Prepare Him Room: Advent Devotional and Curriculum

If my wife didn’t forbid it, I would play Christmas music all year. I would give (and gladly receive) presents every day. I would sing “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing!” every Sunday. I love Christmastime.

Prepare Him RoomSo I was delighted to hear of Marty Machowski’s new Advent devotional and classroom curriculumPrepare Him Room. By using these resources in the 4 weeks leading up to Christmas, families and churches will lead their children through a study of Old Testament promises, Jesus’ birth narratives, and New Testament explanations of Christ’s person and work. This material ties the entire Bible together in a sound and simple-to-use package. I highly recommend it.

How It Works

If you’re not familiar with Machowski’s other works for children (The Gospel Story for Kids series), an explanation is in order. If you are familiar, and you’d like to get to the meat of my recommendation, you may want to scroll to the next section.

With The Gospel Story for Kids (TGSFK), Machowski developed material for use in both churches and homes. The idea is that church children’s ministries ought to support what parents do at home (duh!), and so the curriculum all fits together. The pieces are:

Long Story ShortYou can use any part of the package independently of the others (for example, if your church doesn’t want the curriculum, but you want to use the family devotionals at home). But if you use them all together, they take your children through the entire Bible in 3 years (a year and a half for each testament), and your children will experience the walk through three times (once at each age level: preschool, lower elementary, and upper elementary). All children and families are studying the same Bible passage each week, in an age-appropriate fashion.

Prepare Him Room works just like the rest of TGSFK series, except that it’s designed just for Advent season. There is a family devotional book, and a CD with lesson plans for classrooms. For those using TGSFK materials, Prepare Him Room will give you a 4-week break to focus on the birth of Christ.

Why I Like It

My church has used TGSFK for over a year now, and we love it. We use the curriculum for ages 3-11, and a church member donated money to give every family with copies of the Bible storybook and family devotionals. We had a special meeting with everyone to kick it off, and I’m scheduled to lead a seminar this Sunday to refresh those who need encouragement to press on in family devotions.

It has not proven to be a magical ambrosia guaranteeing eternal life to all who partake; we still have to train teachers, equip parents, and shepherd children’s messy hearts. Christian discipleship is a heavy business that resists oversimplification and systematization. But these tools have made our job simple and delightful, and here’s why:

  • Machowski focuses on reading the Bible. His materials supplement the Scriptures but do not replace them. Even in the children’s Bible storybook, much space is spent quoting the text of Scripture. The upper elementary curriculum trains students to read and study the Scripture for themselves. Hurrah!
  • Every class lesson explicitly connects the Bible passage to the gospel. No child can escape the weekly mantra: “The gospel is the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ for our salvation.” The most eye-catching part of each lesson plan is the little box explaining how that week’s text preaches the gospel.
  • When every child and family reads the same passages each week, it grows our identity as a community. We have shared material to discuss informally. And every time a teacher reads from the story Bible or devotional, at least one child is guaranteed to shout, “We have that book at home, too!”
  • Gospel Story CurriculumThe family devotions are short. When the subtitle says Ten Minute Devotions to Draw Your Family to God, it speaks truth. We’ve been able to work ours in at dinner time, and it rarely feels like a burden. There are devotions for 5 days per week, but when we’re feeling overwhelmed with our family schedule we can drop the 5th one without losing too much continuity. It hardly takes any time, but without sacrificing depth.
  • The lesson plans are easily adaptable. They give suggestions in 5-10 minute chunks to cover a class up to 80 minutes long. Our church schedule allows for only 40 minutes of class time, but it’s not hard for teachers to figure out which chunks to drop to fit within our constraints.
  • The lessons require little preparation. Of course, the best teachers (not me) spend oodles of time and have terrific lessons. I teach, not because I live to teach children, but because I want to serve. And this curriculum doesn’t cost me too much. I can gather my props in 5 minutes and spend the bulk of my preparation in study and prayer. I’m not chasing down construction paper, wiping off bottles of glue, or picking glitter out of my hair. Perhaps I’m showing too much of my hand, though, and other teachers may prefer supply scavenger hunts.

A Few Qualifications

Though this review is about Prepare Him Room, the Advent devotional and curriculum, I couldn’t review it without reference to the rest of The Gospel Story For Kids series. If you like TGSFK, you’ll love Prepare Him Room. If you’re unfamiliar with TGSFK, Prepare Him Room may be a painless introduction to the model.

