Are we devoted to the public reading of Scripture? Part 6: Where do we expect God to work?

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

This is the sixth 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, the fourth part, and the fifth part of this series.

In my last post, I made one observation about why we perhaps don’t change in this matter: fear. There is another, although not one I say easily. It’s a simple reason, if appalling; perhaps some aren’t devoted to the public reading of Scripture because they no longer believe it’s worthwhile. The next post will dwell much on the infinite worth of reading the Bible to each other. But first, to our possible unbelief.

When you go to church, at what point in the meeting do you expect God to do his work of transformation in your life? Further, as you think about the way the meeting is organized and structured, and the way various elements are arranged and contextualized, where does your minister teach you to expect the work of God’s Spirit to occur?

As in all these posts, may I humbly ask you, please, to not answer the question with what you know to be true, but answer the question with what you have come to expect (i.e., depend or rely on; or have faith in, in other words).

My guess is that, for many, the honest answer to those questions is the sermon. Don’t for a minute hear me dis Bible teaching! But I’m hoping you can see the glaring issue here: what about the rest of the meeting? Isn’t all our speech to be such that we “let the word of Christ dwell in [us] richly” (Col 3:16-17)? (I have some posts on this next year with regards to singing.) But most particularly: shouldn’t we expect God to change us in the very reading of the Bible, not just the preaching of it?

For various reasons, I fear that we no longer expect this. Of course, I can’t tell you what you think! But I can draw attention to trends in church practice which are the outworking of our hearts and minds (wittingly or not). So let me share some indicators which have convinced me why I think we need to spur one another to individual and corporate repentance in this matter, where needed.

Have you ever noticed how we tend to pray to understand God’s word after the Bible reading and before the sermon? Have you noticed how our relaxed liturgy often means that that prayer opens with “As we come to hear your word now …”? That the focus of the prayer is directed to what is to come (the sermon) as opposed to what was just heard (the Bible). It’s great to pray to understand God’s word. But what does the location, vocabulary, tense and tone of that prayer teach the congregation about where we think the ‘action’ is?

Combine this with further habits in our meetings. How many times have you heard the service leader say “In a moment Scott is going to get up and preach to us tonight’s passage. But before he does that Calvin and Aidan will read the Bible to us?” (i.e., the trajectory of where we are heading is the sermon, not the Bible in itself). More, the sermon runs for around 10-15 times the length of the Bible reading(s) (Again, I love longer sermons, so don’t hear me as disparaging that)? What do these things reveal about our priorities; is Bible reading held in as high importance and delight as the sermon? Is the Bible reading—in the moment of the reading—a place we expect God to refine us?

Does this sound anything like your church? What do these verbal/structural habits teach a church over time? What do they reveal about what we unwittingly (or wittingly) believe is going on in church as far as the work of God’s Spirit goes? As in the last post, everything we do in church communicates theology, consciously or not, and it is imbibed, consciously or not.

So the question, then, is this: as the Bible is read to us, do we rejoice (with trembling) as we listen—that we are hearing the living God who transforms us into his glory? Or is it merely the preparation for what the speaker is going to preach on, and that is where God will ‘do his thing’? Unless we can get this clear, we’ll never be devoted to the public reading of Scripture.

The strict one-to-one correspondence between what is read and what is preached does not help us here. I’m not for a minute saying we stop reading what we are preaching on—not at all! But I am saying that we need Bible reading that is independent of the sermon too. We need to teach each other to be enthusiastic for Scripture in its own right.

Aside from knowing the perversity of my own heart, the thing that first started to convince me that our churches have learnt this deafness all too well is when they ask pastorally, after church, or publicly during question time, what the point of having the second Bible reading was. In their minds, the second Bible reading is only relevant if it ties in with the sermon. And if the preacher doesn’t mention it, why did we bother with it? And if it is a reading independent of the other passage, even more so. When this begins to crop up, I can’t help but suspect that, in people’s hearts, public Bible reading has been reduced to an adjunct to preaching. And for those of us who are elders, we share in responsibility for that, for having taught them that in how we conduct the ministry of the Word.

Is this sad lack of perceived relevance why churches have gone to one Bible reading? What confirms my fears, however, is when I have raised this issue with lay people and pastors. When people have responded with a reluctance to have more Bible reading in church, it is universally because they believe that people won’t understand it if it stands on its own. And so we return to the clarity of Scripture. The clarity of Scripture doesn’t preclude a blurb that gives context, a couple of questions to ask as the passage is read, and prayer after it. But—let’s face it for what it is—the lack of faith by ministers of the Word that the congregation can understand (by God’s grace) the Bible which God chose to write as he did (the depths of Zechariah was God’s choice)—places significant question marks over what people really believe the relationship between Scripture and preaching and the Spirit is in ministry.

Let’s be clear; what are very good intentions (preaching from the Bible, not from the air; tying the readings together to show the interconnectedness of Scripture) are in danger of devolving into a place no one with a high view of Scripture can go: we’re in danger of supplanting the Bible with preaching, rather than holding them both, together, in high place and esteem in our practice. And in some places this is happening already, with sermons that subsume the reading within them, and services without Bible readings. And when you change church practice, theology follows.

