Keep these words in your heart: scripture engagement, part 3
Scripture engagement is a big deal. I hope that’s clear by now if you slogged through parts one and two. Exploring the scriptures is a remarkably effective catalyst for spiritual growth, and I tried to offer some ways to make good use of Christian formation time for scripture engagement. In this post, we’ll talk about some of the ways one could embed scripture engagement in liturgical and congregational life.
Taking Scripture Seriously in Liturgy
This is the point at which I occasionally run across a smug Episcopalian who points out that we hear three lessons every Sunday, hear or sing a psalm, and pray using words that are mostly scripture.All that is true. So then, the theory goes, we Episcopalians must be scripture geniuses. But if I were a betting person, I’d wager that most Episcopalians would do poorly if a reading comprehension pop quiz were administered in place of the sermon. What was the first reading about? Why was St. Paul writing to the the people in our second reading? What’s Jesus reacting to in the Gospel? I think the readings tend to go in one ear and out the other, and I will confess sometimes I too zone out. Then, of course, there’s the sermon. Would that it were the case that every preacher drew hearers into God’s word with a sensitive balance of exegesis, explication, and application. Alas, many of our sermons seem to be reflections on current events with a nod toward the readings at some point. I’ve blogged about preaching (and how to fix it) before.
So what to do? Here are a few things we did in the parish I served. Whether or not these will work in your setting is something to figure out. You might well have other ideas, and if you do, please share them here in the comments.
Preach better. There, I said it. Preachers, up your game. Preach as if you love the scriptures — because you do, right? Preach as if someone in the congregation needs to hear a word of hope today, because their life depends on it — because this might be true. Preach as if someone has stepped into a church for the first time today, and they’ve never heard the Gospel proclaimed — because it could be so. Preach as if we’re dulled by habit and what we need is to be stirred and provoked — because we’ve all been there.
In sermons invite people to read the scriptures. Suggest that people go home and read the rest of the chapter. Point out how cool it is that Jesus is quoting Isaiah, and encourage folks to look up that passage. Normalize biblical literacy. Some people will take you up on this.
Stop printing the readings. How often have you looked around during a Gospel reading and noticed everyone is heads-down, stuck in a leaflet? Is anyone listening? It’s hard to say. Take away that textual crutch, and people will look up and focus on the hearing of scripture. That’s how it is meant to be received. Now, some people will object that they are visual learners and need to read the text to comprehend it. OK, see next point.
Create an expectation that people will bring a Bible to church. In the first post in this series, I suggested that you encourage everyone in the church to get a Bible they love. So this is the next step. Get folks to bring their Bibles to church. Not everyone will, but some people will. Once people are bringing a Bible, you can put them to work by referring to scriptures in preaching, in teaching, and even in meetings. And, yes, I’ve seen Episcopalians do this. It’s amazing. Anyway, this is your answer for folks who want to read along as the lessons are proclaimed; tell them to read their own Bibles. That way, they can make notes as they’re listening.
Use a pulpit Bible. Jettison little sheets of paper and even lectionary books. Get a giant pulpit Bible and use that. Readers will have to arrive early to check the readings, but that’s good anyway. They’ll have to practice ahead of time, especially if there are skipped verses. But that’s good anyway. It’s impressive what a different it makes in the reading when people have found their way to a page in a giant book (oh, right, this reading is in the middle of story; it has context!). The reverence of dealing with a book instead of a photocopied sheet or the service leaflet you carried up to the chancel is noticeable. There will be failures — lector couldn’t find the place, or messed up the reading — but these are all opportunities to teach the importance of preparation for reading scripture publicly.
In some churches, it might make sense to read the Gospel from this same book, either from the ambo/lectern or carried in procession. I know that when St. John’s Cathedral, Denver, decided to go all in on scripture, they read the Gospel from a massive, full-size replica of the St. John’s Bible. Talk about a reverent reading and listening experience!
Read the Whole Bible Out Loud
We began our year of scripture engagement with a public reading of the entire Bible. Yes, the whole Bible. It turns out you can read the entire Old Testament and New Testament out loud in about 74 hours. And that’s just what we did. Here’s a K-Love radio spot about our weekend of Bible reading.
