Are we devoted to the public reading of Scripture? Part 5: Why we aren’t

Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching. (1 Tim 4:13)

This is the fifth post in Scott’s series on the public reading of Scripture. You may want to read the first part, the second part, the third part or the fourth part of this series.

We’ve already touched on some reasons why we may not be devoted to the public reading of Scripture, especially in the second post. Nevertheless, in this fifth post, I want to draw some of these out and push us further.

It’s impossible to specifically cover all the reasons for the decline in public Bible reading, of course (but I’m going to try!). My encouragement to you, however, is not to fall into the all-too-common trap of dismissing the elephant in the room simply because you can legitimately quibble with some of my observations about said elephant: the elephant is still there, after all. In the end, it doesn’t matter if your elephant is an African and mine is an Indian—it’s still going to hurt when it runs us down. What am I saying? Please don’t use a (perhaps valid) critique of my posts as an excuse to avoid personal responsibility and outworking in this area.

Let me generalize four reasons why we don’t. The solutions to each we can discuss, although they should be fairly clear.

First, for some of us, I think it is simply because we’ve never thought about it before. We’ve been so busy affirming our belief in the authority of the word, and our desire to teach (and be taught by) it faithfully, that we just haven’t noticed that we don’t actually read much of the Bible with each other anymore.

Second, we don’t have the habits which guarantee significant Bible reading because we have, for the most part, abandoned formal liturgy. And by this I speak not just of what happens in a service (the order for morning prayer, for instance), but what governs the administration of those services across a period of time (tables of readings across years, etc.). Whatever the reasons we left prayer books behind, we also left behind safeguards to have the whole Bible read regularly. And, rather than inventing the wheel again, each of us in our own parishes, we’ve chosen to try and get along without one.

Third, for some, I believe we have privileged certain non-theologically-determined, pragmatic ideas and practices in our thinking about church, and have not realized that the outworking of these reflects poorly on what we truly believe about the nature of church, church growth, and Scripture. We may keep breathing words of love for the Bible, while in reality we’re deceiving ourselves about our devotion to it.

Our theology is not abstract, and our practice is not neutral theologically. There seems to be an unwitting tendency to view our theology as the fence that keeps us safe, while we adopt whatever practice seems to work (pragmatism) within the boundaries of that fence to ‘get things done’. Our biblically-shaped theology remains abstract; our practice consists of ‘plundering the Egyptians’ for what works.

Theology isn’t abstract, but relational and participative: those who know God walk in the light as he is in the light. If we claim to know God but walk in darkness, we deceive ourselves and truth is not in us. Further, pragmatism isn’t neutral (I have some posts on this for the new year, so stay tuned). Everything I do is theological—especially when it comes to church. However I choose to organize and structure a church meeting, whatever culture I develop in meetings over time, whatever structures I put in place to shape church practice, I am saying something about what I believe church to be, of what I believe causes church growth.

Our theology is not (simply) the fence which keeps our strategy (methods) from running astray; our theology is our strategy—it is fence, paddock, shepherd and all. Let’s bring our doctrine to the fore in our strategy meetings. Imagine we sat down together, for instance, and said: “We believe in the clarity of Scripture. What would our church look like if we worked that out in practice? And how would working this out in practice promote other doctrines rather than squash them?” That’s a strategy meeting worth going to.

Let me be more specific: when we reduce the Bible reading in order to privilege something else in our meetings, we are shifting the congregation’s understanding of what church is. When we choose to not read some bits because we deem it inappropriate, we forget that God wrote them—that perhaps in his wisdom he might possibly have known what he was doing when he did. When we choose to not read some bits because it seems irrelevant or unclear, we teach ourselves and our congregations that God’s word isn’t eternal, and isn’t clear. When we choose to not read the Old Testament especially because it is ‘unfamiliar’—how else are we going to get familiar with it? The non-Christian world certainly isn’t going to help us. When we choose to reduce Bible reading for something else, do we, then, in effect say that our means, our words, are better than God’s word to grow people?

Fourth, I think we don’t change in this matter because we’re afraid to do it. The overwhelming spirit of the age is entertainment and instant gratification, and we feel the pressure to conform. The entertainment factor of Leviticus is, let’s face it, next to zero, and the relevance not immediately apparent. But it’s still God’s word; he intended Leviticus to be exactly as it is. And when did entertainment become the determiner for what we do at church? When did sobriety and seriousness become anathema to church? Furthermore, boredom is not the problem of the subject matter. Boredom is in the heart. If we find Scripture to be boring, it’s not God’s fault, and the solution isn’t to silence God! If you find a part of Scripture boring, ask God to give you interest in it because you love him and want to know what he has to say. Again, the Bible is well aware that some bits are harder to understand than others (2 Pet 3:16-17). But where did we get the idea that the solution to this is to stop reading it?