As I said, it’s not with casualness that I write these things. If this isn’t you, praise God! But, being conscious of it, will you be a safeguard for those for whom it is, and guard your church against it? Whatever the case, let’s remember that we simply read a tiny amount, publicly, compared to the Reformers; whatever the case, we need to seek for answers of how we’ve ended up here. Is there a theologically-driven reason why churches are heading down the one reading route? Is there a theologically-driven reason why churches are increasingly pairing Bible study groups with the sermon series? If not, have we unwittingly let pragmatics determine practice, and now that practice is determining belief? How anaemic are our churches because we refuse to let God speak for himself?

9 thoughts on “Are we devoted to the public reading of Scripture? Part 6: Where do we expect God to work?

  1. I can’t remember if I’ve said this in this series already, but just in case I haven’t:

    My practice is to have a second reading, which is explicitly a systematic series from week to week and month to month. So, while the sermon reading might reasonably jump around from week to week (for instance, I’m doing John in ten weeks, and we’re not reading a whole two chapters each week) (oh no, I just outed myself!!) (no, it’s OK – the point of the series is in part to show how the read passages tie in to the rest of the chapters/book, so we are looking at the lot…), the systematic reading is absolutely sequential.

    Horrible sentence – start new paragraph.

    I’ll attempt a table.

    Series reading               Systematic reading

    May skip parts               Skips nothing
    Runs for length of series   Runs across many series
    Always tied to sermon     May be used in sermon

    The last point alludes to what you said, Scott, about ‘tying the readings together’. I presume you refer to the practice of essentially having two sermon readings, with the second reading potentially coming from a different part of the Bible every week. I agree, yuk. But I have found it helpful to point out connections as they arise; precisely because the second reading is not being deliberately selected to line up with the sermon, it makes a powerful point about the unity of Scripture when it does! I’ve got one lady who keeps ringing up days later to tell me how excited she still is about how that second reading is still ringing in her ears…

    Of course, I confess, I do cheat a little. So I don’t pick the sequential readings totally at random. This year, for example, we’ve read 1 Peter while working our way through Ephesians and Exodus. Isaiah 40-66 has accompanied a series on pneumatology, 1 Timothy and Ephesians. It’d go nicely with 2 Corinthians, too, if I’d been doing that. Hebrews has complemented John beautifully.

    And here I display my Anglican rebellion. I think it’s daft to insist on one OT reading and one NT reading. To start with, it means you’ll never read a solid chunk of the longer OT books, unless you choose to impoverish your preaching by spending a year on only the NT. And secondly, you’ll effectively proclaim the bifurcation of Scripture. I shoot for balance, certainly, but there have been weeks when we read two passages from the OT, and none from the New! On those weeks, I admit I did name-drop Jesus a couple of times wink

  2. I’m reminded of the comment from Oliver O’Donovan which says that it has been the bible reading which has saved many churches with bad preaching from going completely down the tubes. Or something like that.

  3. I like that model alot Anthony!  Apart from the lady who rings you about the passage, what has been the general congregation’s reaction?

  4. Hi Anthony,

    Thanks for sharing your model. I did something similar earlier this year, before I left for the UK. We preached through Thessalonians, but read through highlights of Ezekiel independent of that (although with some ‘accidental’ crossover). It was a first step in seeking to start breaking down the dependency of the readings on the sermon by having readings independent of it.

    So thanks for illustrating that for us – and as you say, the accidental crossover is often more exciting than deliberate juxtapositioning of passages!

    But, moving back into the series more generally and taking us back particularly to posts 1 and 2: if you don’t mind me saying, what you’ve illustrated here (which is what many of us have done, probably, including myself), isn’t enough. It’s a good first step (which again, some of us have done, including you and I), but we must take more steps.

    And this is probably worth saying too, that overnight wholesale change possibly wouldn’t work. But to have a program of change, step by step (ie, to get to point e from point a by going through points b, c, d first) that will bring the congregation with it in understanding, etc, could be very valuable. ie, to make 2011 the year where we move term by term to devotion to PRS, so we can put more lasting things in place come 2012.

    Yes, the need to preserve both an OT and NT reading has some advantages and disadvantages. And in this light, anyone creating a reading program across 2.5-5 years in our churches (which, for those just coming in, I suggested we need to do in post 2 / comments) will immediately be confronted by the reality of the OT being 3 times as long as the NT.

    If one is committed to have both a NT and OT reading, this can be better preserved under a 3-reading model which I suggested in the second post (which is just what Moore College chapel practices). In other words, if the sermon is on NT, then we could have two readings from the OT, or one more lengthy reading from the OT (2-3 chapters etc.). Getting through the whole Bible is easier if we are happy to having readings only from one testament or another. Although, if one is having 4 or 7 chapters (or more!) per week being read publicly, then it is possible to keep the two in tandem, for those who wish, fairly easily I would think.

