well. On First Principles by Origen is one of the earliest attempts at systematizing theology, and so depending on your group’s interests may be worth examining. While it is not itself an ancient book, Thomas C. Oden’s Systematic Theology attempts to present the theological consensus of the Church Fathers – whether it does so accurately or not is a subject of much debate, but at the very least it provides a good introduction to the early church.

      Anyway, I hate to go on like this, but the world of systematic theology is so much larger than Grudem, whose book, as I said above, really isn’t all that spectacular, and I’m not sure why it gets as much attention as it does, other than being an easy read.

    • taco

      That is great to hear!

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  • Michael Roe

    Great post! Thanks Eric. Blessed to hear of your ministry.

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