As with the rest of TGSFK, you can buy Prepare Him Room as either a set of family devotionals or a classroom curriculum. There are just a few differences with Prepare Him Room, when compared to TGSFK:

  • The family book includes devotionals for just 3 days per week.
  • The family book also includes a 4-chapter story, one chapter per week, to serve as a fourth family time. The story is okay but not great, and I wish there was a fourth devotion in the Scripture each week instead.
  • Sovereign Grace produced a CD of carols old and new to go with Prepare Him Room.
  • For some reason, the fourth week of the Sunday School curriculum doesn’t match up with the fourth week’s family devotional topic.

Though New Growth Press gave me a complimentary copy of Prepare Him Room in exchange for an honest review, I would absolutely buy it if they hadn’t. I’m delighted to recommend it to you.

9 Things Everyone Should Do When Reading the Bible

This article at Relevant Magazine lists 9 simple things anyone and everyone should do when reading the Bible.

  1. Read “king” when you see “Christ.”
  2. Read “you” differently (it’s usually plural, not singular).
  3. If you see a “therefore,” find out what it’s there for.
  4. Realize that not all “if” statements are the same.
  5. Recognize that lamenting is OK.
  6. Realize that prophecy is more often FORTH-telling than FORE-telling.
  7. Become familiar with the idioms of your king.
  8. Remember what you learned in English class.
  9. Read to study. But also, read to refresh your heart.

These are great tips. On the first point, I suggest reading “the Chosen One” instead of “King,” but the article’s general point is sound: “Christ” is a title and not just Jesus’ last name.

Check it out!

Different People are…Different

I would never accuse Kevin of being a people person, but his insight nearly knocked my socks off.

David Sitting (2014), Creative Commons

David Sitting (2014), Creative Commons

We sat in a coffee shop, just days before our college graduation. Kevin had studied mechanical engineering and not philosophy, but that didn’t prevent him from deep reflection in the advent of one of life’s major milestones. Though he had locked himself in a computer lab for the last four years and had only just come up for air, he was able to answer my question with a deliberate clarity I didn’t expect.

“What is the most helpful thing you’ve learned in college?”

“People are so interesting. Each one is different.”

With our schoolwork behind us, we could spend a lazy afternoon unpacking this profound truth together. Kevin shared his regrets: not making more time for friends. I shared mine: not being quicker to see how the differences among people were very good. We committed ourselves to praising God for making so many people so different.

Leading Bible Study

More than 15 years later, this conversation still haunts me when I find myself getting annoyed by people who aren’t like me. Especially people who slow me down. Especially when I’m doing something important like leading a Bible study.

Would you believe there are people who would voluntarily attend a Bible study—knowing full well that it is a discussion group—and never say a word? And others will come who never shut up? And some won’t understand that you call it a Bible study because you intend to study the Bible?

People are different. Their motives are different. Their challenges, experiences, and dreams are different. The Lord’s work in each one is different, and the pace of each person’s spiritual growth is different. But your mission as a leader remains the same:

Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. (2 Timothy 4:2, ESV)

“Complete patience” means I’m not bothered when people are different. “Complete teaching” means my goal for each person remains the same. I strive to preach Christ and him crucified, and I make every effort to see that nobody misses the grace of God.

Seeing the Opportunities

The Unbeliever may help your group to ask questions it never would have considered on its own.

The Aggressive Atheist may tie his own noose—and in so doing, strengthen the faith of young Christians—if he’s not willing to allow the text to speak before he tries to contradict it.

The Speechless Introvert may be the most thoughtful and considerate attendee.

The Tenure-Seeking Lecturer may actually bring some helpful knowledge of theology or historical background to the table.

The Off-Topic Questioner may care more about application than you do.

The Critical Nitpicker may help you to become more clear and effective in your leadership.

The Spontaneous Emoter may be your best recruiter.

The Invulnerable Thinker may be able to develop the best strategy for growing the group.

Truth is singular; people are plural. Good leaders learn to connect the two. Without compromise, and with complete patience.

Answering Kids’ Questions About the Bible

Desiring God posted an article from Jon Bloom called “Be Ready to Answer Your Kids’ Questions About the Bible.”

