Engagement with scripture, engagement with Jesus
Converge Magazine has recently published a bleak article about the decline in biblical engagement among Canadians. There is every reason, sadly, to think that the findings would be mirrored in the US and in many other nations. The article summarizes and comments on a published study from the Canadian Bible Forum, “Are Canadians Done with the Bible?”
The trend is alarming. Both lay and clergy leaders should be concerned about this and coming up with strategies to reverse the trend. Sadly, instead of crisis, a comfortable complacency pervades many leadership circles of the Episcopal Church. “Why focus on the Bible?” they say. “That’s for other people.” This attitude says much about why our denomination is experiencing precipitous decline. As the article says, “Bible engagement is the primary catalyst for spiritual health and growth. This is why he says this study is so alarming; death of Bible engagement spells out death for any vibrant church life.”
The importance of scriptural engagement isn’t just for others. RenewalWorks, a ministry of Forward Movement, has collected mountains of data on the spiritual health of the Episcopal Church. There are enough data that we can see some patterns in what activities serve as catalysts for spiritual growth, and scriptural engagement is among the most important. Incidentally, you can see some of the preliminary research in a new Forward Movement title, Footsteps: Making spiritual growth the priority. Within our own church, engagement with scripture is one of the most reliable ways to nurture spiritual growth. It’s really pretty simple: if we could get more Episcopalians reading and reflecting on the Bible, their lives would be enriched and our church would be healthier.
We love to pride ourselves as the church “where you don’t have to check your brain at the door.” And if you bring up our biblical illiteracy, Episcopalians often say defensively, “Our church hears more scripture on Sunday than any other church!” Well, yes. And yet we are, by and large, biblically illiterate. Too many of us don’t know the basic shape of the scriptural narrative or its key stories. Lots of Episcopalians don’t read the bible at all outside of church and have no idea how to look up particular passages or where to start reading.
Here’s the great news: it’s not that hard to get people interested in reading the Bible. All it takes is a passion for discipleship and a contagious love of scripture in lay and clergy leaders. There are lots o great ways to go about this engagement. But too many of our leaders, especially clergy, have thrown in the towel. The boomer generation has too often checked out. Again, from the article, “What happened is, my generation, the boomer generation, in large part have stepped away from engagement with the Bible.”
It’s not too late to fix this. Here are several ways to get people reading the Bible:
- Embed the scriptures in every ministry, every meeting. Do real Bible study, not a navel-gazing exercise where people share kneejerk responses without transformative engagement.
- Stop printing the lessons in the service leaflet, and start expecting people to bring a Bible to church.
- Start a thematic or narrative Bible study. Get people to back up and see a bigger picture than the Sunday lectionary gives.
- Encourage people to pray the daily office.
- Buy lots of copies of The Story and get people reading it. Or wait for a similar digest from Forward Movement, to be published in 2015 (if all goes to plan).
- Start people on The Bible Challenge.
- Preach the scriptures in a way that suggests they contain truth, not merely as texts to be dissected with textual criticism.
- Plan a Miqra reading of the entire Bible in your congregation for youth or for all ages.
- Tell people to read Forward Day by Day and all the cited lessons. By the way, the lessons are those of the daily office or RCL for Sundays and major feasts.
This is off the top of my head. There are as many ways to engage with scripture as there are people.
If we hope to be a church that is healthy, that carries out a vital mission in the world, we need to be healthy at our core. To do that, we all need to engage with the scriptures.