    Mark Baddeley’s suggestion towards the end of the comments on the third post is useful here too: there’s no need to limit ourselves to 4 chapters/week (3 in church plus Bible study) or 7 chapters a week (3 in each church service plus Bible study). Why not just carve out each week a lengthy period of time for just listening to our God speak?

    It was a long time ago now, but one of the first sermons I did was on the whole book of Ruth (my first minister was a patient man!). As a part of that I asked us to read the whole book with it: it took 10-15 minutes.

    It’s not that hard to do, really. I expect people to listen to me for 35-40 minutes when I preach, and they almost always are happy to listen for that length too: imagine when we have gifted readers who’ve devoted themselves to exegeting the section they’re reading, who’ve practiced at length, to come and read that to us.

  5. So Scott you seem to be arguing complete immersion is preferable to familiarity?  Gordon’s earlier suggestion, in one of the comment threads, is to use Scripture more often in liturgical segues, which would make people more familiar with key passages.  But could both goals, immersion and familiarity co-exist in a service?

  6. Oh yes, definitely both.

    Although the more we do ‘immersion’ every few years rather than once a generation, the unfamiliar becomes a bit more familiar too! smile Bible literacy is ours to promote and create, and overview courses, while invaluable, are just that: overviews. To get into the text, and familliar with it, such that the 10th time I go around Ezra I’ve seen it (and the rest of the OT, on which so much of Ezra depends) 9 times before. I’m speaking here just of familiarity, but the benefits besides – post 7.

    I realised a couple of weeks ago in the way I’ve written the series that although the first post highlights BCP use of select passages as a weekly thing, I then limited myself to asking if we are devoted to publicly reading the the whole of God’s Word, and if so, what is the evidence of it.

    But, having gone to a church that declared 1 Jn 1:8-2:2 to me every other week, when I first became a Christian, is life to me now, and continues to assure me when I doubt God’s desire to save even me.

    To have been a student minister at the cathedral for two years, where every other week at 8.30 I led people to declare Psalm 95 to each other: that has been highly formative in how I approach Scripture.

    All this may sound like I’m making church incredibly complicated. I actually think it makes it more simple, and simply hear and respond to God speak.

    Thanks for the questions.

  7. It’s a big if, though, isn’t it? If one is committed to having both an OT and NT reading…

    I appreciate the historical reason for it, but I’d be interested in hearing a theological defence of the idea. Anyone?

    Luke – to be honest, there’s been no particular reaction from the congregation. I assume that something similar has been in place before my time, and I’m sure most of them haven’t twigged to my cunning plans. But you do get the occasional comment about the penny dropping.

    Scott – I know this isn’t the post to raise this, but I’m here now, so…we’ve been taking it largely for granted that the R in PRS stands for reading. But it occurs to me to wonder whether this is the case…or whether it’s shorthand for ‘reading and commenting upon’, which I take it was the practice in synagogue and early church times. Might we be having the wrong debate?

  8. Hi Anthony,

    Given the actual verse we’re discussing, I’d say reading is reading, since it he then moves on to preaching/exhortation and teaching. Given the semantics of the words (post 8), ‘reading’ is reading out loud and ‘teaching’ would be the thing that comprehends the practice you mention.

    So, no, I don’t think we’re having the wrong debate – as you may have already guessed from my writing all these posts about it. wink

    As for having both OT/NT readings? I was tying your comment back into the series rather than answering it per se. That is, what I’m suggesting is that, on a practical level, it’s really only an issue when we do so little reading as we currently do. The more reading we do, which is what I’m saying we need to move towards (and quickly), the less likely the issue would even come up.

    But, yes, the theological rather than pragmatic question still remains. [But today is my day off and we’re going to the museum smile ]

    But I’m also hoping we can move off this for this post, and return to the primary issue I raise, and which Marty’s O’Donovan quote moves us back towards: do we and our churches see and expect in our experience of church that the reading itself is a location of God’s activity, or just the preaching? What practices have people put in place that help preserve this (eg, like the sometimes MTC practice of having the sermon right at the end of everything and the independent readings well before)?

    What I failed to mention in my personal testimony in an earlier post from my early years was that I *did* actually keep getting a form of Christian studies at high school. But even in my completely ignorant don’t-know-who-Jesus-is state, I knew I wasn’t being taught the Bible. And it was that knowledge that actually drove me to go get my mum’s KJV out of the wardrobe. And God kept me!

    As this post is the pointy-end of the stick, I guess I really want us to return to answering the questions raised in the last 3 paragraphs of the post. We simply can’t afford to avoid self-reflection, and staff-meeting reflection, and church reflection on these things.

  9. Hi Scott, thanks for this series. The whole issue has been one of my big concerns and frustrations for years – I seem to remember chatting with you about it at Fairfield.

    I reckon, in terms of our doctrine of Scripture, it’s a kind of evangelical Roman Catholicism – only the “priest” (ok, “preacher”) can interpret the Word, and the rest depend on him to mediate the meaning. It is inaccessible to the ordinary believer. That might not be what we affirm or say we believe, but in our practice, that’s the message we communicate. And as you say, maybe it’s because we do actually believe it.

    Thanks again, keep up the good work.

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