Christianity stands or falls on the reliability, inspiration, and authority of the Bible. Children pick up on that early. We tell them that they should trust the Bible. At some point they will (and should) ask why (if they feel it’s okay to ask).

He goes on to answer the following questions in language suitable to a 9-year-old.

  1. How do we know the Bible is reliable?
  2. Who decided what should be in the Bible?
  3. How do we know the Bible has no errors in it?
  4. Who can understand the Bible?
  5. Why do we need the Bible to know God?
  6. Does the Bible tell us everything we need to know?

Are you ready to answer these questions? Check it out!

Six Bad Habits in Leading Bible Study

This is a guest post by Andy Cimbala. Andy has a passion for college students to become committed disciples of Jesus Christ, and he loves seeing them lead great Bible studies! Andy & his wife Melissa are the lead campus staff for the DiscipleMakers ministry at Shippensburg University, and he blogs for The Relentless Fight. If you’d like to write a guest post for Knowable Word, please see the guidelines page.
Dennis Larson (2012), Creative Commons

Dennis Larson (2012), Creative Commons

If God can use a silly donkey to speak his word (2 Peter 2:16), he can use anybody. But the wise of heart will use sweetness of speech to increase persuasiveness (Prov 16:21).

Thus, even when truth is present, a bad Bible study can leave participants confused, wondering if they’ll ever understand what the Bible says. But as leaders we can prevent Bible studies from being dull by learning how to study well and how to lead well—and by avoiding at least six bad habits.

1. Winging It

The Spirit of God works as we lead Bible study, and he also works as we prepare for it. Before you lead, spend time in prayer and preparation to discern the main point of the text and to generate some helpful questions to guide the time.

2. Being Vague

When God speaks, he means to communicate something knowable and specific, and what he means is not a matter of one’s own interpretation. Your job as leader is to direct people to the text to discern what the author is saying. Clarity is a rare but precious commodity. Strive for it as you frame the time and ask good questions. Feel free to guide the group by taking tangential discussions offline.

3. Talking a Lot

The answers are in the text and not your brain. Direct the group back into the Bible, and ask questions to help them seek and find the truth there. Be quick to listen and slow to speak. By all means, draw the group out, and dominate the time with God’s voice, not yours.

4. Keeping it Academic

What good is it to understand the point of a passage but never have it change our lives? James says this is like looking in the bathroom mirror but having to pull down the car visor 15 minutes later because you forgot what you looked like (James 1:23-24). When you lead a Bible study, reserve time for application and push folks to grapple with the text’s connection to their lives. Don’t be satisfied with purely cognitive but apparently spiritual answers.

5. Sputtering to the Finish

Leaders are servants, and a great way to serve people is to communicate start and end times—and hold yourself to them. Also, a strong way to end the study might be to restate the main point, summarize a few applications, and close with prayer. You may want to sneak any announcements in before the closing prayer. What you don’t want is for people, who sacrificed time to attend, to wonder whether it was worth it.

6. Neglecting Prayer

Since the Holy Spirit wrote the Scripture, sensible leaders ask his help to understand it. While prayer might not fit your goals for the discussion time itself (particularly if the group’s purpose is outreach to unbelievers), prayer during your preparation expresses dependence on the Lord and gives him the honor he deserves.

May God strengthen you to be an excellent Bible study leader! May you lead with consideration, clarity, and confidence in the author and perfecter of faith. And if your study doesn’t go well, remember that our gracious God can still speak through anyone.

Matthias Media Home Group Leader’s Digest

I recently subscribed to the Home Group Leaders digest from Matthias Media. This digest is a free monthly email with practical tips and encouragement to those who lead small group Bible studies.

The September edition was quite helpful on a number of topics:

  • How to follow up with people whose attendance has been spotty.
  • How to develop closeness in the group outside of the Bible study meeting.
  • Why it’s important not to ask questions that leave people feeling like they have to read your mind.

You can check out the newsletter online, or—even better—subscribe! In the subscription options, just check “The Home Group Leader’s Monthly Digest.”

Announcement: Monday Posts

Your Mondays are about to become less full. Or less bothersome and weary. Or more empty and devoid of wisdom…

With the completion of my Proverbs series, I’ve found myself in something of an existential crisis. “All things are full of weariness…The eye is not satisfied with seeing nor the internets filled with blog posts” (Eccl 1:8, translation according to a recent re-interpretation of the Hebrew text). In addition, my wife will soon groan in the pains of childbirth (Rom 8:22) as our new baby arrives in power and great glory sometime around Thanksgiving.

