Are we devoted to the public reading of Scripture? Part 2: It’s not that difficult to change

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?

9 thoughts on “Are we devoted to the public reading of Scripture? Part 2: It’s not that difficult to change

  1. The obvious response is that I doubt devotion to the public reading of Scripture is meant to halve the number of people who can hear any of it! Going to twice-a-Sunday doubles the impact of capacity constraints…

  2. Is the word “Lectionary” missing from this post, perchance?
    We’ve been twicers, but with two primary-age kids it’s not possible any more.  I don’t think it would fly well in most churches, really.
    A most hearty amen to ending parallel readings in Bible study.  It is SO dull!  And as you rightly point out, if the minister’s sermon is before the study, or the minister writes the notes (a task for which he might or might not be suited!), we end up with the minister’s interpretation of Scripture.

  3. Is the real issue ‘the public reading of scripture’ or ‘the reading of scripture?’
    Regardless of our practice of reading in Church and the focus of our bible studies, is the solution to implement strategies that encourage greater independent bible reading by all?

  4. Hi Stephen,

    As I mentioned in the last post – more of both! And both impact each other: I invite you to read through the comments.

    But there is a reality that public reading of Scripture (PRS) is not just implicitly mandated for the elder in this passage (hence us reflecting on this at all – do we do much of it, why/why not, why it is a good thing to do etc), but PRS also does something that private reading doesn’t do. Again you’ll need to wait for future posts, but also read through some of the comments from the previous post, to get a feel for why this is a significant issue.

    Or, to take it from an other angle – this time combining PRS with the sufficiency and efficiency of all Scripture: while in theory our beliefs will be such that our churches can expect to see Leviticus, Numbers, Job, 1 & 2 Chronicles, Jeremiah, the minor prophets, Proverbs, etc all being read through, when does our selection of Bible readings for church ever guarantee this – in a lifetime let alone in a decade? How many times do we end up back at Isaiah 53 because it’s so convenient as a ‘pair’ for the NT passage we are preaching on, but never see the glory of the other 65 chapters of Isaiah?

  5. Hi Ellen,

    Yes, ‘lectionary’ is the word I’ve not used thus far but am gunning for. At this stage I don’t really care about who creates them (each in our own churches or churches borrowing it off each other, etc), but so long as it is done. We rob ourselves, our churches, our ministries, but most of all God (of glory) so much because we aren’t strong in this area.

    That is, I think we need our eldership / strategy teams to be serious about organising a public Bible reading program for the year (or 2-3 years), not just a preaching program. It is more than a little baffling that we can pour so much labour and expend so much effort into our preaching, when something that is just as effective which we are to hold along side it – namely, PRS – many pay little attention to at all. And it is such a simple thing to do!

    Those ministers / elders who’ve gone down a minimal path aren’t there for the same reason. Surely for some it has simply been an unintentionality here that needs to be repented of.

    But for some surely too there is a secret pride (idolatry) that is deep down convinced that my preaching will do more for the sheep in my care than ‘mere’ reading of the Bible. That’s ugly, but someone needs to say it, and those people had best repent or leave eldership because they’re in danger. I say that with great humility and with tears – I know my own sin. But to not speak, I can’t help but fear that *this* will be the great failing of our generation: people too scared to speak.

    Wouldn’t it be a fantastic thing, though, if every staff team meeting in the next month, or minister/eldersip(warden) meeting, asked each other pastorally whether they secretly value preaching over PRS? To ask each other what the evidence (fruit) of their answer (whatever the answer) is? To pray for repentance if repentance is due, and how the coming year would reflect the fruit (evidence) of such repentance?

    I pray that no one is like that, but some of the things I’ve been observing over the last 18 months, and the conversations I’ve had with some people, give cause for fear of it. But here I am anticipating future posts again – these issues come up in posts 5 & 6.

    Sorry Ellen – springboarding off your good observation into many others! smile

  6. Hi Anthony & Ellen,

    Yes, you’re right, there are some fairly obvious difficulties with ‘twice on a Sunday’ models of church.

    I’m not saying that it is an easy option to implement, but I guess I’m daring everyone to dream big dreams of great possibilities for hearing God speak, and praying for them to happen. ie, to see the possibilities before the difficulties (and difficulties there are!).

