The First Amendment codifies the right of Americans to freely assemble. The French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville said the “art of joining” into “voluntary societies” is the “fundamental art of democracy.” Edmund Burke, the English philosopher, said the strength of any society came not from the rugged individual acting alone, but in what he called “little platoons,” neighbors gathered in local communities all across a nation solving local problems and providing mutual aid and support.
Perhaps one of the most successful proliferations of these “little platoons” over the past half century has been the growth of Bible Study Fellowship (BSF). It has become one of the largest (though least known – more about that later) of the major evangelical Christian ministries operating in the United States.
BSF began in 1959 when a small group of women heard China Inland Mission’s Audrey Wetherell Johnson speak at a church in California. They asked Johnson to lead them in Bible study. She agreed to do so, but only if they were willing to dive deeply into scripture. “I will not spoon-feed you,” she told them.
And she did not. But the depth and rigor of the Bible study did not repel people. It attracted them. That first Bible study outgrew two homes before settling in a local church. The women took advantage of an increase interest in discipleship motivated in part by a six-week long Billy Graham Crusade that had taken place in San Francisco the year before to start more Bible studies around the Bay area. Berkeley, with its large population of students from all over the United States and abroad, became a breeding ground for more BSF leaders. From Berkeley began BSF’s international ministry, and students who returned home founded classes in their home towns.
BSF continued to grow in this organic, word-of-mouth manner until today. Last year was BSF’s biggest year ever. After falling to below 200,000 members a decade ago, BSF has since then been on a dramatic growth curve. Last year, more than 400,000 members attended more than 1200 classes. The classes are mostly in churches, and can range in size from a few dozen to 500 or more. The ministry operates in more than 40 countries.
Given BSF’s beginnings, it is perhaps not surprising that it remains overwhelmingly female. Though men’s groups have been around since the 1960s, today only about 20 percent of members are men. And in the evangelical world, where it is hard to find women in senior leadership at the largest ministries, BSF’s presidents have been women since the beginning. Since 2009, Susie Rowan has led the ministry from a 279-acre campus headquarters near San Antonio, Tex., and it has been under her leadership that the ministry has exploded in growth. She leads a team of just under 100 employees and manages an annual budget of nearly $30-million. But the real power firepower of BSF is in its volunteers, which number nearly 50,000.
BSF has changed over the years. In the early days, according to a BSF leader who has been involved in the ministry for more than 25 years, “it was part Bible study, part military boot camp.” Leaders had a strict dress code that included coats and ties for men and skirts and dresses for women. Members might be turned away from a weekly meeting for being late, or for not having that week’s lesson completed.
Under Susie Rowan’s leadership, the rules have relaxed dramatically. She recently told Christianity Today, “When this organization was founded, we were just coming out of World War II and everyone liked rules. We are in a world now that’s all about individual freedoms. Words like ‘rigidity’ were used to describe us, and that had to change. I think that was part of my calling to bring that change.”
But the rigors of the study itself have not. Classes typically last two hours, and include a time of worship, discussion and fellowship in small groups, and a lecture. The BSF curriculum goes through the entire 66 books of the Bible every 10 years. For the first 25 years of the ministry’s history, most of the studies were written by Audrey Wetherell Johnson herself. Since 1980, materials are written by both staff and external experts that have included Walter Kaiser and James Montgomery Boice.
Bible Study Fellowship has had a massive impact on evangelicalism. BSF didn’t keep membership records in its early days, but it is likely that millions of people have been members over the years. Still, BSF remains one of the church’s “best kept secrets.” According to Christianity Today, “A 2015 Barna study found that more than 50 percent of adult Christians familiar with BSF rate it very positively. Yet BSF was also one of the least-familiar organizations among church leaders, who recognize The Navigators, Cru, and FCA as leaders at enabling discipleship.”
However, with the dramatic growth the ministry has seen in the past decade, and given the power of the “little platoons” in thousands of churches all around the world, it seems likely that evangelicalism’s “best kept secret” will remain a secret no more.
Image: Bible Study Fellowship