So I’ve decided to reduce my posting to twice per week for a time.

You might ask, “How long?” And you wouldn’t be the first (Psalm 13:1). And I’d be tempted to retort with something like, “Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is a desolate waste” (Is 6:11), but I won’t.

So for now we’ll just all have to content ourselves with Knowable Word posts on Wednesdays and Fridays, and we’ll be blessed if we do (Phil 4:11-12).

Ask Good Application Questions

This is a guest post by Ryan Higginbottom, Associate Professor of Mathematics at Washington & Jefferson College in Washington, PA. When he’s not solving differential equations or blogging at A Small Work, he loves spending time with his wife and two daughters. He also leads a small group Bible study for his church. If you’d like to write a guest post for Knowable Word, please see the guidelines page.

Welcome to the most uncomfortable part of your small group Bible study. Regardless of how energetic the discussion has been, getting personal will be hard work. Your group may float on the momentum of observation and interpretation like a shiny soap-bubble on a breezy spring day, yet that bubble can pop as soon as you transition to application. Safety and abstraction give no further covering. You’re asking people to reshape their thinking and their lives according to the Word of God, and such requests normally feel uncomfortable.

Serge Melki (2010), Creative Commons

Serge Melki (2010), Creative Commons

But don’t shy away from the discomfort! When you discuss the work of God to conform us to the image of Christ, any tension you feel is evidence of progress. When you lead your group through the awkwardness, your courage will be infectious.

Lead the Group in Application

First, apply the text to yourself. A leader who hasn’t already made personal application from the text is like a skinny chef, an unkempt barber, or a disheveled tailor. If the text hasn’t changed you, you’ll have little capital with which to invest in others’ change. In fact, the areas where God’s word has most powerfully affected you will likely be the ones that stand out the most to your group. So, as you plan your study, apply the Bible to your own life. Build such application into your preparation.

Second, ask a general question. In my small group, I usually transition to application with a generic, open-ended question: “How can we apply this text?” On this fishing trip, I wait five seconds before cutting bait. I’m looking for any pointed, clear work of the Spirit, because sometimes God will bring conviction and insight for change to the mind of a group member as we meet. I don’t want to bottle that up, but to allow room for spontaneous eruptions of confession and grace-dependent plans to change.

Third, ask specific questions. This work is hard but good. People don’t often respond to big, broad questions but need help to consider specific applications. To stimulate your preparation, consider the two directions and the three spheres of application. Additionally, consider applications for individuals as well as for the group and/or church/ministry as a whole. You won’t have time to touch on every area of application every week, but make sure that you balance the categories over the weeks and months so the group doesn’t list too much in one direction.

Case Study

Consider an example. Last week I suggested the following as the main point of Isaiah 25:1-12:

Praise God! He will swallow up death, and He gives us glimpses of that now.

Here are some potential application questions that flow from this main point:

  • How could you live as though God will swallow up death? What gets in the way? What glimpses do you now see that can remind you of God’s victory?
  • What opportunities do you have to speak about God’s victory over death? To your children? To your neighbors? To your coworkers? How do they view death? What glimpses of God’s victory might they now see?
  • If God will swallow up death, how will that affect our approach to risk-taking? What keeps you from taking risks? How can we help each other take God-glorifying risks?
  • How can we remind each other that God will swallow up death? To what “now” glimpses can we point?

Final Thoughts

Here are some final ideas to help you ask better application questions.

  1. Questions belong to you; conviction belongs to the Holy Spirit. By all means, study, think, and pray in your preparation. But remember you cannot convict sinners of their sin. The Holy Spirit holds this job. Your job is to ask questions that lead to applications of the text and to share how God has changed you through this study. You must labor in faith, knowing that you can plant or water but that God causes the growth. (1 Cor 3:5–9)
  2. Be specific and personal in your questions. As the members of your group get to know each other, you will start to know where others battle against sin. So, as the moment allows, you can ask specific application questions that tap into the group’s shared history. “Jane, a few weeks ago you mentioned that you often don’t know how to offer hope to your coworkers. Can you think of a way to bring the truth from tonight’s passage to anyone specifically?” Be sensitive to personalities and confidences, but leverage this great benefit of a small group: giving and receiving help in targeted, personal, specific ways.
  3. Ask honest questions. If you ask a question and it is clear to your group that you are expecting only one correct answer, you’re not encouraging discussion, and the group may feel manipulated. See how the group responds to suggestions, but leave room for the Holy Spirit to push the changes through.
  4. Connect your application to Jesus. Too often Christians leave Bible studies in a rush of grit and determination rather than a dependence on God’s grace. Though a burst of adrenaline may enable you to push a car for a few feet, that’s no way to cross the country. We need Jesus’ life and death for us all the time, both for forgiveness when we fail and for strength to obey. And as the group leader, this must sink deeply into your heart so you can guard your friends against the let’s-go-do-this-woo-hoo application fever.

