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Re-reading the Bible

Once, while doing some street outreach, I asked a lady if she read the Bible. “Yes,” she said, “Many years ago, I read it from cover to cover.” “Do you still read it?” I asked. With a face registering surprise she said, “Why would I do that? I’ve read it once and that’s enough!”

The lady asked a great question. Why, having read the Bible, should anyone read it again? Surely once is enough? Or is it?

I’ve read through the Bible dozens of times. Each time I read it, I’m changed. So when I re-read it, I’m not the same person as when I last read it. That is, each time I re-read the Bible I’m reading it from a new perspective.

Have you read through the Bible? If you have, you need to continue re-reading it.

Remarkably, because the Bible “is alive and active” (cf. Hebrews 4:12), every time it’s read, the reading is never quite the same as the previous reading. That’s because the Bible is like an onion. When we re-read it, we peel back a layer. Then, as we peel back a layer, new insights are discovered, new depths are plumbed, and new vistas revealed.

“It is the glory of God that hides the word, and the glory of the King that seeks for the word” Proverbs 25:2 (Aramaic Bible in Plain English).

Reading the Bible once is not enough. Nor is it enough to read it seven times or seventy-seven times. I know from first-hand experience. It’s only when we re-read the Word again and again that it opens up to us. In fact, the Bible reveals its secrets only to those committed to a lifetime of re-reading.

There are other reasons for re-reading the Bible …

  • Faith needs to be constantly strengthened by the Word (cf. Romans 10:17)
  • Understanding needs to be continually cultivated through reflection on the Word (cf. Psalm 119:130)
  • Spiritual maturity mainly comes through a life-time of interacting with the Word (cf. Hebrews 5:13-14)
  • Fruitfulness flows out of ongoing engagement with the Word (cf. Psalm 1:2-3)
  • Growth in reverence and obedience requires reading and reflection on the Word throughout one’s life (cf. Deuteronomy 17:19)

While these are all good reasons for re-reading the Bible, the main reason for re-reading the Bible should be to connect and stay connected, with Jesus. For re-reading the Bible is an out-and-out necessity for the ongoing health and growth of our relationships with Him.

© Scripture Union Canada 2019

2 Corinthians 4:5


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Hand-Copying Scripture

“Apply yourself totally to the text; apply the text totally to yourself” – Motto in the 1734 edition of the Greek New Testament.

One of God’s special requirements for the kings of Israel was that they would hand-copy Scripture.

When he takes the throne of his kingdom, he is to write for himself on a scroll a copy of this law, taken from that of the Levitical priests. It is to be with him, and he is to read it all the days of his life so that he may learn to revere the Lord his God and follow carefully all the words of this law and these decrees and not consider himself better than his fellow Israelites and turn from the law to the right or to the left. Then he and his descendants will reign a long time over his kingdom in Israel. Deuteronomy 17:18-20.

Why did God want the kings to make copies of His Word? So it would be repeatedly read, continuously learned, and carefully obeyed.

It wasn’t only kings who hand-copied the Word. For the bigger chunk of human history, hand-copying Scripture was the way the Bible was passed on from generation to generation by literate people. Today the Scriptures are available in printed or electronic forms. So hand-copying Scripture isn’t usually done to pass the Bible on in a written form. But it is done to help us draw closer to Jesus.

The method for hand-copying Scripture is straightforward:

  • Begin with prayer, asking the Holy Spirit to speak to you through the Word
  • Select a text, preferably a whole book that’s copied over several days or weeks
  • Write slowly and carefully. Check and double-check each word or phrase before writing it down
  • Savour every word as you write it. Aim not to get the writing done, but to connect with Jesus
  • Remember that you’re copying the living Word
  • Read what you’ve written, and listen to hear from God
  • Pray back to God, word for word, thought by thought, or thematically, the Scriptures that you’ve written down

When a king hand-copied Scripture he benefitted through growth in humility and reverence, hearing the Holy Spirit speak to him through the Word, enjoying good health (cf. Proverbs 4:20-22) and long life, renewing of his mind, and drawing closer to God.

The same benefits are available to us when we hand-copy Scripture.

