In the book of Acts, the Apostle Paul had the privilege of presenting the gospel at the Areopagus in Athens, that is, Mars Hill (Acts 17:19).

For the last seventeen years, First Fruits of Zion has had the privilege of presenting the gospel at a different Mars Hill, namely Mars Hill Bible Church in Grandville, Michigan, where Torah Club groups have been meeting for nearly two decades. Mars Hill Bible Church began in 1999 under the leadership of the progressive and controversial pastor Rob Bell.

In the summer of that year, Boaz Michael met with the eldership team to share the vision and mission of First Fruits of Zion. The entire eldership team, because of this meeting, went through the HaYesod program. The perspectives presented in HaYesod, influences from the late Dwight Pryor, and ongoing learning through the Torah Club influenced the congregation and Pastor Bell’s early teachings.

Here’s a video promo from the Mars Hill Torah Club program:

Credit: Video produced by Torah Club Group in Grand Rapids, MI.

As First Fruits of Zion prepares to launch our new approach to Torah Club community groups and study fellowships in the fall of 2018, we thought it would be a good idea to check in with our largest, most successful Torah Club group leaders and get their input. I contacted Mary Huizen, who has administered the Torah Club program at Mars Hill for most of the last eighteen years. Mary, along with Matt Fulk, the current administrator, agreed to answer a few questions about the Mars Hill Torah Club groups.

FFOZ: For those who are unfamiliar with Mars Hill Bible Church (MHBC), give us a brief history of the congregation, and tell us about Mars Hill.

Matt: We are a Bible church, non-denominational, with a high concentration of young families and young people. Theologically we would be middle or more liberal, less conservative—considered progressive, forward thinking. We are a social-justice minded and action-oriented congregation. We’re a relatively young church—only nineteen years old. The church experienced explosive growth early on, and that has tapered off the past five years.

After bringing on a new teaching pastor last year, there has been an emphasis on deepening one’s faith and spiritual practices while maintaining discussions about how to make one’s faith active and culturally relevant. A broader discussion about spiritual practices such as prayer, fasting, and solitude has also grown.

FFOZ: The annual Mars Hill Torah Club groups are both the largest and longest-running group study and bulk subscription in the whole Torah Club program. Can you tell us the story of how Torah Club got started here at Mars Hill?

Mary: Three couples used Torah Club as an off-campus small group. They thought it would be a good idea to propose it to the rest of the church, so they announced it one Sunday morning, and sixty to seventy people showed up. After that there was a steady group for a while, and each group had a mentor.

A key here at MHBC was Rob Bell. He had an interest in the Hebrew Roots; he preached it, and people listened and were curious. You need to have a pastor encouraging that aspect of the Bible. He was the catalyst. A woman in the Torah Club group, who also happened to be his secretary, introduced him to Torah Club. She would leave the weekly portion on his desk each week.

FFOZ: How many years has the program been going at MHBC?

Mary: I started administrating in 2000, so nearly eighteen years.

FFOZ: Tell us about your role as an administrator of the Torah Club groups at MHBC.

Mary: As an administrator, my job was mostly meeting people, getting materials, and dealing with any difficulties and mediating in any of the groups. I got a lot of insight and help from talking about situations with my own study group. I helped determine which materials a group should use and figured out who would be best to mentor each new group. Those were the two main questions I had to answer: which Torah Club to study and who to mentor the group.

FFOZ: Matt, when did you get involved with the Mars Hill Torah Club? Tells us a little about your journey.

Matt: I started in the fall of 2014. I am just now starting my fourth year of the study. It has been revolutionary and refortifying to my faith. It’s been challenging—personally, intellectually, and spiritually. My mind has been expanded a thousand-fold in my understanding of spirituality, who God is, the Hebrew language, and the people of Israel. I’ve been exposed to the infinite expansiveness of the wisdom and revelation of God. I’ve also benefited greatly from the voices and edification of my friends in the study. Their testimonies and insights have encouraged me weekly.

FFOZ: How many Torah Club groups are there at Mars Hill?

Matt: Currently we have five or six groups running. In the past we’ve even had multiple groups of the respective yearly material studies. There might have been three groups of year 1 studies going on concurrently.

FFOZ: How do your group leaders administer the program?

Mary: We have one administrator (Matt), who moves between the groups, and new groups have a mentor for eight weeks. After eight weeks, the mentor goes back into one of the other groups of which they were originally a part. The group discussions are then led by the members with oversight from the administrator.

