How much of the Bible do we actually hear in church in any given year? What is the ratio of the amount of talking to the amount of Scripture we hear on Sundays? As our church considered those questions and others, we discovered a way to enrich worship and honor God by bringing more of his Word to our weekly gatherings.
For a long time, the only kind of Christianity my family knew or cared about was Pentecostalism. Contrary to its caricatures, our Sunday worship was never wholly unbridled emotionalism; there was also a logical, right-brain dimension that originated in the public reading of Scripture.
It was expected of us that we would bring our Bibles to church. Our worship service opened with an often-lengthy congregational reading of a Psalm. The minister’s sermon formally began with the entire congregation reading the minister’s sermon text, and occasionally we would collectively thumb to another passage that was probably the wing nut that held a particular doctrine together.
It was taken for granted that our songs of praise, our lively and fervent invocation of the Holy Spirit, and the personal integrity and charisma of our minister would result in our hearing the Word collectively and particularly as God intended. We didn’t necessarily distrust the idea of an organized reading of Scripture on Sundays; we simply had no imagination that anyone other than our minister could possibly choose better readings for each occasion. In fact, we were sure the Holy Spirit chose the readings and our minister obeyed that voice.
It wasn’t until my seminary years that I was introduced to the Restoration Movement as an American Christian entity. When the subject of Scriptures for preaching and worship arose, my classmates from Christian churches and churches of Christ willingly shared their perspectives.
“Give me a thematic sermon series with a catchy name,” one said, “and I’ve got enough preaching material for a few months.”
“I preach what I think the church needs to hear and find the Scriptures to go with it,” another volunteered. Someone else explained, “I read the newspaper and find a scriptural response.”
When I asked how much prayer and discernment went into that process I was told, “David, you’re such a Pentecostal! Don’t you know the Holy Spirit has already inspired the Bible?” But still it seemed to me the intentional invocation of the Holy Spirit is rather important.
Then there was that afternoon class with Dr. Fred Norris when a few of my grand assumptions were challenged outright. Each question stimulated new insight:
Is it really a good idea that any one person decides which Scripture gets read in church and when? How much of the Bible do we actually hear in church in any given year? What is the ratio of the amount of talking to the amount of Scripture we hear on Sundays? What happens when we stop publicly reading—and hearing read—larger units of Scripture in favor of a “slogan verse”? What secular calendars or cultural agendas have the greatest influence in our selection of biblical readings and sermon choices?
In the classes and semesters that followed, I began to learn that two millennia of church history and some recent forays in interdenominational cooperation have left us a good answer to all of those questions.
Bible-Reading Goals for Worship
Shortly after 1967, a very large consensus of pastors, scholars, and church historians met to address the task of how best to read the Bible in church. Their work since then has been among the most extensive cooperative efforts among Christians of all flavors in the past 500 years. Their unanimous approach accomplishes several goals:
1. Read the entire life of Jesus in one year, every year, in church. With three synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) this means there will be a three-year rotation that features one Gospel writer’s account of Jesus’ entire life each year. There are even enough Sundays in a year so that complimentary readings from the Gospel of John can be inserted at the appropriate chronological place each calendar year.
Every year begins with the events preceding Jesus’ birth and baptism; continues with his ministry and teachings; reaches a climax with the events surrounding Easter; celebrates the giving of the Spirit and the birth of the church on Pentecost; and finally crowns Christ as King of all ages before starting the whole cycle over again.
2. Place a priority on the Gospels as the lens through which Christians may read the rest of the Bible. This means that every Sunday there will be a reading from the Old Testament, a Psalm, and a selection from an Epistle that will reflect the images and themes of the Gospel reading for that day. This can all be accomplished by devoting about six or seven minutes to the public reading of Scripture each Sunday.
3. Remind all Christians that the Bible is most at home in the public worship service, even more than it is in the Sunday school or in private study. Somewhere we have learned to believe that the best reading of Scripture is a personal one, or an academic one, or a special-interest-group one. Of course, all of these are good. But the most Christian model is Scripture as read and heard in the community gathered for public worship. In fact, it was also the model Jesus used, along with all his Jewish forefathers.
This approach reminds us it is one thing to study the Hebrew nuances of Psalm 23 with the scholars and commentators, but quite another to identify with Christians throughout history who see Christ in the psalm (the Good Shepherd of John 10:11). It is another thing, by the power of the Spirit, to obey this Christ, this Good Shepherd, and something different yet to entrust one’s self to the body of Christ, the shepherding church.
In the end, Scripture and church cannot be put asunder.
At Hopwood Christian Church, Milligan College, Tennessee, we use this approach as it’s outlined in the Revised Common Lectionary1. We’ve been using that plan with some consistency for more than 15 years now, with a few trial runs before that. This means that we, in our recent history, have read through the Bible at least five times together as a community.
It seemed at first that the choice of four Scripture readings each service was too large an amount, so our minister and worship committee initially selected two or three readings from the four.
About seven years ago, we started singing the Psalm text rather than reading it, and now we find there is plenty of time and energy in the service for the entire day’s readings. We discovered ample musical resources for singing the psalm congregationally, but we prefer to use our own in-house compositions (see an example on this page).
Beginning with a significant verse within the Psalm text, we compose a simple refrain that can be sung immediately by the congregation. A week or two ahead of time, our choirs rehearse the more complicated verses that embellish the refrain. The final product is a dialogue between choir and congregation that sends many of our people home singing the Scriptures as though they had worked hard at memorizing them.
Our minister, Tim Ross, often quotes preacher Fred Craddock who, not always happy with the arrangement of a particular Sunday’s readings, gives the Lectionary only “two cheers.” Still, we allow these readings to stand up and speak for themselves while also allowing the sermon to develop in its own unique pastoral way. Along with the best structure comes flexibility, and our ministerial staff and worship committee work well together.
Our congregation is also blessed with a number of gifted public readers who can make the texts come alive in beautiful and often unexpected ways. Our rotation of readers varies and includes children, speakers whose native language is not English, and occasional choral readings when the text lends itself to this.
By using the Lectionary, we have found ourselves more connected with the churches throughout the world—and in our own town—who are proclaiming the same readings with us each Sunday. We have found ourselves awash in a greater variety of Scripture each worship service and are eager to hear God speak to us through a more generous portion of the Word. We are being shaped by the times and seasons of the Christian calendar in ways that are faithfully Christian and Christlike. We feel introduced afresh to the Jesus of the Gospels as we progress on our journey together.
And, even with all our organization and planning, we still pray the Holy Spirit will continue to inspire us afresh, that the Word may live richly in, among, and through us.
1The Revised Common Lectionary is available free of charge online at http://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/.
David Butzu serves as worship minister with Hopwood Christian Church in Milligan College, Tennessee. He is coauthor (with Bruce Shields) of Generations of Praise: The History of Christian Worship (College Press).