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The Scourge of Bible Engagement

I know there’s unbelievable power in God’s Word. Yet every now and again I find myself in a local church where it’s tragically obvious that most of the people in the pews are dead to the Word. It’s remarkable. People can be completely unmoved by the Word even though they read it, sing it, and listen to someone preach from it every week.

The Bible says, “Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand” Matthew 13:13. But how is this possible? It’s possible because of the incredible influence of religion!

Institutional traditional systems (religion) can and do bring Bible engagement to a grinding halt. In fact religion is the scourge of Bible engagement. Even though God’s Word stands firm forever (Isaiah 40:8), produces fruit, achieves God’s purpose (Isaiah 55:10-11), and is as sharp as a surgeon’s scalpel (Hebrews 4:12), it’s negated by rules and rituals.

Note Jesus’ stinging comment during a dispute with the Pharisees and teachers of the law: “Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition” Matthew 15:6. And again: “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions!” Mark 7:9.

Yes, the power of God’s Word is cancelled by religion. For when religion, rather than God’s Word, frames peoples thinking, they’re “ever hearing but never understanding … ever seeing but never perceiving” Matthew 13:14.

In the words of Frank Viola, “In so many ways, religious tradition has shaped our minds. It’s captured our hearts. It’s framed our vocabulary. So much so that whenever we open our Bibles, we automatically read our current church practices back into the text.”

Herein lies the problem with religion. It violates the DNA of the Word by twisting and grinding the scriptures to accommodate its practices. It’s a Procrustean bed. When the scriptures are “too small” or “too big” for religion, they’re stretched or chopped off to fit its mold.

Scottish theologian Thomas F. Torrance pointedly says, “It is high time we asked again whether the Word of God really does have free course among us and whether it is not after all bound and fettered by the traditions of men. The tragedy, apparently, is that the very structures of our churches represent the fossilization of traditions that have grown up by practice and procedure, and they have become so hardened in self-justification that even the Word of God can hardly crack them open.”

So if religion is the scourge of Bible engagement, what are the practical implications?

Firstly, we should understand that the hearts of traditionalists are calloused – they can’t hear and can’t see (Matthew 13:15). While it’s true that God’s Word can form and transform lives, religious people can’t hear this good news because they’re deaf.

Secondly, notice how Jesus didn’t revise, restructure or renew the institutional traditional systems of Judaism. Nor did the apostles. That’s because religion is mainly barren ground.

Thirdly, because religion corrupts the understanding and expression of God’s Word, connections with the Bible are compromised or contaminated in traditional systems.

These observations, in my view, leads to two conclusions:

Trying to do Bible engagement with religious people is like scattering seed on a road (Matthew 13:19).

A Bible engagement harvest happens when there’s good soil (Matthew 13:23), i.e. non-religious soil.

The sentence above was where I originally finished the draft article. But my colleague Amy Csoke read it and said, “I feel like it isn’t complete. I just feel like you present an issue in many of our churches and the solution is ‘give up they won’t change’, or maybe I’m misreading it.”

Amy isn’t misreading it. In the light of the Scriptures cited in this article and the testimony of centuries of religious traditionalism, there seems to be little to no hope for churches mired in religion. Having departed from biblical foundations, in large part they’re beyond restoration.

I’m not alone in my pessimism. In the words of British evangelist T. Austin Sparks, “What is called ‘Christianity’ – and what has come to be called ‘the church’ has become a tradition, an institution, and a system quite as fixed, rooted, and established as ever Judaism was, and it will be no less costly to change it fundamentally than was the case with Judaism. Superficial adjustments may be made – and are being made – but a very heavy price is attached to the change which is necessary to really solve the great problem. It may very well be, as in the time of the Lord, that the essential light will not be given to very many because God knows that they would never pay the price. It may only be a ‘remnant’ – as of old – who will be led into God’s answer because they will meet the demands at all costs.”

