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Fall 2004 · Vol. 33 No. 2 · pp. 201–206 

Ministry Compass

The World’s Most Dangerous Bible Study

Eric Elnes

Q. Eric, what is “The World’s Most Dangerous Bible Study” and how did it start?

A. “The World’s Most Dangerous Bible Study” is a way of placing the ancient Scriptures into conversation with everyday life using modern music, especially pop music, as a conversation partner. It all started in 1996. I was fresh from Princeton Seminary with a Master of Divinity in hand and was completing work on my doctorate in Old Testament. We were starting a Wednesday afternoon and evening program for children and youth called “Logos,” and as the new pastor and biblical scholar, I was faced with the responsibility of teaching the Bible to middle schoolers and high schoolers. I had never done this before, and as I looked at the youth that I was anticipating teaching, I assessed their interest in and/or commitment to reading the Scriptures and studying them at somewhere less than zero.

A few years ago, in an effort to interest the youth of his congregation in Scripture, Eric Elnes started “The World’s Most Dangerous Bible Study.” It has not only had a great impact on the youth of his church and community, but has sparked national and international interest.

So I looked over the curricula out there, trying to find something to give me at least an example of what to do, and I found that either they {202} seemed too fundamentalistic in approach, or just plain boring—most often both. I figured that if I am bored, the youth are certainly going to be more bored than I am. So I just basically threw them aside and prayed. I asked God, What is at the center of our youth’s world? I thought that perhaps if I could find that center I could step into it and bring my Scriptures along with me somehow, letting them open up within that world to arise naturally there. Well, it didn’t take too long to figure out that if anything is at the center of their world, music is there, and a lot of the music they were listening to at the time, I really enjoyed personally. Thus was born “The World’s Most Dangerous Bible Study.”

Every week we would sit down and play a song, normally chosen by the youth, and listen—normally at a fairly high decibel level—following along with the words I had printed out in advance. When the song was through, we would talk about the major insights, emotions, thoughts, feelings, and ideas of this song. I put up their responses on a white board. Then we would take a Scripture passage which I had chosen in advance and do the same thing. What are the major thoughts, feelings, emotions, ideas, and messages of the passage? Then we would put the two into conversation.

The purpose was neither to say, Look at your evil music and the great Bible by comparison, nor was it to say, See, it all just says the same thing anyway (So why read the Bible?). Rather, it was to create an honest and dynamic conversation. And it worked. In fact, I was surprised at how well it worked. The youth suddenly were very excited about studying the Bible. In fact some of them started to invite their boyfriends to Bible study. Pretty soon the adults got wind of this and said, Why do the youth get to have all the fun? We’d like our own “World’s Most Dangerous Bible Study.” So I started one for all ages, and suddenly found myself with youth and their parents sitting down at tables together talking about life and meaning and God and Scriptures, feeling like they had some common ground.

Q. How would you respond to parents or other pastors who question the appropriateness of using non-Christian music in the church?

A. That’s a good question, and one I am often asked. I have two brief responses to that. The first is, Read your Bible! Look at the Psalms, for instance. Read Psalm 96, or Psalm 98, or Psalm 148. They talk about the trees of the forest shouting for joy to the Lord or the floods clapping their hands or the sea monsters paying homage to God. Christian {203} theologians and thinkers from Karl Barth to Tony Campolo have affirmed that God’s nonhuman creations may offer a form of praise to God.

Well, if we affirm the basic truths of the Scriptures, that even inanimate objects and sea monsters can—even though they are not aware of it—give praise to God, why can’t we affirm this same thing with respect to God’s human creations? Why can’t we say that Pearl Jam or Eric Clapton can praise God whether they are aware of it or not?

My second response really gets to the heart of what Christian faith is all about in its distinctiveness. It might be illustrated like this: If you had a piece of paper in front of you and had the numbers 3, 3, 3, and M, and 3 written on that page, which of those elements on the page would you say is unique?

Q. M?

A. That’s right. M is unique because for all practical purposes it shares nothing in common with any of the other elements. That’s uniqueness or distinctiveness through exclusivity. It’s unique because it shares nothing in common with anything else. Take another blank sheet of paper and imagine on that sheet is written AB, ABC, ABCD, and ABCDE. Now which of these elements is unique?


A. That’s right. Excellent. The reason it’s unique is because it includes more of the possibilities than any of the other sets can. Christian faith works this way, too. Many Christians see themselves as distinct through what they exclude: they are not this, they are not that, they don’t associate with this person or that person or listen to this kind of music or that kind of music. But when you look at the biblical stream of tradition, the Jewish and Christian traditions both really operate out of a focus on the inclusive side of faith identity.

Q. Eric, can you give us an example of “The World’s Most Dangerous Bible Study” that others might try in their own congregations?

A. Sure. There is a popular song we have been having a lot of fun with recently by the group Creed. It’s called “Arms Wide Open” from their CD titled Human Clay. It’s written from the perspective of a new father who has just witnessed the birth of his first son. One of the lines reads, {204}

If I had just one wish
Only one demand
I hope he’s not like me
I hope he understands
That he can take this life
And hold it by the hand
And he can greet the world
With arms wide open.