I did not invent this. In the Diocese of Kansas, they have a youth program called Miqra. Check it out. It’s awesome. Youth spend the weekend reading scripture and taking classes about the Bible. It’s very popular, and lots of other places have used the program. With permission of the folks in Kansas, we adapted this into a parish-wide event.
We started reading Genesis 1 at 9:00 a.m. on the Friday of Labor Day weekend. We got loads of parishioners, ranging in age from about eight to about 80, to sign up for one-hour slots. Each person had to read until the next person arrived, and then they did a seamless handoff so that the reading continued uninterrupted in one continuous flow. We continued through the day and all night long, too. Some volunteers slept in the church so that readers would feel safe at 3:00 a.m. On Saturday morning, we had a bunch of workshops and classes for all ages on the Bible. Meanwhile, the reading continued. We live-streamed the whole thing so members could watch from their homes or workplaces.
On Monday, we finished up around 11:00 a.m., as I recall. About an hour before the end, we sent out an email and social media blast to let folks know about the exact time of the service. We celebrated Holy Eucharist in thanksgiving for God’s word in the scriptures. Our second reading was Revelation 22, the last chapter of the Bible, read aloud by all present. Even as I type this, I’m remembering the joy and awe of that moment. (Spoiler alert: the Bible has an awesome ending.)
It’s hard to overstate how great it was to read the whole Bible out loud. One benefit I wasn’t expecting is that it made the scriptures seem more approachable. If our “little church” could read the whole Bible out loud in a weekend, it must not be that scary. On the flip side, it turns out that if you pick any hour of the Bible to read aloud, you’ll likely to run across really amazing, inspiring stuff and other bits that make you wonder about the goodness of scripture. We clergy had lots of conversations with folks, “Why is that in the Bible?”
Here’s the thing. It takes lots of people to do this. We immediately pulled dozens of people into the project of scripture engagement. Even people who ordinarily wouldn’t do “something like that” pitched in. One woman who was very active in our church had a husband who only came around a few times a year. Though he was very supportive of her involvement, church wasn’t his thing. But he decided to watch a bit of our live-stream at his workplace. A few of his work buddies — none of whom were especially churchy — decided to start a Bible study at their workplace. All because they were intrigued with the idea of reading the whole Bible aloud. How cool is that?
Reframe the Vestry with Scripture
One idea I swiped (from Carol Anderson, back when she was rector of All Saints’, Beverly Hills) is to start vestry meetings with a Bible study of Acts. We varied the method a bit from what she had done, but we followed the core concept. Each meeting of the vestry, we read one pericope from Acts. We started with 1:1 and started reading our way through. Each time, someone would read the passage aloud, and then someone else would read it again. We would then tell the story in our own words. No cheating by looking at the text, and no editorializing or interrogating. The point was to hear and to tell the story. Then we’d invite people to share what they noticed, including questions. Often we’d leave these unanswered — just as things to ponder. Finally, we’d talk about what the passage might have to do with us, in that moment. It’s astonishing how readily a vestry can be reoriented by this simple exercise. The church in Acts was struggling with conflict, persecution, rapid growth, leadership challenges, sinful failures, and more. Some problems are more familiar to us than others, but we could all see the point of Acts. Trusting in the Holy Spirit is the thing. Challenges do not define us. God’s love working in us defines us. Amazing.
Embed Bible Study in Every Group
This one comes from Jay Sidebotham, from when he was rector of Church of the Holy Spirit in Lake Forest, IL. Embed the Bible in everything means that every meeting of every group in the church begins with Bible study. These might be explorations of a book in sequence, or a theme over several meetings, or a pericope chosen for each meeting. The point is to contextualize everything that we do in church in the larger story of God’s great love for us.
These are just a few of the many ways we can promote scripture engagement. There are plenty more, including obvious ones like creating lots of Bible studies. You’ll doubtless have ideas that have worked in your congregations or things you’ve always wanted to try. Please share them in the comments.
I began this series with a quote from Deuteronomy (6:6-9)
Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
Keeping the scriptures in our hearts doesn’t just happen. We can’t talk about the scriptures if we haven’t read them. We can’t teach them to our children if we don’t know them ourselves. Scripture engagement takes effort, but it is worth it.
Can you imagine what our congregations would be like if we kept God’s words in our hearts? If we taught our children about God’s great love for us as revealed in the scriptures? If we publicly proclaimed the scriptures? Can you imagine?
Image: From the Society of Saint Francis.