October 14, 2019

The Strange Case of the Missing Scripture Lessons

6phyllispierson.jpgJosh at eucatastrophe and Pirate (at the BHT) have been writing about the public reading of scripture, something that is strangely absent in the worship and preaching of the vast majority of evangelicals.

If you wanted examples of preaching that completely left out the Bible and any reasonable use of it, I could keep you here all day with some stories that even I have trouble believing are true. But to be conservative, it’s become rather typical for the average evangelical worship experience to…

-contain no actual reading of scripture as a component of the “order” of worship.
-to use more scripture in music than in many sermons.
-to be dependent on the preacher entirely for what amount of scripture actually winds up in the worship service, and for how that scripture is presented.
-in most cases, that amounts to 1) short verses used to bolster points, 2) retold Biblical narratives and 3) perhaps some exegetical excursion through a selected passage in the sermon.

This is an unhistoric, pragmatic, deplorable development in evangelicalism, and it needs to be fixed.

At soli deo, we use three full scripture lessons plus a responsive or sung Psalm. It would not be unusual for 10-15 minutes or more of corporate worship time to be be used for the public reading of these lessons. We believe this kind of reading of the word of God is ancient, wise, useful, worshipful, provocative, helpful, inspiring and, above all, God honoring.

We have a phrase: “The sermon is the servant of the scripture, rather than the scripture being the servant of the sermon.” What do we mean?

Simply put, we believe the scripture lesson should precede the sermon and provide the direction and substance of the sermon, as opposed to the sermon using snippets and citations of scripture to provide legitimacy for itself.

I do not believe it is inappropriate to use topical preaching. I do it frequently. But the regular diet of any gathered group of Christians should be hearing the Word read followed by hearing the Word explained and applied. This does not always serve the agenda of a preacher or teacher, but if a preacher is constantly extracting parts of scripture to season a series on various topics, then something is wrong with the diet of that congregation.

Nor do I believe that expository preaching, per se, is the answer to the evangelical crisis. What passes for exposition today varies widely. Look at the expositional style of Mark Dever- covering whole books in a few sermons- as compared to John Piper’s most-of-a-decade journey through Romans or my own recent two years in the Gospel of John.

I do believe, however, that exposition in some form is the best way for the sermon to be the servant of the Word rather than the opposite. For all the good one can say about Spurgeon, he presumed heavily on the Biblical literacy of his audience in his career of topical preaching. Spurgeon spent little time with Biblical exposition in the pulpit, but his church did practice the public reading of large portions of scripture and weekly communion.

Interesting, our experience at soli deo has taught us that comments and discussion after each scripture lesson is welcome. At times, our gathering has several “mini-sermons,” one following each lesson and one tying them all together. In an age when “real preaching” is often a 45 minute to an hour plus lecture or comedy/motivational talk, I think we should reconsider the multiple shorter homilies/teaching segments that can be used with multiple scripture lessons.

We often associate public reading of scripture with the mainline Protestant and traditionally Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican and Lutheran churches. I have, however, discovered that many Reformed Baptist and emerging churches have public readings of entire chapters and lessons. The irony among evangelicals is that their largest church, Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church, is full of people carrying Bible, repeating a confession of the Bible’s power and importance, and then, strangely, hearing almost no scripture at all from Osteen.

The public reading of scripture doesn’t require the lectionary, but I cannot recommend the usefulness of the lectionary enough. The arrangement of scripture in the Revised Common Lectionary is a major contribution to the appreciation of the Christian year and a tremendous gift of unity to the Body of Christ. Many of us who have been using the lectionary have discovered that it is richly suggestive for Biblical preaching that reaches into all parts of the Bible and brings us deeply into the Biblical story. There are also incredible collections of lectionary resources available for preachers.

Often, after reading a post like this, someone will write and want to know how to promote more public reading of scripture in their church. Let me prepare you for what may be an unpleasant surprise: don’t be at all taken back when you hear that there is “no time” for that much reading, or “the congregation doesn’t like that much reading,” or “it’s boring, and the time could be better used for more music.”

Many pastors and elders are, thankfully, open and motivated to include more scripture reading and will welcome the opportunity to know there is congregational support. Public reading allows the involvement of congregation members of all ages and genders, which all churches should welcome. Projection technology can be used to enhance the reading experience.

Churches that choose to have 40 minutes of music and no public reading of scripture are making a ridiculous mistake in the formation of the members of that congregation. From spiritual infants to the most mature Christians, all of us need to see and hear a weekly reminder that, in the church and in life, we all are under the authority of the Word of God, we all belong to the Christian story and what we have to say about God is of little importance compared to what God has to say to us about himself.

Pastors, if you cannot find a place in public worship for the reading of the Bible, you have too much of something that is less than essential. There is some kind of standard in your mind that needs to be abandoned.

Comments

  1. Growing up in a Protestant church, it always struck me as strange that one man’s vanity took precedence over every other aspect of corporate Christian worship. The reverence for the scriptures (in addition to the liturgy) is what originally drew me home to the Catholic Church, where I plan to stay. It’s great to see other Protestants rediscovering true Christian worship by getting their priorities in line.

  2. Something else also worth noting is that, with many daily lectionaries (IIRC, the Catholic lectionary is like this), they are ordered in such a way that the whole Bible is read through every two years. This could be helpful to those who cannot read for themselves, given that they can attend daily services (and the Scripture lessons are read in a language they can understand, of course). It also serves as a good “devotional guide” for individual reading.

    This is something I noticed when my girlfriend and I first started visiting other churches. I remember many in the Baptist church seemed to believe one could gauge the spiritual quality of a church by how many people brought their Bibles into the service. Visiting churches with a lectionary tradition brought me to the realization that the people didn’t need to have their own Bibles; they actually heard more Scripture reading during the liturgies (including, of course, the lessons) that one was likely to hear at a Baptist church. Regardless of whether the preacher even attempted to talk about the lessons, the Scriptures were still read.

    And, personally, if I spend the whole sermon flipping through my Bible to check the Scriptural references given by the pastor (which seemed to be one reason given for why we should have our Bibles at church), I’m not actually listening to the sermon.

    And a question: you said you do topical preaching, yourself. Do you do this in the Soli Deo services, or just in chapel at school? If in the Soli Deo services, I’m curious how that works.

    Also, in reference to addominum’s comment, “it always struck me as strange that one man’s vanity took precedence over every other aspect of corporate Christian worship;” I’ve found my passion to go into ministry dimmed somewhat since I’ve started attending an Eastern Orthodox church. Ministry there seems rather different from the Baptists; less leading and more serving. It would appear that my former desire to go into ministry was a desire for, well, celebrity. Thank God, whether I end up joining with the Orthodox or not, He has shown me true ministry, and my true heart.

  3. Preaching in a Christian community to people who hear you preach 2-3 times a week is a bit different.

    Usually I do a brief exposition and major application with one of the lessons (usually Gospel or epistle). I do short comments on the other lessons, or tie them into the other lessons.

    Chapel I am almost entirely doing short expositions or topical. 20 minutes, and 60% unbelievers, it’s a lot of evangelism and apologetics