“Why do people go to the cinema, when we’ve got TVs as big and as good as cinema screens in our front rooms? It costs £9 to go here—why go? It’s because there’s something about being told a story together. People love it. And that’s what the Bible is. It’s all in there, but we miss it.”
Pete Woodcock, pastor of Cornerstone Church in Kingston, eight miles from the centre of London, is nothing if not direct and provocative. And excited. He loves storytelling, he loves the Bible, and he loves thinking about how to help other people love the Bible too.
And he doesn’t pull his punches.
“I think our practice of reading a minimal bit of the Bible in a service, that the preacher will then preach on, is weird and probably wrong,” he says.
“We’re supposed to read it as books. When Paul wrote a letter and encouraged the people he was writing to to read it as a whole church, do you think they said: “We’re going to read verses 1-4 today—come back next week for a bit more”, and that was it? I imagine they read the whole letter. That’s how the Bible’s written to be read—in big chunks, out loud, together.
“And I think we’ve lost that idea. Somewhere, we’ve forgotten about it.”
Devoted to the public reading of Scripture?
I’m at Pete’s church office in central Kingston to interview him as a follow-up to Scott Newling’s Briefing article last March on the public reading of Scripture. (He’s in a bit of a hurry because he wants to go and chat to the market traders outside.) To judge by the Briefing’s interchange, Scott’s article made a lot of people think about their church’s culture and practice.
Scott pointed out that if we read 15 verses of the Bible in our services each week (about average for evangelical churches in the west), that’s 2.5% of God’s word being heard each year. Even assuming a church never repeats the same passage, it will take 40 years for a church member to hear the whole Bible read publicly.
And that was his challenge. In
1 Timothy 4:13 Paul tells Timothy—and us—to “devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture”, but, Scott asked, “while we may be devoted to the teaching of Scripture, does the same hold true for our public reading of it?”
Apologies if you can remember his article word for word, but as someone who usually forgets what he did last weekend, I think it’s worth refreshing our memories! He asked us good questions: “What tangible realities would abundantly display our love and passion for hearing Scripture read out loud? … Dream the dreams of a devoted person and imagine how public Bible readings might increase in your context.”
The Big Read
That’s what Pete has done with his congregation. Cornerstone is part of the Co-Mission church-planting initiative, and started nine years ago with 30 members. Today it has a congregation of 120, and has also planted another congregation a few minutes’ walk away. Dreaming dreams seems to be part of the church’s DNA.
Pete has realised that, with a large proportion of his membership having been converted as adults, “they just don’t know the stories. They didn’t go to Sunday School, and so they don’t know the amazing narratives of the gospels or of the Old Testament.
“We’re Bible illiterate. I assume 100 years ago people knew the Scriptures more—but now they just don’t. And the great thing about the Bible is most of it is narrative. People love stories, and the Bible’s got stories. So let’s use them!”
That’s exactly what they’re doing. Based on an idea Pete got from Steve Levy, pastor of Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in Swansea, Cornerstone have embarked on ‘The Big Read’.
“It’s not exactly revolutionary!” Pete says. “It’s just reading big chunks of Scripture, out loud, together. It’s reading the Bible as it was written to be read. So each month, we’ll read a book of the Bible in our midweek small groups. So far we’ve done Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, and then we did Luke and Acts. Then we tackled Hebrews, which just comes alive if you’ve already read the Pentateuch.
“On the first Sunday of the month I preach on the book we’ll be looking at. And we basically look at how that book points to or reveals Jesus. Of course, you can’t do everything about Jesus from that book—but for the Old Testament books, I’ll pick on five or six different bits. It’s a really sweeping overview, seeing flashes of Jesus in that book. That’s our introduction to that month’s Big Read.
“Then at the prayer meeting in the middle of the next week, we have our first read. After the time of prayer, we’ll read out loud around nine chapters, which gets us into it, ready for the small groups to carry on reading for the rest of the month.”
So is there any ‘scaffolding’ for the groups as they read huge chunks of possibly unfamiliar, potentially dense, Bible books?
“We came up with ten questions to ask of each chunk once you’ve read it. Everyone has these questions with them, and it gives a little bit of focus to what you’re reading. Not all passages answer all the questions! But they do mean you can look to see what the chapters are telling us about God, about his Son, about his people the church, and so on. And of course different people are struck by different things in different places.”
Being realistic about reading
You can take the Big Read home, too.
“I’m realistic about people reading,” says Pete. “By and large people, particularly blokes, aren’t readers. You might want people to follow a Bible reading plan and read four chapters at home each day, but I’m not convinced they’ll do it.”
The statistics certainly bear that out. In the UK, a recent survey found that only two in every five evangelical Christians aged under 45 read the Bible every day. 20% don’t open their Bible other than on Sundays.1
And so Pete’s been encouraging his congregation to listen, rather than read.
“But I’ve found a CD called The Experience Bible. It’s a dramatized reading of the TNIV translation. Most dramatized readings I hate. I threw one out of my car window once. I just couldn’t stand the way they made Jesus sound like he was in a bathroom, with a hugely echoing voice!
“But this one is, for the most part, phenomenally good. The actors are great and the sound effects they use are helpful. And it’s cheap! So we’ve encouraged people to get it. I love it—you’ve got the entire Bible, and you can listen to whole chunks of it without really noticing, because it’s so well done.
“And all the time, you’re getting the stories God uses to tell us about himself into people’s minds and into their hearts. People are absolutely loving it.”