Other advantages to hand-copying Scripture include:

  • Fosters a deeper appreciation for God’s Word
  • Quietens the mind and soul
  • Enables one to slow down and reflect on the Word
  • Facilitates a deeper contemplation of the Word
  • Connects us to the desires of the heart
  • Aids in memorization of the Word
  • Creates opportunities for inspiration
  • Invites responsibility and accountability
  • Provides occasions for creative penmanship and calligraphy
  • Helps us not become proud or arrogant
  • Personalizes the Word
  • Brings details and nuances to light that are often missed when the Scriptures are only read
  • Reminds us that while the Word has a physical beginning and end, spiritually it has no boundaries

It’s interesting to note that the Reticular Activating System (RAS) in the brain is engaged by handwriting. The benefit of engaging the RAS is that this part of the brain helps us pay attention and retain information.

When we interact and invest ourselves in the Word through hand-copying Scripture, it has life-changing and lasting significance. In a world that seems to be more and more frenetic; hand-copying Scripture helps us be still and know that God is God (cf. Psalm 46:10), deepens our faith, and enables us to leave a legacy for generations to come.

If hand-copying Scripture was good for kings, it’s good for us. That’s because we’re kings too (Revelation 1:6)! So as we reign with Jesus (cf. Romans 5:17), let’s copy the Scriptures and thereby make sure we’re repeatedly reading, continuously learning, and carefully obeying the Word.

[Check out The Saint John’s Bible – a handwritten illuminated Bible]

© Scripture Union Canada 2019

2 Corinthians 4:5


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Consumerism and Bible Engagement

Consumerism is a huge stumbling block to Bible engagement. It’s a stumbling block because the perspectives, values and attitudes that inform the essence of consumerism (selfishness, self-centredness and entitlement) are the antithesis of the perspectives, values and attitudes that connect us with Jesus and His Story.

Consumerism is the dominant worldview of the Western world. It can be defined as having the right to explicit, implicit, technological, personal, interpersonal and situational expectations being met. For consumerists, the protection or promotion of their interests is paramount.

When people live to consume rather than consume to survive, they become what they consume. When people become what they consume, they’re constantly seeking something newer, better or more.

And herein lies the problem. Bible engagement is a hit or miss affair in a consumer culture because it only gets traction when it’s seen to be newer, better or more, i.e. what people want.

So how do we deal with consumerism among God’s people? Here are two suggestions:

Teach God’s people to be counter-cultural

God’s Word exists for us to meet Jesus in and through it. Meeting with Jesus should never be a hurried affair. Bible engagement occurs best when there’s a long obedience and humble deference to the Word over many years.

Because Bible engagement isn’t instant, it’s counter-intuitive to consumer-oriented people. Consumers want everything now. Yet the composition of the Bible is designed to slow the reader/listener down. That’s why we must tell people that connecting with God’s Word isn’t like a fast-food restaurant. Bible engagement doesn’t jive with a give me an “instant fix” attitude. The Bible has to be engaged on God’s terms, not ours.

Taking the Bible on God’s terms doesn’t come naturally to a consumerist. That’s because the hold that consumerism has on people isn’t outward but inward. The consumerist’s perspectives, values and attitudes are rooted in pampering the flesh, pleasing the eyes, and feeding the desire for position and power. So along with teaching a biblical worldview and urging people to come out of the world (cf. John 15:19, 1 John 2:15-16), we must pray for a Spirit-directed, gospel-shaped, radical reorienting and renewing of the consumerists heart and mind (cf. Romans 12:2).

Stay true to God’s Word

In the belief that it has to provide an on-demand type experience, the church is increasingly responding to consumer culture by adapting and accommodating its message and methods. Author and journalist G. Jeffrey MacDonald says, “I’m concerned with the fact that churches are growing in many cases by serving up something that people seem to want, but something that’s not holding fast to the calling of the Gospel.”

Note MacDonald’s concern about churches “not holding fast to the calling of the Gospel.” Consumerism is corrupting the soul of the church. Tragically, the church is becoming more inclined to worship self-indulgence rather than Jesus! Little wonder that author C. S. Lewis commenting on Christmas and consumerism asked, “Can it really be my duty to buy masses of junk every winter?”

So where to from here? Quite simply, we must stop giving people what they want, and inspire them to “hold on to what is good” 1 Thessalonians 5:21.

