Attending a fellowship or Bible study is a close second to finding a church. Occasionally a Christian fighter pilot will find both a compelling church and a strong Bible study, but more often one will be weaker and it will be the combination of the two that will provide him sufficient Christian teaching and fellowship. I experienced that very thing early on in my cadet career.
Officer’s Christian Fellowship (OCF) conducted a Bible study on Monday nights as part of the sanctioned Special Programs in Religious Education (SPIRE) system sponsored by the cadet chapel. The hosts of OCF also hosted a Saturday night Bible study at their home just outside the Academy gate. The sponsors were Lt Col Terry Stokka and his wife, Artha. Lt Col Stokka had been a navigator on an AC-119 gunship in Vietnam. As a retired Air Force aviator he garnered immediate respect from cadets. When I attended the first OCF gathering, I was impressed with the Bible study; it involved Lt Col Stokka and some cadets playing guitar and singing praise and worship songs, and then the group divided for in-depth Bible studies. The organization and structure of the gathering impressed me, and Lt Col Stokka’s leadership style and obvious spiritual maturity reassured me that I could be comfortable and learn in the environment of OCF.
Once I began attending OCF, my spiritual foundation became significantly stronger and I started to grow. I found in that fellowship what I had lacked in the many local churches I had attended. My spiritual growth was exponential in my last year and a half as a cadet not because of church attendance but because of the teaching and mentorship of OCF. In some cases it came about simply by being around and observing other Christians. It was at OCF that I saw the benefits of the ability to play guitar. I purchased a guitar from Lt Col Stokka, who found guitars at local pawn shops for the many cadets who wanted to pick up the trade. While I’ll never be much more than a novice, I learned the benefits of music in both my personal and spiritual lives. It was also at OCF that I made the rather surprising discovery that it is possible for two dedicated Christians to utterly dislike each other. I met another cadet whose aggressive and outgoing attitude grated against my more withdrawn personality; I knew from his actions that he had a genuine faith, but his personality was not one I enjoyed being around. It was also at OCF that I saw a mature and effective Christian leader who had served in the same Air Force in which I was about to be commissioned. Lt Col Stokka’s experience as a Christian both in combat and in the Air Force prepared him well to answer the questions of the soon-to-be officers. More than that, though, I saw how a humble and unimposing man led a large group of raucous cadets. He was almost always soft-spoken and jovial, yet he still managed to command the attention, obedience, and respect of the cadets around him. The means with which he did that—humbly, gently, but firmly when required—amazed me and gave me a model to emulate. Even in my short time in the Air Force I had seen “leadership,” but here was a man who was a Christian and a leader, with detriment to neither. My positive experiences with OCF as a cadet prepared me well for active duty.
Most national military fellowships have contacts at nearly every military location. (OCF even provides the ability to search contact names by location on their internet site.) These contacts have volunteered to be a point of contact for new arrivals and can provide information on the local Bible study and often off-base churches.
Integration in a Bible study outside of a Sunday morning service is important; while virtually any Bible study will do, I would encourage attempting to find one with other service members. A Bible study with other fighter pilots is even better. One reason for participating in a Bible study is personal spiritual growth, but another is interaction with others. Interacting on a spiritual level with other military officers can provide invaluable opportunities for learning, accountability, and growth. In those situations a Christian fighter pilot has the greatest opportunity to be mentored by, or be a mentor to, other members of the military. It can also give him a feeling of community—he is not alone in his Christianity in the military—and, with a group of peers, a place for accountability. While I’m not necessarily advocating an exclusionary Bible study, one composed of fighter pilots would provide particularly unique and interesting opportunities. On the other hand, that composition is almost impossible to accomplish. With varied flying schedules, additional duties, training upgrades, and deployments, it is nearly impossible to get a group of Christian fighter pilots in the same room at the same time during the week. Weekends provide greater opportunity, but with Sunday already filled with church activities and Saturday the sole free day for family and recuperation, many pilots will find it difficult to commit to a weekend study. Regardless, attending a study outside of church should be a goal for the Biblical exposure, growth, and experience it provides.
These studies may take various forms, from small, simple Bible study groups to large gatherings at a dedicated building. Some, like OCF, are connected to national organizations. In one location I found a local fellowship ministry called the “Hospitality House,” which was run by another organization called Cadence International. “The House” served a meal on Friday nights, and a meal with a time for singing and a Bible lesson on Saturday night. It was hosted by a couple sponsored by Cadence, Fred and Diane Stock, and had become a refuge for many seeking both spiritual support and Christian fellowship. The first night I attended I was amazed at the depth and strength of the fellowship. I and my wife continued to attend and the group—in conjunction with our church—greatly benefited our spiritual life.