by Anna Ferraro
Observers driving down Morton Avenue may often note that on Tuesday mornings, the parking lot of Lincoln Avenue Baptist Church is filled to capacity (and sometimes, beyond capacity). Coming from all across Jacksonville and the surrounding towns, individuals from any denomination gather for a Bible study that meets each of them at the point where they are in life.
Deb Burrus, the current coordinator for Explorer’s Bible Study (EBS), shared, “EBS is unique in that students come with prepared answers to homework directly from the Bible itself. Members have pondered the Scripture for themselves and look forward to sharing with others what they have learned. The lessons ask students to not only read God’s word but to apply the Biblical principles to their lives. Students learn what the Bible says, what it means, and how to apply it in daily life.”
For decades, this meaningful gathering has given direction and encouragement to young and old alike. Burrus shared a bit of their history saying, “Back in the 1970s, Mrs. Carolyn Elias, a native of Arkansas, came to Jacksonville, Illinoia, when her husband Barney was working on the Turner High Rise. Carolyn had been a student in a Bible study in Arkansas called Bible Study Fellowship. A four-fold method guides students: homework with questions requiring written answers, discussion with fellow students, lecture by a trained teaching leader, and written commentary for each week’s lesson. Carolyn participated in the Bill Glass Evangelistic Crusade in Jacksonville and realized the need for follow-up Bible instruction after the crusade. She taught three years writing her own material but in fall 1976 began using Explorer’s Bible Study material. A former Bible study fellowship teaching leader, Mrs. Nellie Constance, authored the original EBS material. The EBS courses are open to groups of any size, and utilize the four-fold study method: homework, discussion, lecture and commentary.”
In those early days, there were several teachers assisting Elias with the Jacksonville class, including Melita Graber, administrator Miriam Anderson and helper Mary Jean Cannell. While that was many years ago, Burrus shared a fun fact – two original members continued attending the Tuesday Explorer’s class as recently as 2016 – Marian Hinderliter and Jean Shafer.
In 1986, Janet Chipman, a longtime area resident, began teaching and filled the leadership role in Jacksonville for several years. When Chipman left EBS to follow her passion to teach elementary students, Deb Burrus, from rural Arenzville, became the teacher. Burrus shares, “The first course I taught was a survey of the book of Isaiah in 1989; I’m teaching through the book of Isaiah again this year.”
Burrus’ involvement with EBS began in 1978 when her friend, Ruth Werries, invited her to attend. Burrus shares, “Like most guests, I soon became an enthusiastic member.” One of the most special moments of Burrus’ life occurred during an EBS class in 1978. Burrus reminisced about the experience, saying, “Mrs. Carolyn Elias had finished her teaching of the Bible passage and was praying at the end of the session. I don’t remember the exact words of her prayer, but she challenged students to examine their lives and ask themselves, ‘Are you serious about being a disciple and allowing Jesus to order your life? Or are you merely acting like a Christian and trying to run your own life?’ That was a pivotal moment for me. I said silently in the pew that day, ‘Jesus, I want you to be in charge. Here I am if you’ll take me.’ And He did. And He does.”
In looking back on her years of involvement, Burrus summarized, “I can personally say that God has used the vehicle of Explorer’s Bible Study to reorient my life from self-centered to Jesus-centered. I exist to glorify God. My passion is to intimately know God and His truth and to communicate this truth with others.”
With that passion in her heart and guiding her life, Burrus continues participating today in the role of teaching leader. She described her role as follows, saying, “I train and encourage the eight group discussion leaders and support staff in a preparation meeting every Monday morning. We spend time in prayer for our students as well as discussing our own lessons in preparation for the class on Tuesday.”
Together, Burrus and her team work to fulfill the mission statement of Explorer’s Bible Study as summarized on their website, “Explorer’s Bible Study is a non-denominational, non-profit organization whose purpose is to invite all to a closer walk with God through in depth study of God’s Word. For over 40 years, we have encouraged community-based adult Bible studies in host churches. These classes welcome anyone interested to join and are designed to encourage participation from a variety of the churches in the community. The focus of the class is on what the Bible says and application of the message to real life. Explorer’s has courses for all ages, from preschool through adult. We are recognized as one of the leading providers of Bible curriculum for homeschooling. We design workbooks for students that encourage personal discovery of what the Bible says, coupled with application to real life. They can be for personal study or done together as a family.”
Over the years, EBS has been sustained through the work of many volunteers who have helped in the areas of leading discussion, handling administration, and providing childcare for children under the age of five while their parents or guardians are participating in the study.
While EBS is an interdenominational group, and has been a guest at many churches in Jacksonville in their 41 years of existence locally, they are currently hosted at Lincoln Avenue Baptist Church. They meet on Tuesday mornings during the school year from 9:15-11:15 a.m.
Burrus shared a summary of feedback she often gets from participants, saying, “Many share that disciplined Bible study with group accountability has become a foundation for their Christian life. Others marvel at what their life might have been without knowing the truth of God’s word. Some credit the study of God’s word as the salvation of their marriage; others maintain that all their inter-personal relationships are better since they are reading, studying and applying God’s word.”
An added depth to this group is the longterm commitment of many of its members, some of whom are second generation participants. Burrus shared, “Their mothers brought them as preschoolers and now as adults they are studying God’s word and bringing their own preschoolers. Many students have looked forward to retiring so they can attend Tuesday morning Explorer’s. Many say the friendships and prayer support they receive through Explorer’s has been an anchor in hard times. Students have grieved together and recovered together. And yes, the hallways ring with laughter as the groups share during the discussion time.”
What does a typical EBS class look like? Here’s a glimpse: At 9 a.m., the leaders gather for prayer. At 9:15 a.m., all the students gather in the sanctuary for an opening hymn and a devotional given by Sharon Toler, the current assistant teacher. Then come the small groups. For the next 45 minutes, the participants break into eight groups of approximately 12-15 students each and discuss the homework that they prepared through the week. At 10:15 a.m., the class reassembles in the sanctuary to enjoy a lecture from the teaching leader before their 11:15 a.m. dismissal.
For non-Jacksonville residents who want something closer to home, Burrus mentioned that an EBS class meets on Sunday nights at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in rural Arenzville from 6:30 – 8 p.m. There are also EBS classes meeting in other area towns, including Rushville, Mt. Sterling and Fishhook. Any individuals interested in attending the class, they are welcome to visit, or call class administrator Cheryl Cox at 217- 622-0305.