Christian LivingMinistry

Thinking things through biblically as a layperson: An interview with Alison Barratt

What does your ministry role currently look like?

I work at a church in the North East of England and my role currently involves working primarily with women and children. I took over responsibility for the children’s work just as Covid hit us (previously I had been doing women’s ministry), so I’m not sure I really know what my role really looks like! 

Over the last 16 months it’s been lots online – Bible Studies for women, daily assemblies for children, Sunday ministry with children. Thankfully in more recent months we’ve been able to do more in person, so I’ve been trying to make the most of seeing people and meeting up with women who are having a particularly tough time, as well as running weekly kids’ work and a holiday Bible Club. I think it will take time to settle so it will be interesting to see what plans the Lord has for my role in the coming months.

Why has it been important for you to think things through biblically?

I have been part of a faithful Bible teaching church for many years and I’m really grateful for the ways that the leaders put in lots of work to teach us from God’s word. It would be easy to simply ride on their coat tails and to let them do all of the work, accepting their conclusions and trying to prayerfully put them in to practice. However, for a number of reasons, I’ve been convicted that this isn’t enough: the leaders that God has provided for us are not infallible and so I need to check what they are saying against God’s word; there may be things that I want to think through that they’re not thinking about; there might be things that I should be teaching to the women that might not be taught that frequently to the mixed congregation. But above all, I have God’s words in my hands so why would I not dig in to it to see what he has to say to me, and maybe to others through me?

What do you do when you have a topic to think through?

I have a range of different ways of thinking things through, depending on what it is and why I am thinking about it. At the quickest level I would probably ask a friend who has thought through the topic what they think. I would then weigh it up and come to a conclusion. 

Thinking through other topics, I might read a book or two or listen to talks. I am currently thinking about how children’s group leaders can complement the primary work going on at home as parents seek to raise their children in the fear and love of the Lord. I have listened to a few talks from the  Effective Ministry website and I’ve just bought a book to read to think it through further.

Other times I want to think things through more deeply and I want to do that by starting with God’s word and then working from there. A few years ago I was giving a talk on the topic of humility so I used this method then. I start by going on the Bible Gateway website. I pick out one or two words that sum up the topic and look them up – so in the case of humility I looked up the words humble, humility, proud and pride. I copy and paste all of the Bible references that come up into a document – sometimes there are hundreds so things can feel a little daunting at this stage but I try to stick with it! I then go through the references very quickly and delete any that don’t seem relevant to what I want to think about. I then print off the rest of the verses and get my coloured pens out. While coloured pens are definitely not essential they make the process more fun as I go through and try to get a rough picture of what God’s word is saying. I highlight common themes or repeated ideas and try to group the verses. I also try to come up with the main passages where I think I need to spend my time. So with the talk on humility it became clear that I could look at Jesus’ humility from Philippians 2 and our humility from James 4. 

After that I would then try to dig deeper into a few key passages and do the things that we probably all do when looking at any passage – thinking about what it says, what it means, what the context is, how it’s applied, etc. I’d probably also, at this stage, read a book on the topic. As with all of us, I’d love more time to read but it’s limited so I try to pick carefully. Looking at books at this stage, rather than the first stage, helps me to think through them in light of what God’s word says, and not the other way around. For instance, I spent a while looking at the topic of idolatry. We use the word ‘idolatry’ in a very general sense to mean anything in our lives that we put before God and yet it was really helpful for me to see, by looking up all the Bible verses on it, that this isn’t the primary way the Bible uses the word. When the Bible speaks of idols it is speaking primarily about a statue or a false god, or an image of God. Had I started with other books written about idolatry I don’t think I would have spotted this distinction.

Finally, I try to pull things together by writing down what I’ve learnt. If I am thinking things through because I am giving a talk, then my written thinking becomes the basis for the talk. If not, then I still try to write down what I’ve learnt. This is mostly because I’ll very quickly forget what I’ve learnt, but also, the process of writing things down helps me to see what I’ve understood and what still needs more thinking.

What sorts of topics have you looked at using this method?

I’ve looked at all sorts of different things – friendship, making the most of the time, loving others, forgiveness…

Why do this ourselves when we have ministry staff/books/podcasts/other resources that do this and regularly dish it up for us?

There is obviously no end to the things we can listen to and read and we can benefit so much from the work of others – from books on grief to podcasts on biblical womanhood, from articles on prayer to sermons on the Trinity. And I am definitely a big fan of the good things we learn from. There might also be times when we need the skills of others to help us to understand some things, e.g. there are different Hebrew and Greek words for worship and the different words are often translated into our one English word ‘worship’. I wouldn’t have known this just from reading what the Bible has to say about worship. I needed a book written by someone who could read the Bible in the original languages to point this out. Using an interlinear translation of the Bible I can find the Greek word to see if patterns of squiggles are the same or different from another time the word is used, but squiggle spotting is about my limit!

However there is nothing like the joy of digging in to God’s word for ourselves and finding the treasures within that the Spirit reveals to us. We would be foolish not to make good use of the resources around us but never at the expense of looking at the Bible for ourselves. 

Where do you go when you get stuck?

When I get stuck, or even when I’m just wrestling with what I’m thinking, I chat to others. I ask people who can read the Greek or the Hebrew to tell me what an individual word means. I talk to people who have done more thinking on the topic. I might ask one of the people I work with what their understanding is. Above all though, I need to pray for God’s help when I am stuck. I’m never going to understand all there is to know on a topic and I will often get things wrong and so I need God’s help and equipping as I study and think.

Have there been any topics that you’ve not been able to tackle using this method?

I don’t think there would be any reason not to look at any topic in this way, although I think some feel a bit too big to do like this. For example, thinking about the Trinity in this way might be a bit too hard. The Bible doesn’t use the word ‘Trinity’ and so typing that into Bible Gateway wouldn’t get you anywhere, while typing in the words ‘God’, ‘Father’, ‘Son’, ‘Jesus’ and ‘Spirit’ would bring up more references than I would be able to handle! But I think topics like this would be few and far between, and even with the topics with thousands of references you could make a start and see how far you get. 

Any tips for things to do/avoid when trying this out?

Start small. There are about 150 references to grace and to mercy in the ESV, while there are 500 or so references to prayer or pray and a similar number to wisdom, and there are nearly 1,200 references to the word ‘word’ (which is what I want to think about next!) 

Try to avoid jumping to what other people have to say before you’ve looked at it yourself. It seems easier (and it probably is) but I think it is less beneficial in the long run.

Any resources that you’ve found particularly helpful?

As I’ve mentioned a few times Bible Gateway is my go-to resource. You can type in any word or passage and it will bring it up. You can look in different versions of the Bible to see how things are translated. You can probably do lots of other things with it too – but I still prefer paper and coloured pens! When it comes to other resources, coffee doesn’t necessarily need to play any role – but personally I don’t think you can beat a good flat white and a biscuit whilst thinking things through!