    But it isn’t the hardest task before us, hence calling it a ‘medium’ option: wait until you see the last post where I do dream of the hard option to implement! wink

    Let me take some backsteps and outline a few other things, and see how they impact. I’m not saying you don’t know any of these things, of course, but your helpful comments give me an excuse to springboard and further the general discussion smile  Thanks smile

    First of all, we need to keep remembering that church is not a means to an end: church is an end in itself. It is the product of the gospel – it is what the gospel creates.

    Nevertheless, in this overlap of the ages, church also participates in God’s kindness in that work of building church (neither up nor out, but both) as we speak the truth in love (Eph 4), or as Colossians puts it, letting the word of Christ dwell richly amongst us.

    In other words, church isn’t just created by Christ (the word of God), but produces the full/mature church as it participates in Christ-telling activities.

    Where I am I going with this? As we grow to maturity in Christ, our longing for church and desire for church is multiplied. This is, rightly understood, tied in with our longing for heaven and the new creation (you’ll have to wait for the next Briefing for that; there is something on heaven and the new creation there): to be gathered (ie, together with others) around God.

    In other words, as Christians grow, we should expect them to want to church with Christians more.

    Which means that, regardless of difficulties (children, space, time, etc) we need to promote and encourage greater church participation (notice I didn’t say ‘ministry-invovlement’ … but that’s for another day too). We should expect Christians to want to gather with other Christians all the more as we see the day approaching, to spur one another on to love and good deeds (Heb 10:24-25).  And we should not be surprised when the sheep in our care long for more church: church ought to produce … church.

    I remember with great clarity one of those moments (we had so many of these) when our year at Moore ploughed Robert Doyle for about 20 minutes with questions about ‘how much church’ we should expect / encourage of Christians. And his answer to every single question for 20 minutes was ‘maximise relationships’. Frustrating for those who want a line in the sand, but it is actually the best answer. The gospel pushes us to seek out Christian fellowship, and we don’t legislate (or structure) to minimise those opportunites, but we give freedom (structure) to encourage the ‘maximisation’ of that.

    So, to put all this in more tangible terms: imagine our entire church, the next Sunday, asked to be able to go to church twice on a Sunday. We wouldn’t say no to them (at least I hope we wouldn’t!). No, we’d rejoice as we see the impact of the gospel in their lives, and structure church to make it possible for them. If that means two morning services and two evening services because the building isn’t big enough … so be it. If it means church at 4 or 5 instead of 7, so families can come, so be it.

    But what we do tend to do at the moment is structure our churches in such a way as to discourage ‘twice on a Sunday’ church. We preach the same sermon, we have the same readings. More so, we allocate a demographic to each service that implicity excludes those who don’t fit that demographic.

  7. As an aside on demographics – the HUP principle may be a great *evangelistic* principle but is perhaps a poor *church* principle.

    If I have a church that has an ‘retired’ service, a ‘family’ service, and a ‘youth / YA’ service, we immediately ‘cater’ for them, and so create difficulties for the people who no longer fit those demographics:

    What happens to the empty-nester, or parents of high-school / uni-age kids? The morning service is not ‘geared’ for them, but neither is any other. Or for the single person who is now 30 … evening church is no longer geared for them, but neither is any other. We want to structure our churches to promote fellowship, not diminish it.

    This is the very thing that I’d been working on at my previous church. The unanimous desire, after preaching on the doctrine of church, for evening church was to stop being a youth/YA service, to move earlier, and so that the parents of children older than primary school could more easily come to night church. The preaching at the morning church actively encouraged older people to come to evening church, to model Christian life / disciple the younger Christians. And it has been happening – with great encouragement.

    Space was our problem at morning church too (but they’ve just begun a building program), which makes it hard for travel in the other direction: from the evening to the morning. But the desire was certainly there amongst YA’s, and half the youth were already doing church twice on a Sunday anyway as they helped with Sunday School.

    I can’t begin to list the other benefits that have flowed from this, and that was early days – I never got to see the full implementation of it all.