14 thoughts on “Are we devoted to the public reading of Scripture? Part 5: Why we aren’t

  1. Furthermore, boredom is not the problem of the subject matter. Boredom is in the heart. If we find Scripture to be boring, it’s not God’s fault, and the solution isn’t to silence God!

    I love this!  It really shifts the focus onto the person’s heart and takes away their excuse.

  2. I wonder what non-Anglicans here have to say about the abandonment of formal liturgy?  How do other denominations deal with Bible reading?

    Remember also that there are plenty of people in Anglican churches now who might never have heard the Prayer Book regularly enough to have realised that more Bible reading is possible.  As we have privileged other aspects of church life in our services, it does not occur to us to question the amount of Bible we get.

    Incidentally—what should we cut from our services to put the Bible back in?  Sermon length?

  3. I was mortified to see a reading cut from – of all places – a confirmation service.

    The irony was that the scheduled reading concerned Peter’s failure to confess Christ in the high priest’s courtyard. Perish the thought of reminding confirmees what they were standing for…

  4. Thought you might find this article on the KJV’s 400th birthday interesting: RT @GuardianBooks How the King James Bible shaped the English language No public reading of Scripture to celebrate!

  5. Does the translation matter Scott?  I like and acknowledge your point about boredom being the product of sinful hearts.  However that line of argument can sometimes lead to “taking your medicine because it’s good for you” approach.  On the other-hand your overall thesis is very challenging and timely.  If it’s really the words of a living God then why not read it out load more often. 

    So in that context Scott, (along with encouraging people to practice the reading)maybe we shouldn’t just have long passages from the ESV.  Maybe a very familiar passage from the Message or OT narrative from the NIV etc.  What do you think?

  6. Our theology is not (simply) the fence which keeps our strategy (methods) from running astray; our theology is our strategy—it is fence, paddock, shepherd and all. Let’s bring our doctrine to the fore in our strategy meetings. Imagine we sat down together, for instance, and said: “We believe in the clarity of Scripture. What would our church look like if we worked that out in practice? And how would working this out in practice promote other doctrines rather than squash them?” That’s a strategy meeting worth going to.

    I think this, and the two paragraphs before it, would make a great basis for another series, Scott.  I suspect a lot of people would like to get reflections on how theology and practice should partner each other.

  7. Incidentally—what should we cut from our services to put the Bible back in?  Sermon length?

    Why should anything necessarily need to be cut? Just make the whole thing longer! And if anyone thinks more Bible readings aren’t worth having longer Sunday services they should have no influence over those services!

  8. Hi everyone,

    Thanks for these comments.

    Anthony & Karen – the ironies abound don’t they? The guy that wrote that guardian article: you can almost feel his bewilderment that celebrations for this most influential piece of English literature doesn’t include the reading of it. It’s truly bizarre.

    Thanks for pointing us to that article, Karen; and for illustrating our ironic behaviour, Anthony.

    I used to just find that kind of thing kind of amusing (I confess, I still do, albeit mixed with sadness). But the more I go on, while I still find it amusing (it is just bizarre), I now also hope to take care to use such things as a mirror rather than a foil. [ie, Romans 2 … You who condemn others, do you do the very same thing yourself?]

    It is foolish, to celebrate and promote the Bible while implicitly undermining it; but I am a fool too, and I shudder to think of the inconsistencies that abound in my life that I have no idea about.

    This in many ways undergirds this whole series. I doubt that most, if any, people who read these posts have a low view of Scripture or would deny the clarity of Scripture. But what if we have deceived ourselves? What if our enemies (be it the evil one or otherwise) are laughing at the ironic, tragic, self-deception that we labour under? That what we claim as our practice is so far from being testified to by that selfsame practice? Hence the subtitle of the first post: a mirror held up before our eyes.

    Self examination is something that we’re going to need to learn to do, and, as this series keeps coming back to, we need to do that with the Bible in our ears, and publicly / corporately. We are too good at self-deception.

    And this could probably be extended to not just a individual in church context, but churches in a ‘college of churches’ context (trying to avoid denominational tags, but confessional instead), and culture of churches in a cross-culture of churches context (eg, what do African evangelicals do?)

