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