Due to a high level of interest in my previous post “Inclusive or Exclusive Worship?” I decided to pull out a couple of posts in a previous series called Expansive Worship that continues this topic. In the last two weeks, I have targeted children’s sermons and “adult” sermons. This week’s target is Bible reading in worship.
What if the way we often read the Bible in worship alienates worshippers from Scripture rather than engages them? What can we do to fix this?
Expansive Worship So Far
Earlier this summer, I focused on how congregations have often separated people into insiders and outsiders, whether consciously or unconsciously. In the last two weeks, I’ve reflected on the problematic aspects of both children’s sermons and “adult” sermons. My intent is not to tear down tradition (completely), but to encourage a thoughtful examination of how to make our worship services as inclusive and engaging as possible. After all, our corporate worship services are the best-attended faith formation events that we hold. Today’s target is the reading of Scripture in worship. While all these topics might be most relevant to pastors and worship leaders, we desperately need the advocacy and expertise of Christian educators and youth leaders!
Faith Formation in Worship
Why do we read aloud the Bible in worship in the first place? It may seem like too basic a question to even ask, but I find those to be some of the most important questions. We gather for corporate worship both to worship (respond in love to all that God has done for us) and for faith formation (of which worship is one avenue).
Faith formation has two intertwined parts, just as we use the word “faith” in two primary ways in the church. Our faith is both the transformative relationship of trust with the Triune God and the content of our belief system (faith, trust, and belief are all translations of the same Greek word). We learn about God, the history of God’s people, and how all this impacts how we view the world in which we live. We can’t really have a relationship with God if we don’t even know what God is like. But learning the teachings of the church without a relationship with God is “dead” faith.
Scripture in Worship
The Bible is a library of writings created over a long time by the people of God. These writings have been identified by the people of God as trustworthy content about God. As a whole, the Bible is a “primary source” for our faith. So, of course, we read the Bible in our worship services. We read Scripture out loud so that we are all on the same page; it makes the reading of the Bible a communal activity.
The Problems of the Bible in Worship
However, the oral reading of Scripture in our worship services is not without significant problems. And these problems exist whether you use a lectionary (pre-written calendar of Bible readings) or choose the readings yourself.
The first problem, as I see it, is one of the same problems we find in a spoken sermon. Listening is only one of the various pathways of learning. When you limit teaching/learning to only one method, you are leaving out worshippers who learn differently, and you are leaving out parts of the brain for all worshippers that help with learning and engagement.
The Bible Is Difficult
The second problem is that the Bible is hard to understand. This shouldn’t surprise anyone. Despite the ubiquity of the Christian Bible in our lives and even in Western culture, we often forget that these are ancient documents. We easily accept that we need help understanding Shakespeare’s plays, which are 1,500 years closer to us than the newest part of the Bible. The writings in the Bible were written in very different historical, cultural, linguistic, and literary contexts than ours. This is true for the stories in Scripture, but it is so many more times true for the non-narrative parts of Scripture (e.g., Psalms, Prophets, and Epistles).
So, when we read the Bible out loud in worship, we are expecting all worshippers to gain something meaningful out of difficult-to-understand readings. Or—so much worse—we are reading them not expecting them to make an impact on worshippers.
The Dangers of Bible Reading
If many worshippers are not able to understand one or more of the Bible readings in worship, what does our continued use of such readings communicate to them?
- The Bible is confusing.
- The Bible is not for them.
- At least parts of the Bible don’t have any practical application in their lives.
Is this really what we want to communicate to worshippers? Does this practice fulfill the very purposes we have to read Scripture in worship in the first place?
Please note that, while the lack of biblical literacy is a factor here, it’s not the only factor or even a major one. I like to think of myself as biblically literate—I would hope so after a seminary education and many years spent creating and publishing materials designed to increase biblical literacy. I still struggle with the oral reading of the non-narrative parts of Scripture (again, Psalms, Prophets, and Epistles). My primary learning strength is not listening (except for stories) and the readings are fast enough that my brain can’t fully process their meanings in enough time. So, to me, they are a waste of time.
Solving the Problems, Avoiding the Dangers
I see three main (overlapping) solutions to these problems. None involve stopping reading Scripture in worship.
- Use lectionary-based education. A slower-paced, more engaging treatment of the Bible passages in an educational space will greatly improve the impact of the Scripture readings in worship. The purpose of the readings is then to remind worshippers of what the readings mean, not to introduce them. But this only helps worshippers who attend education events/classes.
- Engage each part of Scripture used in worship. There are so many ways of doing this. Use sermon time to go through and explain the readings. Preface each reading with important context. Perform skits or other activities to engage worshippers. Make the reading a multi-sensory experience.
- Only include readings that you will use. If you do not have the time or energy to make each Bible reading engaging, then consider dropping the readings you are not using. If worshippers challenge you on this, then ask them how these extraneous readings are benefiting them and the rest of the congregation.
We Can Help
It’s not an accident that we (Spirit & Truth Publishing) have faith formation resources to help with these solutions. We have lectionary-based educational resources for both the Revised Common Lectionary and the Narrative Lectionary,* as well as a Cross+Gen Worship (NL) curriculum to help with the engagement piece. We even now have a five-lesson Bible 101 curriculum for children and intergenerational ministry to help lay the foundation for biblical engagement. My purpose for bringing these products up here is not completely promotional. Yes, I want you to purchase our products (after all, this is how I make my living and pay our contributors). But these are the reasons why we create these resources in the first place.
*The Narrative Lectionary (NL) was created, in part, to have a single “preaching” reading each day to eliminate the dangers of the “useless” readings made possible by the four readings of the Revised Common Lectionary. Thus, some of the points I make here are things I have learned from presentations in relation to the benefits of the NL.
With or without our products, I hope you can work to make your reading of Scripture more meaningful to your worshippers!
In the love of Christ,
Gregory Rawn (Publisher)
Order Faith Formation Resources
The 2023-2024 program year is starting very soon! Are you still looking for resources? Order easy-to-use, theologically sound, and effective resources now for the Narrative Lectionary, Revised Common Lectionary, and even a new Classroom curriculum for PK-2nd and 3rd-6th (check our blog post for a special discount)!
Looking for a resource for intergenerational events, whole-church series, or even something new for Sunday school? Check out our Learning Together series! These five-lesson units are available on six different topics, one of which is FREE! The other five are quite affordable with variable pricing starting at $25 for a program with 1-10 participants. Perfect for children’s and intergenerational ministries.
At Spirit & Truth Publishing, we might just have exactly what you are looking for:
- Resource for the Revised Common Lectionary (2023-2024) (intergenerational classroom)
- Resources for the Narrative Lectionary (2023-2024) (products for all ages)
- Classic Sunday School Curriculum (key Bible stories for PK-2nd and 3rd-6th)
- Learning Together: Five-lesson topical units for VBS, Sunday school, children, and intergenerational classes.
- Cross+Generational Confirmation
- Worship and Liturgy Education