In some congregations, the public reading of scripture may be one of the most underdeveloped parts of the worship service. It’s not that we don’t read the Bible in church. Many churches, especially those that are more liturgical, read it a lot. And we pray it and sing it too. But what kind of power are we experiencing when we do?
Well, some of that depends on how we look at the Bible. From my experience, the significance of expectation is often overlooked by Christians. Sometimes we don’t see the power of God because we don’t expect to see it. The problem with the Bible, frankly, is that many of us have taken the mystery out of it. On one end of the theological spectrum, there’s a tendency to pick the Bible apart, relegating it to a place on the bookshelf with classical literature and various religious texts. On the other end, extreme reverence for scripture almost makes the Bible into a god itself, putting a de facto leash on the actual God who inspired it: a God we’ve handicapped with the limitation of not being able to speak outside of the bible's pages.
So if you usually gravitate toward either of these extremes (and many of us do), listening to someone read the Bible in church either becomes a mundane jaunt through a quaint little myth or the final word of the living God who might as well be dead because we’re afraid for him to speak apart from scripture. A pre-programmed divine artificial intelligence, if you will. A celestial Siri.
But what if we really saw the Bible as the two-edged sword of Hebrews 4:12? The word of God energized by the breath (Spirit) of God that changes us? What if that’s how we were reading scripture? What if we began to look at public Bible readings as some of the most dangerous and powerful parts of our worship services?
One big hindrance to this idea, unfortunately, has been our refusal to think in multiple dimensions. You see, in any given worship service, things are happening on several levels. Worship is intellectual, emotional, and spiritual. So is scripture reading.
On the intellectual level, the Bible educates us. It informs us. That scripture reading before the sermon is almost like a briefing—it should lay the groundwork for us to pass on important information. That’s why it’s important to be judicious when we choose scripture passages for a worship service. If we don't engage the mind, oftentimes people’s emotional and spiritual parts won’t be engaged either. The mind, after all, is in a sense, the gateway to the rest of us.
So don’t cram a scripture passage indiscriminately into any part of the service. Have a strategy. Create dilemmas. Make a mess that you’ll have to clean up during the sermon. If you use the lectionary, don’t just do it so you can say you did. Use it in a way that blows your listeners’ minds.
But you can’t stop with the intellect. People are emotional creatures. They’re not content with God just blowing their minds—they want to be moved! That two-edged sword of Hebrews 4:12 “penetrates to the point that it separates the soul from the spirit and the joints from the marrow. It’s able to judge the heart’s thoughts and intentions” (CEB). Wow. I’m not sure I can define where the soul ends and the spirit begins. But God can. And when we present his word to people, he knows what each person needs from it. The power of God’s word can do what we can’t because God knows things about us that we don’t know.
Remember, we’re talking about the word of God. God speaking. That’s not just limited to words in the Bible. It’s also the voice that inspired the Bible. And the voice that inspires us when we read it. God speaks all over the place—it’s hardly ever as simple as words on a page.
Churches are about instilling and nurturing faith (belief). And ultimately, people should experience some opportunities at church to believe what God has said. That’s biblical faith. But how can they believe something if they haven’t heard it? Scripture is a good place to begin. It exposes people to what God has already said so hopefully they’ll learn how to hear what God is saying. And it’s our job to present scripture in such a way that they’ll really listen to what they hear.
The Bible says that God “gives life to the dead and calls things that don’t exist into existence” (Romans 4:17 CEB). The word of God is a creative force. Although everyone in a church service won’t be impacted the same way by God’s word every time, if we’re faithful, expectant, and innovative in the ways we present scripture, someone (hopefully many someones) will be changed by it.
What needs to be called into existence in your faith community? How can tools like scripture reading and prayer help make it happen?
If the public reading of scripture has become a weak part of our church services, it isn’t God’s fault, it’s ours. Like Communion, public Bible reading can be an overlooked part of worship— full of power that’s waiting to be activated and unleashed.
We should make it our business to realize its potential.