The idea is to get people participating instead of just being led and told the answers. We also incorporate food and snacks into the meetings. We start and end with a prayer. All the groups’ rooms are in close proximity to one another. That allows the administrator to communicate with each group each time they meet.

FFOZ: Can you describe a typical Mars Hill Torah Club meeting?

Matt: All the groups gather at the church, in their respective rooms, at seven each Monday evening. Each group opens with prayer, maybe has some snacks, then dives into answering the weekly study questions. Each person comes having already read the material and answered the questions from the end of each portion. Some groups follow the printed questions closely; others allow for people to ask their own questions. The first-year groups typically have a mentor who helps get the conversation going and adds his or her understanding to answer the diversity of questions that arise. Each group studies until nine, closes with prayer, and promptly exits before the church locks the doors at nine thirty.

A few groups have been involved long enough to have gone through each year’s curriculum, and often they go through independent books or switch on and off with various resources. It’s a small-group format with an emphasis on the content and the study, but by default the people also become friends, begin sharing their lives, and grow closer to one another.

FFOZ: What kind of reactions does the material elicit?

Matt: Some people absorb it instantly and are in love with the content. Others face a major paradigm shift and are overwhelmed and tend to drop out. Others realize that this is exactly what they have been waiting and looking for.

Mary: We encourage a discussion format, not a leader telling students something. Being willing to open yourself to new ideas without questioning your faith is important here. Not questioning your faith but asking, “What does this mean for us today?” Our emphasis in each group is on helping people answer, “What is the application?” Some students will share, “Well, this is what it is saying and meaning to me,” and we appreciate hearing how the Word is working in people’s lives. But people have to be open, ready, and looking for more; they need to have open hearts. Those are the people who come to this study and stick with it.

FFOZ: Why do you think Torah Club is valuable in a church context?

Matt: The material introduces people to the Creator, the God who is there. It teaches precepts, principles, ideas, spirituality. It gives endless amounts of realizations about God’s character, and people are left asking what to do with that. It gives a tremendous amount of understanding to better know the rest of the story.

FFOZ: Mars Hill Torah Club groups were unhappy with Torah Club’s transition to the case-bound editions. You preferred the old loose-leaf binder editions. Tell us about that.

Mary: The loose-leaf binder felt more like a Bible study, and it was easier to interact with it, to highlight, to take notes in. It invited the student to interact and wrestle with it.

Matt: Increased cost was a major concern. It’s hard for people to commit the time every week, and the cost is a difficulty for some as well. Most could afford the bulk subscription rate, but utilizing the other formats meant a greater cost per year. The case-bound also required us to have more books, more material, which meant more to manage and keep track of and store. If and when you multiply that by five or six years of attendance, a person needs a lot of space to store the materials.

The binders allowed people to take a portion at a time with them to their group and then simply reinsert that portion back into the binder when their group time was over. It was convenient, utilitarian, more approachable. When the whole experience is somewhat overwhelming, having a more manageable format for the physical materials helps make it seem less overwhelming. The binder format was just easy to work with, easy to write in, easy to add to with the various handouts we use or find independently and share. The binder was like our schoolwork during our college years. We’re used to a format that facilitates being in a student mind-set, and I think that really lent itself well to the overall class and study experience.

FFOZ: Do you have any advice for us as we retool the group-study experience for the fall of 2018?

Mary: For this study to work, it needs a combination of three things: a supportive and aligned pastor, a regular teaching that connects to the content, and open and hungry people. I also think an emphasis on the small-group approach with mentors might be a good way to look at this, if you aren’t already. Keep with the notebooks and discussion format, not a lecture style.

Matt: It needs to have demonstrated relevance. Torah Club could be like a Bible translator who understands the ancient Near Eastern linguistic and cultural meaning and is able to restate that to modern-day students. That is one of the things at which Rob Bell excelled. Things get lost in translation going both ways over the millennia. Perhaps you could offer leadership-development tracks with training in Hebrew and group mentoring. You could develop online group chats for leaders who face tough questions and issues head on. Leaders could compare notes, engage in group prayer, encourage one another, and offer intentional prayers for the groups they are overseeing. Teach mentors how to mentor.

Perhaps you could connect Torah Club groups with other groups in surrounding areas, maybe allow access to a shared mailing list so groups could reach out to others in their area whom they didn’t know existed.

Mary: Make sure food happens. The groups that eat together stay together.