    But what I’m suggesting is that we should so structure / work towards church life being able to give people the freedom to be able to church twice on a Sunday. So organising our parish that it demarcates or isolates (repeating things, or demographic-orienting things) makes it hard for this to happen.

  8. But back to the topic at hand …

    To use your example Ellen, I agree, there are all kinds of reasons for why it may be hard for a time to come to church twice on a Sunday. We’re in that situation ourselves at the moment, having just moved country (we’re not adventurous people!) and with me being quite ill for nearly the whole time I’ve been here.

    But yours and our desire for it is there (with clear evidence of it, until circumstances made it hard) … and I guess the same for your example too, Anthony: the desire is being hampered by a circumstance.

    But we kind of already expect all sorts of people to church twice on a Sunday: ourselves, for starters, ministry teams, and those involved in Sunday morning children’s ministries. I guess I’m suggesting that we promote them as models of good behaviour.

    Combining the reality that circumstances sometimes preclude ‘twice on a Sunday’ (children’s ministry not least!), but that it is a good goal to have and we hope is an outcome of our ministry to each other, to create structures that promote ‘maximising relationships’ but don’t (as you say Anthony) hinder those unable (or as yet unwilling) to do so, what possibilities might we pursue?

    What if we created a Bible reading, Bible study and preaching program (‘lectionary’) for morning church (using a 30-verse or one-chapter per reading average, with 3 readings in church, as mentioned in the post). Roughly speaking, we’d get through about 20% of the Bible in a year.

    What if we created this program to last for 2.5 years? We’d structure church life to get through (50%) of the Bible?

    What if we then created (using the same structure), a program for our evening congregation? That we’d get through the *other* 50% in 2.5 years?

    And then we swapped them?

    This way, publicly, everyone in our care will hear the whole Bible read every 5 years (which is a bit better than maybe perhaps once in 40 years). We safeguard that all Scripture is read for them. But alongside that, those who are both willing in the heart and able in circumstances will be able to hear the Bible every 2.5 years? (Not quite since they presumably wouldn’t go to two Bible study groups, but we get the point … most of the Bible twice over a 5 year period).

    What do you think?

  9. Thanks for letting me write my thoughts out.

    Your comment about children and church raises an interesting point as well, Ellen. I’ve got no idea clearly about your circumstances. Again, it’s just that your comment gives me an excuse into springboarding into a whole other area of issues that Em and I have been wrestling with for a while now. So please don’t read it as a commentary on you (how could I when I know nothing)! Far from it – just me ruminating. smile

    One of the things I came to realise in preaching the series on church at church earlier in the year was that (as things currently stand), unless Emma and I kept up our practice of going to church twice on a Sunday, our boys would never experience church as we experience it (and rarely would they church with us). We kept the boys coming with us on a Sunday night (7pm church) in part for this reason. Not always easy, and we regularly needed the help of my mum to get us there (see went to church in the next parish and lived 5 minutes away), but we managed.

    What we’d realised was that, because Sunday School runs at the same time as morning church, and because ‘holiday services’ did kids’ talks, changed the music and shortened everything, our boys would never actually go to a normal Sunday church, but then all of a sudden I’d expect them to when they hit high school.

    Maybe our children are odd (I don’t know, they’re the only ones we have!), but Calvin can happily sit through 3 hours of church on a Sunday (two services), loves the songs (from modern stuff to Ross Cobb choral specials at the cathedral), sings the hymns at home, and hears and retains bits of the reading and the sermon.

    He was two when started being able to do all this. I guess Emma and I were wondering why our in-built desire was to ‘shield’ our children from normal church when we love it and they love it too.

    It’s genuinely weird how as a general church culture we expect so little from children at church, things that we expect of them on a daily basis at school: listening to someone speak, being quiet, singing songs, learning things off by heart, etc.

    So I was wondering how to raise those issues in a ‘wisdom for church’ session that I did when preaching on church, when Emma pointed me to an appendix at the back of Noel Piper’s book ‘Treasuring God in our traditions’. It talks quite well about how to raise children who go to church with us.

    It can be found at Desiring God:

    Actually, all this has just raised my frustration at present circumstances again, so that we can get ourselves and our boys out to church on a Sunday night again. Would love your prayers for health!

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