Have evangelicals abandoned the Bible?
It was on Easter Day a few years ago. I was visiting a large evangelical Anglican church in the north of England. The morning service was All Age Worship. There was a good music group and lively singing of classic hymns and modern songs. There was a large congregation with a good age spread. There was a good explanation of the Easter message and a warm welcome from the people leading the service. But one thing there was not.
In this main service on Easter Day at an evangelical church there was no Bible reading. Not one. Not even a verse. And this was a church whose publicity made frequent mention of the fact that it based every aspect of its life on the Bible. It just didn’t seem to read the Bible in public very often.
OK, you are thinking, that was bad but it would be a oneoff. Somebody slipped up somewhere in planning the service. Well, leaving aside the obvious fact that it should be second nature for evangelicals to read the Bible in church services, sadly this is not the only time in recent years that the Bible has been abandoned in worship.
I took a group of students to a Sunday service at a church in our diocese. Again, no Bible reading in this avowedly evangelical church. When I asked some of the church leaders afterwards why this was they said that on the fifth Sunday of the month they tried to have a service that was more accessible to people in the village so they did not do anything that people new to church might find off-putting. “Like reading the Bible,” I thought, but did not say out loud because I was having a ‘being polite’ day that Sunday.
Then I went to a conference on Scripture and Worship and in a seminar group we got into swapping stories about services we had been to where there was no Bible reading. Without fail, these were all about evangelical churches.
If I am in a church and there are no Bible readings in the service, it’s a pretty safe bet it is an evangelical church. If I want to be certain of a service with plenty of Bible in it, I go to a middle of the road or Catholic Anglican church.
A few years ago, the House of Bishops inspectors criticised an evangelical theological college for having very little Bible in its chapel services. With new ordinands who are just starting training I usually ask them at the first tutorial about their devotional life. Once I had this conversation with a lady of, shall we say, mature years who had belonged to a variety of evangelical churches all her adult life. This lady told me about her (extensive) prayer life. “Wonderful”, I said, “that sounds pretty disciplined. What about Bible reading?”
“Oh I never read the Bible.” she replied. I asked her about the good old evangelical standard the Quiet Time. No, she had never heard of it. I suggested that she start to read the Bible daily as part of her prayer time - not least as when she was ordained she would be promising to read the Bible and pray daily.
To her credit, at the next tutorial she told me she had started doing this and how wonderful it was - and asked why no one had ever got her to do this before. Why indeed.
Colleagues in other evangelical colleges tell me the same thing - ordinands come to college with no habit of regular Bible study. Many have no knowledge of the Old Testament as it is never read in their churches.
Even in evangelical churches that do have Bible readings as an integral part of their services (and that is, thankfully, the majority), it is not uncommon to find only one reading - Church of England rules require at least two. How have we got into this ridiculous situation where it is evangelical churches who are short on the Bible in public worship and private devotion?
Part of it is perhaps that we evangelicals think that Jesus abolished the Old Testament ceremonial law and rules about worship and we sort of think that means he abolished all rules about worship - so we don’t think it is a big deal to ignore what the Church of England requires us to do in this respect.
And we are deeply arrogant. We think that we have the biggest churches and the only ones which are growing (both assumptions are wrong, by the way) so we have nothing to learn from anybody else. Clearly, to remedy the situation will require some repentance on our part.
However, there are some practical steps we can take. I suggest that all evangelical churches consider these, even if you think you have escaped the criticisms I’ve outlined above.
Bring back the Quiet Time. You don’t have to call it that. Teach new Christians - whatever their age - that regular Bible reading is a part of discipleship and an important tool in spiritual growth. Teach people that there are various ways of doing this and their pattern may change over time and as personal circumstances change. Saying Morning Prayer (on your own or with others) will do the same.
For many students I have taught, having to go to chapel each day for Morning Prayer has started as an obligation to be endured but quickly has become a means of renewing and refreshing their daily Bible reading. Can you have Morning Prayer as a part of your Church’s daily programme? Just open the church each day at a convenient time. The clergy don’t always need to be there to lead it (but should lead by example!).
In one Church I know (liberal Catholic, of course!), many members access the Daily Prayer part of the Church of England website on their mobile devices and say Morning Prayer while commuting (on public transport...).
Make sure you have at least two Bible readings in every main Church service. This is what is actually required - and that for a reason. Anglican worship is deeply Biblical in that it is shot through with the Bible. We expect people to engage with the Bible in our worship. This can’t happen if there is very little Bible there. Do not try to wriggle out of this by claiming to be a pioneer church, Fresh Expression or a Church plant. If you are Anglican you read the Bible in services - end of argument.
Bring back the Psalms. Many churches no longer use them in worship but there are so many ways that you can. You can use songs and hymns based on Psalms (make sure they are faithful to the actual Psalm!) and you can use Psalms in a responsive way with different groups in the congregation joining in different parts.
Don’t neglect the Old Testament. Common Worship offers a number of routes through reading the Old Testament in Sunday worship, so make sensible use of this resource and preach from the Old Testament regularly.
Don’t neglect liturgy. Anglican liturgy is soaked in Scripture. By abandoning it, we deprive people of another way of encountering the Bible. There are lots of creative resources in Common Worship for doing this - not least in New Patterns for Worship. Praise responses, acclamations and various types of prayers all do this. One thing I often do is to have a response that comes several times throughout the service (and is generally a quotation from the Bible). The congregation has to listen out for the cue line so they can come in with the response. If you use it often enough, people will remember it afterwards - it’s a grown-up version of having a memory verse!
One of my students was concerned at the lack of Bible in the worship at her (evangelical) church and challenged her vicar about it. He replied that there’s more to being a Biblical church than reading the Bible in worship. This is true but evasive — reading the Bible in services is the bare minimum for being a Biblical church. So can we stop the slide away from the Bible in evangelical churches? We certainly can and it’s not difficult to do so - let’s not pretend there is no problem.
Let’s be Bible people once again in our worship.