What have you found helpful in regard to asking application questions in Bible studies?

6 Ways to Benefit from Reading Genealogies

Writing for the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, Matthew Holst has some very helpful tips for one of the most difficult Bible genres for modern readers.

The genealogies in Scripture are so important that it may rightly be said that we cannot fully see the glory of the metanarrative (i.e. the storyline) of the Bible without them.

His 6 tips are:

  1. Read them.
  2. Pay attention to every word.
  3. Pay attention to every missing word.
  4. Consider how they remind us of life and death.
  5. Consider how they present to us two seeds.
  6. Consider how they present to us a faithful, promise-fulfilling, covenant-keeping God.

We get out of genealogies from what time we are willing to put in. If we are prepared to spend the time, do the work and be guided by the Spirit, we will be presented with potted-histories of God’s kindness to man. So we must read the genealogies of Scripture and study them. They, like every other part of Scripture, are profitable for doctrine, reproof, correction and instruction in righteousness, that you may be made perfect, equipped for every good work  (2 Timothy 3:16).

Check it out!

The End of Wisdom

Teti-Tots (2010), Creative Commons

Teti-Tots (2010), Creative Commons

This is my last post about Proverbs 1-9, and I end where Solomon ends—with a warning. Though folly looks a lot like wisdom, don’t let it deceive you. It will flatter you, trick you, and end you.

The woman Folly is loud;
she is seductive and knows nothing.
She sits at the door of her house;
she takes a seat on the highest places of the town,
calling to those who pass by,
who are going straight on their way.
“Whoever is simple, let him turn in here!”
And to him who lacks sense she says,
“Stolen water is sweet,
and bread eaten in secret in pleasant.”
But he does not know that the dead are there,
that her guests are in the depths of Sheol. (Prov 9:13-18, ESV)

I’ve listed extensive comparisons and contrasts between the feasts of wisdom and folly. In this post, I simply want to warn you of 4 things that look like wisdom but are not. They have ensnared many in our day.

Materialism

Some find their life and security in their abundance of possessions. Others react and find their life and security in their lack of possessions. Both are fools, though they often think themselves wise. Money is neither a god to be worshiped nor a demon to be exorcised. It is a tool useful for building God’s kingdom. It makes friends; it persuades kings. But God can give it or take it away as he pleases, and the wise will bow to him alone.

Sensuality

Some think sex will make them happy. Others react and treat it as something unfit to be discussed in Bible study. Both are fools, though they often think themselves wise. Sex is neither the chief end of man nor the fruit of the fall. The wise won’t ignore the temptation common to man, to abuse this gift. And the wise won’t wield the subject like a taser, merely for its shock value. But…what can I say? The wise husband loves his wife’s breasts (Prov 5:19). And the wise wife will find things about her husband that are equally intoxicating (Song 1:2).

Autonomy

“If you are wise, you are wise for yourself” (Prov 9:12). But that doesn’t mean you can be wise by yourself. Nor that you get to decide what is wise (Gen 3:6). Wisdom begins with the fear of the Lord, and it ends when instruction goes despised and unheeded. Those who have their act together may have an appearance of wisdom, but they deny wisdom’s true power to change and guide anyone (Prov 1:5).

Authoritarianism

Some fools believe their role or authority gives them value and power over people. Those who support such folly are fools themselves. A sanitized version of this folly exists in our churches when leaders are willing to tell their people what to do without being expected to show their people how to do it.

Now I’m not without guilt here. I drink these four poisons, and a thousand more, daily. The point of Proverbs is not to consign us to our folly but to expose the counterfeits so we might crave something more sumptuous.

Let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. (Heb 12:1-2)