When Willow Creek Church surveyed church members in 2004 to find out what they wanted from church, they discovered something surprising. Churchgoers said they weren’t primarily interested in finding connection, affirmation and love at church; they wanted their pastors to help them to understand the Bible better.

To meet that need, Randy Frazee, then a teaching pastor at Willow Creek, turned to The Story, a 31-chapter overview narrative of the Bible, published by Zondervan. The resource weaves Bible stories together into one chronological narrative, retaining major stories and characters while omitting genealogical lists, dietary laws and other passages that are difficult for first-time Bible readers to understand. Some stories are excluded, and transitional paragraphs fast-forward the reader between some sections of Scripture.

As Frazee took a Wednesday night class through The Story, he discovered his accompanying website accumulated more hits than all the other Willow Creek sites combined.

Frazee, together with pastor Max Lucado, subsequently taught through The Story in 31 weeks at Oak Hills Church in San Antonio, Texas, and asked age-related ministries to develop curriculum to accompany the teaching. Their efforts were rewarded with dramatic success; students came away with high scores on biblical literacy tests.

“People want to understand the Bible, but the Bible itself can be daunting for people who are just new to it,” said Shelley Leith (’80), who serves as general editor and handles account relations for Zondervan’s new promotional campaign for The Story, which is set to launch in fall 2011, following the June release of a new edition that uses the New International Version.

The Storyis being marketed as a 31-week church program to span a full calendar year. Leith, who previously developed the 40 Days of Purpose church kit accompanying Rick Warren’s book The Purpose-Driven Life, recommends creating a schedule that allows the story of Christ’s resurrection to fall at Eastertime, and allows for a four or five-week break for the Christmas season. The campaign is intended to be nondenominational, and congregations in 100 churches ranging from Catholic to Baptist, Methodist and charismatic have been testing the materials. Leith estimates 1,000 more have purchased The Story products so far.

Zondervan’s materials include curricula for early elementary, later elementary and youth, so that families can cover the same material and discuss it at home. Sermon outlines are also provided, but Leith emphasizes that there is plenty of room for pastors to follow the Holy Spirit’s leading in choosing their sermon topics for each given week.

“One thing that we are suggesting that pastors use as an overarching tie-in, a thread that ties in the whole scope of Scripture, is a theme that we’ve dubbed Upper story and Lower Story,” Leith said. “We find that Christians tend to drive right to application when they read the Bible … when the text itself doesn’t necessarily support that application. We’re forcing you to read Scripture in context and we believe that the concept of Scripture … is God’s story. It’s the story of God moving his hand through history. His story is the Upper Story. Our story is the Lower Story.”

Rather than attempting to replace traditional Bible reading, Leith said The Story curriculum encourages readers to bring both their Bible and their copy of The Story to church so they can compare the two side-by-side.

“What we’re hoping that this will do — one of our slogans is, ‘Read the story, discover the Bible.’ Another slogan is ‘Turn average people into devoted Bible readers,’” Leith said. “So our goal with this book is to draw people back to the Bible, and we’ve seen that happen again and again.”

Leith said even faithful Bible readers who were initially skeptical, dismissing The Story as “Bible lite,” have found themselves impacted in life-changing ways by reading it together with their congregations.

Scripture references are given in the back of the book so readers can discover where passages are in their Bibles, but Leith said those who complain about not having footnotes or other references in the book’s pages — lending The Story a novel-like look and feel — may benefit from the discomfort of seeing the words of the Bible in a new context.

“If it takes away the Scripture references and the chapter references, you don’t know where you are, necessarily,” Leith said. “Now all your comforts are stripped away and your standard structures that you’re used to are gone. So you’re reading through this like a story, but you’re seeing it fresh.”