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.

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5 Responses

  1. Doreen says:

    Also begin EFM or other similar groups in churches. Being part of an EFM group was transformational for me. Not only has my faith grown deeper with a much greater familiarity with the Bible, but I developed such strong bonds with some fellow Christians who have shared an amazing experience with me.

  2. Joel Mlay says:

    In his lecture on the Sins of Scripture at Christ Church Cathedral in Cincinnati on Friday 11/7, Bishop John Shelby Spong raised some thought-provoking remarks about the Bible. Along with the contents of this newsletter, all Christians – not Episcopalians only – may want to engage more intentionally with the Bible and with one another.

  3. Relling says:

    I am glad that you have posted this. My dicoese had encouraged people to participate in the Bible challenge, but my church had not joined in this. With the coming of Advent, this is a timely reminder indeed.
    EFM is a valuable thing, but it is expensive and extremely rigid in its weekly atendance requirements, perhaps better suited to people with a more relaxed schedule than many of us must contend with. The Bible Challenge looks to be more accessible.

  4. Our parish began Marek Zabriskie’s The Bible Challenge last year on Advent I. Nearly 25% of our parish is involved and that group is nearly finished; we hope to begin another group this year. The original group is eager to continue with other methods of engagement going forward. Our youth are engaged with the Bible as well. My own preaching has been tremendously informed (and I hope, transformed!) by both Renewal Works and the Challenge. I cannot say enough good things about Zabriskie’s approach, and highly recommend it.

  5. Willo says:

    Thank you for this very insightful and important article. I agree with the idea of bringing your bible to church instead of having the lessons printed in the service bulletin. As a lifelong Episcopalian I realized when I joined a nondenominational bible study that required daily study with written questions, how little I knew about where to even look for the different books in the bible. Also, when you follow the lesson with your bible it is a reminder that what is written before and after the passage adds to the story. I would love to have a weekly Bible in my own church that really focused on the Bible.

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