It continues by repeating “arms wide open, arms wide open, arms wide open.” This song really has a lot of conversational possibilities, especially with the apostle Paul. In First Thessalonians 5, for instance, Paul exhorts his congregation to give thanks to God in all circumstances. In Romans 8 he talks about how all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to God’s purpose—really advocating standing towards life with arms wide open. If you physically hold up your arms wide open toward the world, you find yourself simultaneously welcoming in everything that comes at you—the good and the bad—and at the same time giving thanks for these very things.

Q. What advice would you give to someone who wanted to try this?

A. First I would advise a leader to use what the youth are listening to themselves. Ask them what they are listening to and as much as possible try to use that. My rule of thumb is basically that I will offer any song that they are listening to, provided that it says something meaningful about life. So we have used alternative rock, classic rock, rap, country music—you name it, we have pretty much played it in “The World’s Most Dangerous Bible Study.”

The second thing I would advise people who were just starting on this is to try to avoid gravitating towards songs where, if you replaced the singer’s references to a boy- or girlfriend and replaced them with “God” that it would make the song sound more theological. That really tends to get away from the true power and beauty of “The World’s Most Dangerous Bible Study” because when you replace a girl or a boy with Jesus, you pretty much subvert or co-opt the author’s intention behind the song. You are basically saying, Well, this song is only meaningful if we put Jesus here. I would rather look in the Scriptures at passages that talk about human love for one another and talk on that level when a song is presenting love for a boy- or girlfriend. {205}

Q. How has this Bible study changed the way that youth in your congregation interact with Scripture and participate in church life?

A. There have been a lot of ways all throughout our whole congregation. First of all, I would say “The World’s Most Dangerous Bible Study” isn’t the only way to approach the Scriptures, but it has been a very effective and satisfying way. I am not going to claim that, for instance, when they hear the Creed song, “Arms Wide Open,” they are going to think, “Oh, this reminds me of 1 Thessalonians 5:16.” Rather, when they hear this song, they remember that faith engaged meaningfully and fruitfully with their everyday life. And when that happens, the wheels start spinning. They want to learn more—and keep learning.

The other way it has really affected the youth and the rest of our congregation is through their dramatically heightened interest level in all things relating to our faith. After we started doing this we had youth who had been very much marginalized get involved in a number of areas of congregational life. We even formed a new worship service out of our experience with “The World’s Most Dangerous Bible Study”—a monthly worship service for teens called “” In “” what we did was play about eighty or ninety percent non-Christian, “secular” music—music from the airwaves—using it as core message-bearing material rather than simply “religitainment.” The idea was to bring everyday life into worship so that worship goes back out into everyday life. We considered it our responsibility as worship leaders to draw out and highlight the connections between the music, the faith, and our lives. This worship service eventually led us to forming an all-ages worship service every Sunday morning called The Studio. The Studio takes a similar approach, bringing everyday life into worship so that worship goes into everyday life. [Note: As of this publication, The Studio has been going strong for four years, nearly doubling our worship attendance. Approximately eighty percent of those new to us come from the so-called “unchurched” population.]

Q. Have you seen any impact on the adult members of your congregation?

A. Definitely. First of all, they are not nearly as afraid of bringing everyday life into worship as they were before, and they are not nearly as afraid of our youth. There is a deeper bond between our adults and the youth. In two weeks’ time I will be holding a second session of an all-ages version of “The World’s Most Dangerous Bible Study” because {206} the adults have begun pestering me once again, saying, Why do the youth get to have all the fun?

Q. How did you get the youth into the church, did you advertise for them? How did you get them there in the first place to tell them about this?

A. The youth were a part of our church. Several of them had been in our church several years, long enough to know, really know, that our church loves them. And they had been nurtured by many of the adults in our congregation. They knew we loved them, but they still felt marginalized, heading out of church, not deeper into it. Once the “The World’s Most Dangerous Bible Study” started and subsequently and so forth, they got far more interested. In fact, the same youth who haven’t graduated yet, who are part of the original Bible study, are still very active youth in our congregation.

I recently received a very gratifying e-mail from one of our graduates. She left for Washington University in St. Louis last Fall, and she wrote me about how she was getting settled in. One of the things she just happened to mention as an offhand remark was that she had been attending a church. I thought, Wonderful! Here is this youth who was on her way toward dropping out of church before the “World’s Most Dangerous Bible Study,” who got brought back in very deeply. The first thing she does when she leaves and is outside of our influence is what? Find a church!

Eric Elnes is the Senior Pastor of Scottsdale Congregational United Church of Christ, Scottsdale, Arizona, and a biblical scholar with a Ph.D. in Old Testament from Princeton Theological Seminary, Princeton, New Jersey. He is the author of The Seven Deadly Sins in Abingdon Press’s new Igniting Worship series.
Portions of this interview (held 10/23/00) were originally published in Cloud of Witnesses vol. 1 (January 2001), an audio journal on youth, church, and culture produced by the Princeton Theological Seminary Institute for Youth Ministry. Anyone interested in trying this Bible study with youth in the church may check out Eric’s sample lesson plan on the Cloud of Witnesses Web site, where Eric also gives tips on how to create such Bible studies. Information on The Studio worship service and Scottsdale Congregational UCC may be found at

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