Stories always engage!
This American Bible Study
Engage younger adults in discussion about faith, life, and God's Word using the popular podcast: This American Life from American Public Media. This 8-week Bible study series is designed for GenX, Millenial, and GenZ, small groups.
The Break Up
Listen to Act One, Dr Phil, 29 min:
Breakups are not just related to dating and romance. We seek closure, and we come to terms with loss and change, in many areas of life – friendships, childhood, college experiences, a favorite place, a job, a way we have seen ourselves, and innocence.
1. What “ending” has been the hardest for you to face in life so far?
2. What have you learned about love by way of your break-ups or losses?
3. Can you identify ways you have grown as a result of losses in the way Phil Collins expressed?
4. How do you typically process endings and beginnings?
5. Are you facing an ending or a beginning right now? How so?
6. What surprised you most about this episode and what the participants expressed?
7. Is there a famous person you would reach out to in order to help you process a painful part of your life?
8. What song would you want to write if you could?
9. How have you interacted with God in prayer or through scripture to process “endings” or losses?
10. The Apostle Paul writes to the Philippians with that sense of looking back and seeing what he has learned and experience through hard times and losses. Reflect on Philippians 4:11 - 14. What does this passage mean to you in terms of personal losses and the assurance we have in Christ and in one another?
Uganda Be Kidding Me
Listen to Act 2, Uganda Be Kidding Me, 24 min:
Zora Bikangaga grew up in a mostly white California suburb, the son of Ugandan immigrants. But when he went to college, he decided to play a joke on his roommate that went incredibly well and at the same time…. horribly wrong.
Some of the themes this episode touches on are identity, striving for acceptance, unintentional racism, trust in friendships, letting people believe things that are not true, putting on a front or false self, and disappointing others.
What is the greatest practical joke you have played on another?
How have you struggled for acceptance or wrestled with identity in friendships? Where and how did you find acceptance amongst peers?
Have you ever led others to believe things about yourself that were not true? What character in the story did you most identify with?
This episode also dealt with the problem of stereotypes, how people respond to them and play in them. How did you see these stereotypes at play: African American, white, Christian, wealthy, male, female?
When the jig was up were you surprised by his friend’s reactions and the school’s reactions? His girlfriend's reaction was quite different. Did she reinforce any stereotypes in her anger?
Who was she the most authentic person in the story?
Read Galatians 3: 28. How do you understand this verse and what are its implications regarding stereotypes we encounter both inside and outside the church?
Listen to the Prologue and Act One, 30 min
When faith and spirituality is based on fear and the fantastic, devotees often face a crisis at some point in their life. Fear can be a great motivator in the short period and many leaders learn how to use it to manipulate people, especially when it is centered around the reality of evil. But, in the end, fear is a failed way to motivate people spiritually; especially, it become increasingly poor at drawing people into a life-giving relationship with Jesus. This episode is about an American preacher named Carlton Pearson who grew up in this kind of environment and ultimately gave up on it and key elements of the Christian message in response. This episode raises important questions about how to be a church that does not manipulate people for short term “religious success” but instead sustains people in a life-long walk with God that can weather doubts and challenges.
1. Have you ever experienced spiritual manipulation, either in the Christian church, or outside of it?
2. Have you ever reached a crisis of faith like Carlton Pearson? How did you work through it?
3. This episode pointed out one of the facts of American Christianity, which is that most often races worship separately. Sundays are the most segregated day of the week in America. What do you think about that? Why is that the case? Often it is Pentecostal churches that are the exception to this rule. Have you seen churches bridge the divide?
4. For a while, Carlton Pearson became prominent in the Christian world, as well as in some political circles. What role do you see Christian “celebrities” playing in the American church today? When is this helpful, when it is problematic?
5. Carlton experienced great success in his ministry originally. How did he respond to that “success”?
6. Carlton experienced a crisis of faith when faced with images from the crisis in Rwanda. What misunderstandings did he seem to have about God’s mission? How do you react to the experience he had in prayer with God as he watched the images from Rwanda?
7. Carlton had been taught that God was the inventor of hell. How do you respond to that idea?
8. If Carlton had a more balanced Christian faith and experience how might he have responded to his faith crisis, especially if his theology had been centered first on the love and grace of Jesus, rather than the fear of the devil and hell?
9. Carlton fell into what is traditionally called “universalism” the idea that either everyone is saved and has always been, or that following the cross, everyone is now just, saved, regardless of their response, even their possible rejection of the Gospel and of God. How do Christians remain centered in the grace and love of Jesus without falling into the error of universalism?
10. Carlton came to not only doubt the crisis of sin and separation from God, but also came to doubt the authority of scripture based on the process the early church went through to decide on the books of the New Testament. How would you respond to his doubts?
11. How do these passages inform the conversation:
1 Timothy 4:10 New International Version (NIV)
"That is why we labor and strive, because we have put our hope in the living God, who is the Savior of all people, and especially of those who believe."
1 John 2:1-2 New International Version (NIV)
"My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. 2 He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world."
