Have evan­gel­i­cals aban­doned the Bi­ble?

The Church of England - - FEATURE - By Charles Read Charles Read is Di­rec­tor of Li­turgy and Wor­ship at the East­ern Re­gion Min­istry Course and Deputy War­den of Read­ers in Nor­wich Dio­cese, but writes in a per­sonal ca­pac­ity

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.

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