Of course I may be completely wrong in my evaluation, and it may be possible for traditional religious systems and denominations to be renewed. I would love to see full renewal in the institutional church. But for that to happen traditionalists will have to abandon their cause, read the Bible without a religious mindset, let go of what they want the Bible to say, dismantle the extra-biblical clergy system, stop believing in their structures, suffer the loss of their reputation, forsake their methods, and remodel the church so that it becomes, as God intended, a living, breathing, mutually participatory, Jesus championing organism.

© Scripture Union Canada 2019

2 Corinthians 4:5


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Unleashing the Bible in the Church

According to the REVEAL Spiritual Life Survey conducted by Willow Creek, only one in five churchgoers in the USA says their church offers in-depth Bible engagement. While I’m unaware of similar studies in other parts of the world, I strongly suspect that training and equipping congregations to read, reflect, remember, and respond to God’s Word is desperately needed in most churches.

Unleashing the Bible in the church should be at the top of the to do list. This because the spiritual health and growth of the local church is strongly correlated to Bible engagement. As the authors of the REVEAL Survey concluded, “The Bible is the most powerful catalyst for spiritual growth. [Its] power to advance spiritual growth is unrivalled by anything else we’ve discovered.”

To make church Bible engagement stronger people must be taught the practical basics of interpreting, contemplating, journaling, studying, memorising, praying and obeying God’s Word. Pastors, preaching about the importance of Bible engagement isn’t enough. Your congregations need seminars and workshops where they can learn the essential practices (activities or methods) of Bible engagement.

Vigorous churches don’t just happen, they have to be nurtured. To attain kingdom outcomes, we’ve got to concentrate on the things that under-gird long-term change. Do we want people to thirst for Jesus more, know Him more, contemplate Him more, magnify Him more, love Him more, and serve Him more? If we do, we’ve got to help them get into God’s Word so that God’s Word gets into them!

Obstacles will have to be removed if the Bible is going to be unleashed in the church. There are three things that get in the way:

Pastors who don’t get it. There are many reasons why pastors don’t prioritise Bible engagement. Some are traditionalists – more concerned with maintaining the liturgy or customs of the church. Others are liberal or progressive – more concerned with promoting values such as compassion, justice, mercy, and tolerance, often through political activism. Others are legalists – more concerned with right behaviour or morality. Others are denominationally inclined – more concerned with upholding the systems and distinctives of their group. And others are dismissive, unaware, or blind to the vital role that Bible engagement plays in the health and growth of the church.

People who don’t want it. Tragically, there are many people in the church who want a Bible that starts and ends with “me.” But the Bible doesn’t start and end with “me.” It starts and ends with “Him.” We’re not the primary theme of the Bible, Jesus is. People don’t want Bible engagement because they don’t want Jesus. What they want is good morals, religion that helps them feel good, and a God who is more a concept. This is Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD). MTD is at odds with Bible engagement.

Principalities that oppose it. The rulers and powers of this dark world are diametrically opposed to the Bible being unleashed in the church. They have everything to lose when God’s Word is preeminent. Satan and his demons lie, confuse, confound, disrupt and generally do whatever they can to destroy every connection with the Bible. “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” Ephesians 6:12.

These three obstacles can’t be taken lightly or dismissed. They have to be defeated. If the Bible is going to be unleashed in the church there are three things we need to do:

Pray earnestly. Bible engagement will only advance when we persistently call on God to renew the church and restore the preeminence of His Word.

Pursue Jesus. We must look to Jesus for our help and strength. Apart from Him we can do nothing to advance Bible engagement (John 15:5).

Proclaim truth. The entrance of God’s Word gives light (Psalm 119:130). Bible engagement is strengthened when we explore and have conversations together about the Bible.

That’s not to say we simply need to do these three things and the Bible will be unleashed overnight. Far from it! The church didn’t get in the mess it’s in through a few years of slippage. The decline in Bible engagement (in the West) has been happening for a long time. We need to be in it for the long-haul to get to where we need to go.

Yes, persistence and unwavering faith is required to overcome the obstacles hindering the unleashing of the Bible in the church. But that’s just our part in it. The good news is that Jesus wants His Word to run free. So as we co-labour with Him, we can be assured that at the appointed time, He’ll restore and unleash His Word in the church.

© Scripture Union Canada 2019

2 Corinthians 4:5