The best things in life aren’t things! We must challenge the values of consumerism and biblically rectify situations where it’s gained a foothold in the church. A good way to do this is to preach and teach all of God’s Word (rather than the selected pieces we think people want to hear).

And finally, if people are going to “hold on to what is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21), we must encourage and equip each other with the practical tools to personally and communally read, reflect, remember and respond to God’s Word.

Much more could be said. What are your thoughts on consumerism and Bible engagement?

© Scripture Union Canada 2019

2 Corinthians 4:5


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Professionalism and Bible Engagement

Why are there so many people sitting in church services Sunday after Sunday who never, or rarely, read (hear, listen, connect), reflect, remember and respond to God’s Word?

In a previous article, Unleashing the Bible in the Church, three obstacles to Bible engagement were identified – pastors that don’t get it, people who don’t want it, and principalities that oppose it. Since writing that article I’ve been thinking about another significant obstacle to Bible engagement …

I used to be a pastor in a local church. Despite my best efforts I simply couldn’t get everyone into God’s Word. With the advantage of hindsight I now realize I was part of the problem. What made me part of the problem was that I did most of the preaching and teaching. When the pastor is the main person interpreting and commenting on the Word, it communicates the idea that the Word should be handled by professionals.

When someone knows better, or is more competent with something, we tend to let them get on with it. It’s not surprising then that so many people hand off the responsibility for reading/listening and interpreting the Bible to the people who have seminary degrees or denominational ordination.

Here’s the problem. When one person talks about the Bible nearly every week, instead of everyone talking about it, it subtly conditions people not to read the Bible for themselves.

To address this stumbling block we’ve got to change the paradigm. A more organic form of church meetings is required. The preaching and teaching of the Word shouldn’t be mainly tied to a pulpit. Every Christian should be invited and encouraged to participate in the services of the church. Every Christian should function as a priest (cf. 1 Peter 2:9). And for this to happen adequately we need to be liberated from a largely clergy dominated and professionally oriented system that in part, has taken the Word captive.

Francis Chan, an ex megachurch pastor who re-evaluated his theology and practice of church gatherings, and started We Are Church, says, “For us, we want to devote ourselves to thinking deeply not about the pastor’s words but the inspired Word of God – that is how we devote ourselves to the apostles’ teaching. We don’t want to draw people to how we explain Scripture. Rather, we double down on the belief that if you have the Spirit of God in you, you are able to read Scripture yourself, and as a body we can wrestle with Scripture together.”

“Wrestle with Scripture together.” That’s brilliant! Imagine what might happen to the spiritual temperature in your local church if everyone got to grapple with the Word.

Everyone grapple with the Word?

For those committed to the program-driven routine of “churchianity” the thought of everyone grappling with the Word is sacrilegious. They’re right. The idea that every Christian can “wrestle with Scripture together” isn’t religious, BUT it is biblical! (cf. 1 Corinthians 14:26, 29-32, Ephesians 5:19, Colossians 3:16, Hebrews 10:24-25).

Nowhere in the New Testament is there a precedent for a church meeting to be exclusively controlled by a pastor. Nor is there any biblical support for the modern day pulpit and pulpiteers who dominate many churches today. Instead, congregational participation should be the norm. In fact the major thrust in the Scriptures centers on every person in the church being actively involved in reading and reflecting on God’s Word (cf. 1 Corinthians 14:26).

Mennonite theologian and ethicist John Howard Yoder says, “There are few more reliable constants running through all human society than the special place every human community makes for the professional religionist … But if we were to ask whether any of the N. T. literature makes the assumption listed … then the answer from the biblical material is a resounding negation …”

Forgive me for stepping on sacred corns. But if right practice is going to emerge from error, we must be honest enough to confront the truth. If the Bible is the sole rule for our faith and practice, surely we must ask whether or not the Scriptures have been manipulated to support clerical professionalism in its present form (mainly one person interpreting the Bible and preaching to a passive audience). And if the Scriptures have been manipulated, then as author Frank Viola suggests, “The brittle wineskin of church practice and the tattered garment of ecclesiastical forms needs to be changed, not just modified.”

Do you agree or disagree? From the preponderance of biblical evidence it seems to me that if Bible engagement is going to take off, one of the things we need to do is desacralize the preaching and teaching of God’s Word in the local church by inviting and including a broader segment of God’s people (those gifted in preaching, teaching, sharing words of wisdom/knowledge, or prophecy) to share a word from the Word when we meet together.

