I have to make a confession here. While I love to read and study Scripture - in the midst of the busyness of being a husband, father, pastor, student and teacher it is not easy to keep any sort of regular devotional reading schedule. Over the years I've used many different tools, and for seasons they are great. But like many of the busy people who come to our churches - these practices can fall off when another, seemingly more urgent, task arises. I have asked my friend Andy to write a post on running Bible studies - he is brilliant with these, and frankly I think we need to re-imagine how we can introduce more Bible study into our congregational life - but what I'm wanting to do today is reflect on our commitment to Scripture as "the people of the Book" (as our Muslim friends call us).
Because I know that my relationship with Scripture is somewhat feast and famine. It is very important for me to make sure that the Bible is a central part of the worship life of the congregation I pastor. This does two things for me. First it means that I am, as primary teaching pastor, responsible to at the very least be in the Word as part of my preparation for regular teaching. The second thing is that it means that our community sees the value of Scripture modeled on a weekly basis. Let me explore both of those ideas just a bit.
Quite a few years back in our community, Freedom Vineyard, we decided to find a place in our worship for public reading of Scripture. We actually turned to a lectionary. A lectionary is basically a Scripture reading/worship schedule for the whole year. Our intention was to re-learn the gospels. Many of us had started to realize that bouncing around Paul's letters with our favourite sermon topics was not stretching us. Around that time I was taking a course on Mark's gospel and started to realize that the majority of the Christians we knew, myself included, were great with snippets of scripture but often quoted things that did not always ring true when carefully read as part of a whole book or narrative. We also started to recognize that Paul's context was in a church that regularly and publicly (in worship that is) read gospels. When we adopted lectionary readings it was mainly so that we would be reading the gospels as a regular part of our worship times. For me as a pastor this meant reflecting deeply, wrestling even, with the gospel reading for that week's message. But because we were following a schedule - and missing the other days of the week - it also meant for me that I was not just responsible for learning what that little bit of gospel meant, but what it meant in a continuing story that is woven daily through our worship lives. For a long time I simply incorporated the lectional readings into my devotional life. But, as I confessed before, devotional trends come and go for me. So having a set reading/teaching schedule means that in preparing for a service I always read what comes before and after the gospel text - so that I know what is happening in the story so that I might have a better sense of what is going on in the text.
Corporately it has a similar effect. My congregation is used to thinking about the gospel reading in the context of what is going on in the narrative around it. I've noticed that there is little tolerance in our group for the common technique of proof texting, that is when we gather up a number of verses to support whatever idea we are presenting. Because we meet as a small group, when someone tries to throw in a verse I've seen folks question the speaker about what the verses before or after do to their basic argument. While that sort of thing can make us uncomfortable - as a pastor I was excited to see that their biblical literacy was growing. A typical teaching in our group sticks pretty close to the source texts, rather than relying on favourite passages taken out of context.
How we interact with Scripture as teachers sets the expectations for the people who attend our bodies. As evangelicals we often claim to have a high, meaning it is very important to us, view of Scripture. But how can we claim this and yet never think about how we treat Scripture in our worship/teaching times? It is a good check, every now and then, to ask if we are letting Scripture shape and change us or if we are simply manipulating Scripture to serve our perceived pastoral needs? Hard questions, but important if we want to truly be "the people of the Book."
Frank Emanuel (Freedom Vineyard, Ottawa)