JACKSON, Tenn. (BP) -- A.J. Jacobs describes himself as Jewish "in the same way the Olive Garden is an Italian restaurant." Yet, this secular agnostic set out to "follow the Bible as literally as possible" for a year. The product? A 2008 bestseller titled, "The Year of Living Biblically," in which we find example after example of the hilarity and futility of taking passages of Scripture out of their contexts and removing "Bible living" from biblical community.

Over the past 18 months hundreds of churches across North America have participated in quite a different kind of "year of living biblically," seeking to immerse their members in a deeper experience of God's Word through a whole-church training and reading program. "Read the Bible for Life" (www.readthebibleforlife.com) was shaped to help churches go deeper in the Word in two ways: 1) by training people to read the Bible better and 2) by offering a whole-church experience of reading through the Bible together.

I have had the privilege of walking with many of these churches, and Baptist Press has invited me to reflect on my experiences.

First, I have been reminded that the Word, in and of itself, has the power to change lives. I have received so much positive feedback from church leaders about dynamic changes that have taken place in the lives of individuals, small groups and whole congregations as they have simply immersed themselves in God's good Word. Just the other day I heard from First Baptist Church in Salisbury, N.C., which did a whole-church Read the Bible for Life (RBL) training this fall and saw a 30 percent increase in Sunday School over the previous year. This dynamic church also is having an impact on other churches in their region and taking RBL training into various mission contexts.

There are many other churches from Upper Marlboro, Md., to Fairfield, Calif., from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan to The Woodlands, Texas, that have visionary leadership leading their congregations in a deeper experience of the Word, and this is very, very encouraging. Pastors have told me of people coming to Christ, strengthening their marriages, and moving to a much deeper commitment to discipleship simply by a consistent, personal reading of the Word.

I think of Mr. L.B. Hadley, a man with only a sixth-grade education, who read the entire Bible in three months, or a lady from Pennsylvania named Marilyn who had never attended a Bible study but got drawn into her church's small-group experience as they read the Word through together. And I think of a guy named Michael who got drawn into the story of Scripture while his church was reading Leviticus (!) and gave his life to Christ.

Second, I have noticed consistent patterns among those churches that are experiencing the greatest impact from Read the Bible for Life. Let me mention four:

1) High-impact churches have leaders who realize biblical discipleship is grounded in a personal engagement with the Word, not passive reception of teaching and preaching. Research of the past 20 years is quite clear: Regular church attenders who read the Bible on a daily basis are those who are most likely to be growing spiritually. Those who are not reading regularly, regardless of the sermons they hear and the Bible studies they attend, are not thriving in their walks with Christ.

2) High-impact churches have leaders who are modeling their own deeper experience of the Word. Pastors who have preached through the story of Scripture as their congregations have read through the Bible share from their own overflow, modeling sound interpretation and personal application.

3) High impact churches have a vision for whole-church training in how to read the Bible better, since people cannot live what they do not understand.

(4) High-impact churches have leaders who are thinking beyond a momentary "plug-and-play" model of biblical literacy training to a long-term training process that changes the way people engage the Bible.

The great Bible translator William Tyndale, who forfeited his life for rendering the Bible in common English, described his motivation with, "I perceived how that it was impossible to establish the lay people in any truth except the Scripture were plainly laid before their eyes in their mother tongue." In Tyndale's day, God was in the process of reforming the church by making the Bible available to common people. We need another reformation today. Now the issue is not availability of the Bible but the ability of our people to engage the Word at deeper, life-changing levels. God is moving powerfully in churches to that end, but a great deal of work remains to be done.

George H. Guthrie is the Benjamin W. Perry Professor of Bible at Union University in Jackson, Tenn., and author of the book "Read the Bible for Life." For tools and testimonies related to the Read the Bible for Life initiative, click here.

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