Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching. (1 Tim 4:13)
In my first post, I asked whether there is a disparity between our esteem of Scripture, and our devotion to seeing it read publicly. In this second post, I’d like us to explore some easy ways to restore church life to be reflecting this imperative, if not encapsulating it just yet.
In future posts, I’ll look at what ‘devotion’ looks like for the elder, the preacher, the reader, and the congregation; I’ll look again at reformation structures and see what lessons they may teach us about ‘public reading’. I’ll look at some of the reasons why we don’t read the Bible publicly, and why we should. The posts will never be that discreet, of course. But for the moment, however, I want us to look at ways to at least structurally regain public reading of Scripture.
Let’s start with some fairly easy options to implement.
First, during church on a Sunday, let’s move back to more than one Bible reading. What if we had two Bible readings—Old and New Testaments—that stood in their own right, and then a third reading for the sermon?
[If you’re a Moore trained minister (it’s what I know), why don’t we give our churches the blessing we had at college chapel in how the Bible reading was done? In my conversations with colleagues, it is one of the things we loved most about chapel. If you have a Moore minister, ask them to give you the chance to hear more of the Bible—which was their beloved experience of college.]
If we do this, using the statistics from the last post, we immediately move from 2.5% to 7.5% of the Bible being read annually. Further, what if we didn’t run the Bible-study groups in parallel anymore, for those who currently do? What if we trust in the clarity of Scripture and the priesthood of all believers, and had different readings in Bible study groups? (Which would do far more for training lay eldership than the minister writing the notes for the groups can do.) We then move to 10% of the Bible in a year. What if those readings, rather than being 15 verses maximum, were 30 verses on average? Whole chapters instead of half chapters? We move from 10% to 20%.
Now let’s go for a medium difficulty option to implement.
What if, instead of segregating congregations according to demographic, we actively encouraged and promoted church as being a ‘twice on a Sunday’ activity? What if we therefore had three different readings in the evening to that of the morning? We go to 35%.
Will this last step kill some ministers? Only if they’re by themselves and hog the pulpit. By sharing the pulpit it again provides an opportunity to express not just different gifts in church, but different measures of gifts in church (1 Cor 12). It trains lay people, and expresses the priesthood of all believers (and promotes intergenerational eldership and discipleship as age ranges go to church together). Yes, we may have to ‘endure’ some less than average sermons occasionally, as people are trained up, but the long term gain …
Let me put all this in terms of years rather than percentages. If your church’s current practice is to have one Bible reading on a Sunday, to repeat the service later that day, to follow sermons in the Bible study groups, and tends to have mutterings/shuffling/sighs at the end of a ‘long’ reading (you know what I’m talking about), it will take 40 years for someone to hear the whole Bible read publicly. This is of course only if the sermons never repeat, and the congregation has an active policy to get through the whole Bible.
With the little changes I’ve suggested here, we can at least move back to hearing the Bible read every three years. It’s still not to the degree of our reformed heritage, but at least one could hope to hear all of God’s word publicly every now and then. If we throw in a few Bible reading parties/nights, we could push that down to every 2-2.5 years.
I know I’m generalizing with figures, but is it really so difficult to make these changes? For those who may be reluctant to change, may I humbly ask (to anticipate a later post): what is stopping us? Is it pragmatics? Is it a failure to have the courage to believe our own beliefs? Is it that we have just unconsciously moved away from what we cherish? What is stopping us when (aside from the benefits of doing this in itself—more to come on that too) the changes that are promoted by this are endless; that is, we work out in practice the doctrines we claim to believe (power of Scripture, authority of Scripture, priesthood of all believers, the clarity of Scripture, that all of Scripture is useful, etc.).
Such a move—deliberate carving out time to just sit and listen to our God speak—will also go some way, I believe, to redressing the distressing idolatry of ‘community’ that is popping up in some outworkings of church. God’s church isn’t community/congregation/gathering. God’s church is God gathering his people around himself, whom we both meet in his word (the Son/Scripture/preaching of the word), and whose word brings this about. It is truly saddening when churches can only manage a seven verse Bible reading, but have notices that go longer than the sermon. Sad isn’t really the right word for that, though, is it?