    Sydney anglicans are generally known to be very good at fighting enemies. But part of our problem is that we have become very good only at adversatorial critiquing. As a result, we are sometimes so good at fighting enemies that we sometimes make enemies as we fight.

    But what happens when we need to critique our colleagues? And we do, and we will, need to do this, as they to us. We either stay silent (because we only know how to ‘fight enemies’ rather than critique friends), or we run the danger of creating enemies of our friends.

    The general inability of the world we live in to intelligently, graciously, interact with and debate different ideas is not helping us here either.

    We need to promote a generation of people who can both critique adversatorially when needed (Titus 1 springs to mind), critique collegiately where needed, and be able to discern the difference.

    There’s much more to say on this, and the issues that bar this from happening effectively. But that’s perhaps for another time smile

    But to return to our issue at hand: given the majesty of PRS, it would be tragic for me to think I was devoted to it, when actually I’m just deluded.

  9. Tom – thanks for the encouragement re: boredom. For those who missed it, I reflected at length on boredom in the comments to a previous post (post 2?).

    Luke, likewise, there was some discussion re: translations and readability in one of the earlier posts, that you may find helpful.

  10. Hi Ellen,

    Yes, the generational aspect is very important. Which is largely why I put the first generalisation first: some of us have just never thought about this before. The first generalisation is broader than just those who’ve never experienced it, but forms a large part.

    But it’s with a view to the long-term that we need to look also, and the lack of this forms a fairly significant part of my distress in current church practice at the moment. It’s those who fall under the second generalisation (shedding liturgy) that has in part created the first category. And I include myself here as a perpetrator of that!

    I can’t help but wonder if anyone seriously thought of future generations when they started shedding the prayer book. Whatever the good reasons or otherwise for moving on from it, I don’t think anyone thought about unintentional fall-out from such a decision. And that impacts not just in the present (which is the general issue here: of practice / theology of church being bound up together), but in the future for our children and grandchildren.

    Let me generalise this to more than just Bible reading:

    I know by heart the Lord’s prayer and the creeds, I know how to confess my sins and verses from scripture that speak of full assurance to those who repent and truly believe the gospel. In times of dire need (the sinfulness of my sin, or help in times of trouble), my heart and mind can pray usefully because of what I’ve been taught.

    I know that sometimes I needs a big kick up the pants (commination against sinners), I know the seriousness of childbirth and the wonder that God would preserve my wife through it, I know the high office of the ministry of the Word, I have a doctrinal statement, and some fairly special creedal articulations of the Trinity in the nicene and Athanasian creeds (which, incidentally, the latter was due to be read monthly in church).

    But unless I give this to my children at home, they will never have any of this because churches increasinly don’t teach this to them. When exactly do our churches teach our people to confess sins, and that the basis of church interaction is only by the grace of God (confession is first in prayer book services)? When will church ever teach children the creeds? When therefore will they ever have a good articulation of the incarnation and trinity, etc etc?

    And when we leave the creeds behind, here we depart not from evangelical or reformed Christianity, but any stream altogether – Catholic (Roman or Protestant) or Orthodox. And how feeble we will become because of it?

    A friend put it like this to me this week: ‘if we fail to say the creeds in one generation, we become unitarians in the next’.

    On what legitimately grounds do I remove these things from church life, and deny my children the access to them that I once enjoyed and still have access to in my time of need? What will they turn to in their time of need? Memorable singing could probably fall into this too.

    As you can see, this kind of thing distresses me more than a little! It distresses me for my children’s sake, but I know I can do something about it with them. But what about the children of my neighbour, who hasn’t the first clue about how to teach the creeds to their children?

  11. What to cut from our current services, or whether to increase their length, I guess is a hard one to reflect on generally, since every church and church service is different.

    I’ve been in church services in the past where no one cared if things went overtime, or regularly over-time even: a ‘let’s do what we need to do and if it takes that long then that’s fine’ mentality. ie, there was no set length / overtime.

    Those who run according to the constraints of parallel children’s ministries will not find it as easy to do that, of course. And early morning services perhaps suffer the most, since they have the next service knocking on the door.

    But if a church chooses to adopt a ‘let it run for however long it needs to’ approach, my tip would be to keep the morning and evening services early enough that people don’t start feeling the pinch (“it’s getting on to lunch-time / bedtime”). As someone who inherited a 7pm service, it’s harder to justify something finishing 15mins late than it is at 6pm, especially if you have youth with curfews.