12. Many people might try to develop a theology or a doctrine based on one or just a few Bible passages. The two passages above, on their own, could be taken to “prove” universalism. But they are easily explainable when taken in light of the rest of New Testament teaching – letting scripture interpret and balance itself. How do you reconcile or explain these two passages in light of the rest of scripture?
If you are interested in the rest of this story and what happened to Carlton next, listen to the second half of this episode, Act Two, found at: https://www.thisamericanlife.org/304/heretics
Oh Come All Ye Faithless
Listen to the Prologue and Act One, O Come All Ye Faithless, 35 min
This episode is unique in that it represents a secular investigation of the modern church-growth movement, particularly active in evangelical circles. It follows the story of a young African American pastor in New York who tried to implement growth principles from corporate America and affluent, white evangelical churches, to a mostly minority congregation in a disadvantaged neighborhood.
1. How comfortable were you with the idea of church “planting” being related to a business plan? Is this a sell-out or just reality today?
2. What do you feel was the pastor's biggest mistake?
3. What do you feel he did that was right?
4. This episode pointed out a major disconnect that occurs sometimes between what a pastor might say the church is and what the average person in the pew might say the church is, or the church is for. What did you hear regarding that disconnect?
5. This episode also pointed out just how hard it is to start a church. So often you are asking somebody to try something that they already tried once and rejected. What is the difference between Christian faith and Christian congregational life?
6. Another part of this episode that was interesting was the idea that “relevancy” is relative, meaning, what might work very well in one culture, or one area may fail completely in a different context. How do you respond to that quest for “relevance” in the modern American church? What made Christian faith relevant to you?
7. A lot of emphasis in this episode was put on the role money plans in a mission church. Do you feel that because donors funded the church that created a lack of authenticity, or did it feel as though they were cross-purposes at work?
8. There should be a very big difference between a church and a product. And yet, church planting, as described in this episode, made this congregation seem very much like a product that was looking for a buyer or a market. To what extend does this set up potential churchgoers to behave like consumers? Do you see a problem with us?
9. Read Hebrews 10: 23 – 25. So, why should people come to a church or become members of a church? Why should people commit to one specific congregation? What is God's real desire here? And is the church planting movement in touch with that desire?
10. How do you respond in general to the story of Restoration Church? What questions would you ask the pastor fi you could have coffee with him? Are, there lessons to be learned or is just this just how mission is?
Listen to Act Two, Wonder Woman, 17 min
This is a really quirky episode about a real life – self-made – superhero. At first it does not seem like it could be real, but it is very real. Zora is a real woman from Minnesota who plans from a very young age to acquire skills, experiences and abilities that would prepare her for a potential career in the CIA.
What list did you have regarding dreams for your life?
This episode addresses the idea of testing limits, perfecting the human being, or just perfectionism in general. Zora’s is an extreme example of this kind of obsession. But can you relate in any way? How has perfectionism affected your life or self-image?
When did you first begin to honestly discover your limits?
Zora finally had to face extreme disappointment in her quest. How have you faced disappointment? How did you adjust? What was the outcome?
One of the theological issues at work in this story is works vs grace, or, law vs gospel. Zora believed she had achieved everything she needed to be accepted by the CIA, and yet in the end she was rejected. Realizing and accepting our limits is one of the steps on the journey to receiving the good news that Jesus has accomplished all that was necessary for our salvation on the cross. What aspect of self-reliance or achievement was the hardest for you to let go of in your growing awareness of God’s acceptance of you by grace?
Read Ephesians 2: 4 – 10. The gospel makes us face the despair of our own self-reliance. The relief God offers us through unconditional love and forgiveness is free, but it forces us to let go of the judgements we put in ourselves and others. We have to let God accept us as we are. This is sometimes humiliating. But that is the point. Where have you found yourself to be harder on yourself than is necessary?
Where do you realize you are striving to be a super woman or super man? Where are you trying to over achieve? Who are you trying to impress? How might the grace of God help you face these false pursuits and false selves in order to better embrace your true self which is loved by God in Christ?
Can you identify your top three goals for life? How many of them are realistic, balanced, and Grace oriented?
I Think We're Alone Now
Listen to the Prologue and Act One, 22 minutes
Is there intelligent life in the universe? Are we even sure we can find it on earth? Fermi’s Paradox refers to an observation made by physicist Enrico Fermi that challenges the often argued “high” probability of intelligent life on other planets. If you are unfamiliar with this, research the Drake Equation. With so many worlds out there, there just has to be other intelligent life, right? Except Enrico Fermi asked his colleagues on one occasion: “So where are they? As physicists have turned radio telescopes to the heavens they have been met with only silence…. no “man-made” radio signals discovered so far… What is going on?
Listen to the Prologue and Act One, 22 minutes
One of the producers of This American Life is a particle physicist turned journalist. This episode explores his personal struggle with the fact that this planet may contain the only intelligent life in all the universe. What do you think about the longing David Kestebaum feels for there to be more than this world? He appears incredibly discouraged by the thought that this might be it in terms of intelligent life? Do you respond the same way or differently?