Twists, surprises and cliffhangers
All this sounds great (particularly coming from Pete, who could probably sell ice to the Eskimos). But there’s a nagging doubt at the back of my mind, which I know shouldn’t be there and which I don’t want to own up to: isn’t reading huge chunks of Scripture a bit, well, dull? Here’s my shameful admission—quite often when the Bible’s read in church, I’m just waiting for the sermon to start.
I decide to keep quiet (it’s not the sort of thing to admit to in public). But as Pete talks, he touches on something that might show where my problem lies.
“I think we’ve got into a habit of how we read the Bible in our services and groups,” he says. “Readings are done in a formal, clipped sort of way. The way we read the Bible is very mannered, and we flatten out any emotion or excitement.
“Most people don’t speak like that, and the Bible’s certainly not like that. The Bible’s wild! It’s humorous and it’s raucous and it’s shocking. It’s exciting and it’s full of twists and surprises and cliffhangers.
“But I think we’ve sanitized our services. We want to make things nice and acceptable and ‘appropriate’ for Sunday mornings. And we miss the horror and the drama and the expression. I sometimes think we’ve misread Philippians 4:8. It says to think about “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable… anything [that is] excellent or praiseworthy”. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t talk about some things on Sunday mornings just because they’re a bit raw or stark.
“These things are in the Bible. You’ve got everything going on here.”
Getting in the boat
By now I’m beginning to get excited about reading God’s word again. In fact, I resolve to read through the whole of Judges in one sitting sometime soon. But Pete’s moved on to fill out a theme he’s mentioned previously, our habit of breaking books up into small chunks for reading in our services.
“We’ve got into the habit of reading four verses and then preaching on it. But that means you miss the story arcs, the climaxes, the tension. You can chop the book of Judges or Ruth or Jonah, which are full of excitement, into little bits and miss all of that. People need to get a feel of the whole, to get a sense of the story.
“And our preaching is so often three points of doctrine, and that’s what we talk about. Doctrine’s great, don’t get me wrong, but if you just preach doctrine from what is actually a story…
“Why did God tell the truth about himself in story form? Why didn’t he just say: “Go to page 690, I talk about the Trinity there”? God chooses to tell us something about himself and about the world in storytelling, and we’ve got to get back to that. One of the ways of getting back into that is surely just reading the Bible in the way it’s designed to be.
“Take Jesus being God, for example. God chose to help us understand that through the story of the calming of the storm. Why that way? We tend to flatten it and leave the story on the pages and pull out the truths. We don’t get in the boat. We don’t feel the fear, we don’t want to shake Jesus with the disciples and say: “Don’t you care?!”
“I tell our preachers—get in the boat! We won’t get our heads and hearts round this unless you get us in the boat!”
Big chunks, out loud, together
“Here’s something provocative.” (Pete always smiles when he starts a sentence this way, and you realize as you listen to him that he’s really provoking himself and the way he thinks and does things as much as he’s seeking to provoke anyone else.) “First, we take the only infallible thing there is in our service—the word of God—and we read just three or four verses of it. Then we have 30 minutes
of fallible preaching! And then often we blandify the Bible stories by making them into three nice little points, rather than showing what they actually are.
“If we read the Bible and preach it like it should be, then maybe we would start having an effect on our culture, rather than Christianity and our churches being seen as something nice and middle class that doesn’t really touch the reality of life.”
What’s Pete’s point to the wider church, then? “We’re really not setting this up as a negative to other churches. We’re not saying: “We’ve got it right, learn from us”. I really don’t want to come across like that.
“What we are trying to do is say we want our people to know the Scripture—and how will they know the Scriptures other than by reading it? And what’s the best way to read it? I’m convinced that it’s designed to be read in big chunks, out loud, with people getting together.
“In how we set our church services and meetings up, there’s a time to go slow, of course there is. I’ve been preaching Matthew for the last three years, and I started at chapter 5 and I’ve only got to chapter 13! Soon we’re having a series on the fruits of the Spirit from Galatians 5, just one word a week, a kind of study on how the Bible speaks of one particular word. We do go slow!
“But in church life there’s time and room to go fast, too. Both are needed, especially with a young church, with members who have been converted in their twenties. We need to teach them these stories, and they need to get a feel for whole books, and they need to keep feeling excited about the word. And I think older Christians need that too—I know I do!”
Pete’s a narrative guy. He can’t help but paint pictures with his words. It feels right that we finish the interview with him telling a story. “You go to look at a masterpiece in an art gallery. What do you do? You look at it! The bloke who did the painting, let’s say it’s Van Gogh painting a cornfield, wants you to get the whole feel of it.
“Now as you look at it an expert on the painting shows up. They say: “Look at the bird in that field of corn, let’s focus on the way he did that brushstroke in an upwards direction”. And it’s right for you to look at that bird and appreciate the detail.
“But it’s also right to stand back and say: “Wow! The joy of the cornfield, fantastic, it’s just brilliant!”
“You need to do both—stand back and focus in.”
The Big Read: Ten questions for each passage
These are the questions Cornerstone’s members discuss after reading a ‘big chunk’ of Scripture. Many of them are based on questions the Bible itself asks.
- What strikes you? What questions does this passage raise?
- What dangers/warnings/sins are there? (1 Cor 10:11)
- What do you learn about God—Father/Son/Holy Spirit?
- How is Jesus previewed/revealed? (Luke 24:27)
- How are you corrected and rebuked? (2 Tim 3:16)
- How are you encouraged to endure? (Rom 15:4)
- What do you learn about doing works of service and building up the church? (Eph 4:11-13)
- What do you learn about loving God? (Mark 12:29-30)
- What do you learn about loving your neighbour as yourself? (Mark 12:31)
- How do you feel you need to change to live as a man/woman of God? (2 Tim 3:15-16)