  12. As for what to cut from our gatherings themselves? Here are a few thoughts:

    First, if your church regularly starts 10mins late (for whatever good or bad reason), we could cut this habit. Again, 10 minutes lost to whatever at the beginning of a service doesn’t feel like much, but it feels like a lot when it comes back to bite at the end.

    Second, announcements are black holes of time, especially if you let anyone make announcements themselves on the spot. Guard the microphone zealously. My tip is to keep them short (3mins tops in total), done all by one person, and strict about what can be announced (ie, announcements relevant to 5 people in the congregation probably don’t need to be said).

    Does this retard community? I don’t think so. It does make us ask: what is the purpose of announcements in church? Is it to notify, or is it to edify? If the former, how effective is it, and how many other avenues for communication do we have that means we can keep it to a minimum?

    If it is the latter (announcements are a form of edification), what are we trying to edify someone in? Maybe this is overstating the case, but I’m much more interested in what God has done at youth group than in the fact that youth group is doing something next week. One teaches church as community (when done poorly), the other teaches God at work with his ‘community’. Again, it depends on what sort of ‘community’ we think we are.

    Does reducing who gets to use the microphone reduce corporate service? Not at all. Again, it all depends on what we think we’re doing at church.

    What I’m about to observe (anecdotally) ties-in in part both with a right observation that someone can be in the building but their heart far from God (‘pew-warmers’ as they are sometimes known), and also with the somewhat unhealthy obsession with ‘ministry’ (this was touched on a bit in Mark Baddeley’s stuff on depression last year: that we make it worse for the depressed because we tie their church identity to their ministry identity – Mark did I get that right?).

    The observation is this: we tend to think that unless an individual is doing something that can be distinguished individually, they are not being active in church.

    What do I mean? I mean that an individual can be very active in church even though no one will ever be able to distinguish that activity as an individual activity.

    – I mean that, listening to the PRS, or Bible teaching is not a passive activity, but an active one.

    – When someone prays out loud in church, they are leading in prayer, and we pray with them as we voice our agreement with them (‘Amen’).

    – That when we sing songs to one another we are ‘letting the word of Christ dwell in you richly’

    [Ironically, again, when we take away creeds, and corporate verbal prayer (confession, lord’s prayer, etc), we lose some of this reality.]

    – And so on.

  13. Third, we don’t need to do everything all at once. I’m a bit like this (I can’t help myself: if someone asks a question in Bible-study, I have to answer it, and can’t defer it for another day).

    We don’t need to have 2 or 3 segments every week.

    I remember being in various churches on numerous ocassions where in a 75-90min service, the readings and preacher get up about 70 minutes through. As one visitor put it many years ago ‘It’s all nice what we did, but when am I going to get some meat with my sandwich’? Or, most recently in my experience ‘why do I feel like I just had three talks this morning?’.

    I think I’m trying to say that, just because both missionaries are back in town that particular week, we don’t need to hear extensively from both missionaries – as wonderful as that is. Or just because someone wants to have segment in church, we therefore run 2-3 segments. It’s okay to take our time, or even miss a few opportunities now then, trusting God’s sovereignty. We have a tendency to overfill our services. Or, I know of a church in the states that has nights that are devoted to the sharing of what God is doing in various ministries: ie, setting aside a separate time for this type of edification and prayer.

    My first minister pointed out to me when I first started leading, very graciously, that I had to contextualise everything … every week! It really is okay just to introduce a creed with ‘let’s encourage one another as we confess our faith to each other with the Nicene creed’. But I felt the need to give explanations for everything all the time … which is just tedious in the end.

    Fourth, and this ties right back to some comments Gordon Cheng made to the first post: we fill our services with a lot of fluff. Or, as another friend put it a while back ‘I feel like the morning church I go to has become a youth group’.

    Why can’t we just pray? Why does there need to be some gimmick each week, as if the wonder and majesty of approaching the throne of grace with confidence weren’t enough? In fact, by insisting on gimmicks each week, I teach people that it isn’t enough. But for what we’re talking about here, when we insist on gimmicks, the time usually blows out vastly.

    Fifth, returning to the microphone issue. Time gets taken up with interchange of people. If we sang in blocks rather than interspersed, and let the service leader do most speaking (which, as mentioned, is not a denial of corporate service), we save a fair bit of time lost in shuffling.

    Sixth, and the one we’ll all have a different answer to: how much singing do we need / should we do in church? 3 songs? 6 songs? A song averages 5 mins …

    These are all fairly random, spur of the moment thoughts. Does anyone have any others?

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