His question seems immediately spiritual in nature. A Christian might immediately see that this longing could indeed lead him to faith in God, if he pursued it in that way. One of his struggles is that if we are alone in the universe then our “greatest thoughts” are the greatest thoughts that have ever been thought! And our achievements are be the greatest achievements to be achieved. That thought could be truly frightening if one also considers the other side of the spectrum – humankind’s greatest failings and evils. These are also the greatest failings and evils ever, anywhere! How would you engage David Kestenbaum in a way that would help him understand and name his spiritual quest?
What are your thoughts about intelligent life on other planets? What about unintelligent life? How would that fit into what has been revealed in the Bible about God’s creation and God’s plan?
One of the theological questions associated with idea is that if God did create life on other planets, did Jesus’ death count for them too? Read Romans 8: 19 – 25. This passage seems to suggest that all of creation experienced the repercussions of the fall of humankind. But is that only this planet? There is an entire space trilogy based on that very idea! Look up the book Out Of The Silent Planet by CS Lewis. How do you react to the idea that if there are other created and fleshly beings like ourselves on other worlds that they may have not fallen, and remain in a pre-sin state? Is that possible? What are your thoughts?
One idea in Christian circles is that this planet was the “nursery” planet in God’s original plan. This would mean that life was in fact created here by God, and if sin had not introduced the idea of death, life would have moved out from here as this planet filled up with “everlasting” sinless human beings who did not die! God would have transported sons and daughters of human beings to seed other worlds! That would explain the silence noted by Enrico Fermi and would also take into account the proposed number of inhabitable worlds suggested by the Drake Equation… What is your reaction to this idea?
Listen to Act Three, 12 min
All of us struggle in different ways to relate to our parents. Often we feel an natural affinity or connection to one parent over another. Or maybe it just takes creative effort to unlock what could be a much deeper connection with a more distant parent. That is the case with Rosie, a young girl in this episode who tried to reach her busy father in a way she thinks will get him to just talk to her…
Which parent did you connect more naturally with? Why? Has that always been true, or have you connected with both parents at different points in life?
Did this story make you think of any of your childhood events or relationships? Who and how?
Of the questions Rosie posed to her father, which one would you most want to ask to someone who could provide a satisfying answer?
Which one would you most want to answer from a younger person in your family?
One of the interesting parts of this episode is that Rosie seems to be more mature or more capable in some areas of life than her father. Do you agree? What type of intelligence does he seem to have not as well developed as she?
Read Psalm 119: 97 – 102. How do you react to this passage? What do you think it means?
Read 1 Timothy 4: 12. Every young room has a poster that displays this verse. Christian faith puts a high value on the potential for the young to influence the old. Even in the Old Testament it was often the youngest born that God used to challenge and teach older siblings. Why do you think God likes to work from the bottom up in families and maybe in society? What could the children and youth teach the older members of your church? Does your congregation give them this opportunity?
Listen to Act One, 24 min
All of us have probably fanaticized about being a cat-burglar, Mission Impossible-style. Okay, maybe you haven’t. Yes, it would be stealing… and breaking one of the 10 Commandments. This episode explores the story of a Mormon man who lived a double life as a cat-burglar, who was so successful and prolific in his crimes that the San Francisco police department named him “Spiderman”. But his nightly adventures were born out of an addiction that was destroying him. In the end he wanted to get caught.
What is the most daring or crazy thing that you have ever done?
All of us live a double life to some extent. There is who we really are and then there is the person we want everyone to think we are. We might have even convinced ourselves that the truth is found in the latter rather than in the former. Name two characteristics that are true about yourself - one that is from an aspect of your life you willingly make public, and one that is from a part of you that you most often hide.
There are parts of this story when the main character experiences some real feelings of fear and discouragement. In what ways could you relate to him?
Sin often compounds in the same way that “Peter Parkour’s” crime spree did. When have you seen sin begin in a person’s life (maybe your own) in a small way and gradually take more and more space until it has become a destructive obsession.
Peter indicated that he quickly lost perspective on what was happening in his life. He justified himself with the thought that when he had enough money, from stealing or from gambling, he would just be able to stop and then this chapter of his life would be done. But how easy is it to step back from a lifestyle once it has begun? When we participate in evil we are changed in way that cannot be undone without the grace found in Jesus Christ and his atoning sacrifice on the cross. Have you ever deceived yourself in this way believing you can just quit at any time? How? When?
Read James 1: 13 – 15. James give us a clear description of the process of sin. What do you notice in this passage about the relationship between sin and temptation? At what point does sin become sin? What is the result of sin ultimately?
Facing the ugliness of personal sin is an important step in Christian maturity. Until then we can often keep the idea of sin and wrong doing as a mental concept that we can be detached from. Peter’s experience of stealing a purse forced a change in his self-perception. How so? Do what extend do you think you are still coming to terms with the reality of your own sin? Is it still abstract or has it become a personal knowledge?
Knowledge of one’s personal sin is necessary in order to fully understand the value of Jesus as your Savior. As Jesus indicated in the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector Luke 18: 9 - 14, only one of the men left the temple at peace with God. Which one and why? In the same sense, how might a true knowledge of one’s own sinfulness lead to an authentic faith and lasting peace with God?