Your thoughts?

Recommended Reading:

Mark Frees – Is the One-Pastor System Scriptural, Truth According to Scripture.

© Scripture Union Canada 2019

2 Corinthians 4:5


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Dramatizing Scripture

“I hear, I forget. I see, I remember. I do, I understand” – Ancient Proverb.

When God created us He adorned our lives with humour, pathos, fragility and strength. These unique traits provide brilliant opportunities for artistry and Scripture to come together. Little wonder that the prophets of old reinforced their message through dramatic form, that the incarnation is the greatest drama ever, or that communion is a vivid memorial of Jesus’ last supper with His disciples.

The concept of artistry and Scripture coming together came sharply into focus for me when I came to faith in Christ during a time of revival on the university campuses in South Africa. Within months of discovering Jesus I was involved in a street drama group that performed fast moving biblical sketches in the corridors and lecture halls of the Johannesburg College of Education. It was an exciting period in my life filled with the joy of seeing hundreds of fellow students embracing Christ as their Lord and Saviour.

From first-hand experience I’m keenly aware of the power of drama to connect people with Jesus and His Story. Drama, rightly harnessed, can be used by the Holy Spirit to bring us close to the Word and bring the Word close to us. And more. Drama is a gift from God to help us explore the Word, enjoy it, be moved and provoked by it.

It’s time to act. Many people are kinesthetic learners, i.e. they learn by doing. For people who learn by doing, dramatizing Scripture is one of the best ways for them to engage with the Bible.

Dramatizing Scripture involves connecting with God’s Word through some kind of performance like an impromptu skit, sketch, rehearsed play, dramatic reading, playback theatre, street drama, dance drama, mime, monologues, or reader’s theatre.

The key elements in dramatizing Scripture include careful and prayerful reading of the Scripture text, writing a script, rehearsing and performing, and inviting a response.

Through dramatizing Scripture we get to see ourselves in the Word, find ways to connect our lives to the Word, and learn to come alive to the Word. Phil Collins, Director of Scripture Engagement at Taylor University says, “We tend to put ourselves into good stories that are acted well, ‘trying on’ for ourselves what characters are thinking and feeling, often seeing ourselves and the world in a new way.”

That to say there are many benefits to dramatizing Scripture:

  • ideal for visual or kinesthetic learners
  • is a medium for creative and artistic people to engage with the Word
  • reminds us that the Word is about real people with real emotions
  • helps us see ourselves in the Story
  • enables actors to physicalize the Scriptures
  • provides a means for us to grasp and pursue the Word
  • touches us in different ways from words by themselves
  • directs attention more sharply on the things about Jesus which demand our worship

While there are many benefits to dramatizing Scripture, there are potential pitfalls that need to be avoided. Dramatizing Scripture should never be seen as a way to make God’s Word attractive, exciting or interesting. And it should never be about entertainment for entertainments sake. Thinking we can somehow make God’s Word more appealing should be an anathema.

So here’s to dramatizing Scripture, and doing it not for the sake of performance, but to meaningfully connect us with the Word so that we connect with the One who is the Word.

Recommended Resources:

Pederson, Steve. Drama Ministry: Practical Help for Making Drama a Vital Part of Your Church, Zondervan, 1999.

Siewert, Alison. Drama Team Handbook, InterVarsity Press, 2003.

Watters, Sandra. Scripture Alive in Your Classroom With Drama, WestBow Press, 2015.

The Sourceview Bible – www.sourceviewbible.com

 

 © Scripture Union Canada 2019

2 Corinthians 4:5


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Increasing Bible Engagement

In the Hebrew Scriptures the broad meaning for “wax” or “waxed” is “increase”. Although the Hebrew word for “wax” is translated into English as “increase” it specifically means either an “increase in increase”, or seemingly paradoxically, but nevertheless logically, an “increase in decrease”. Like where “David grew (waxed) stronger and stronger” while “Saul grew (waxed) weaker and weaker.” 2 Samuel 3:1.

Sometimes we’re doing well with our Bible engagement, and sometimes not so well (Romans 7:15). How are you doing? I’m more up than down at the moment. The more I read the Word, the more it’s reading me. But it might not be like that in a few months time. That’s because there’s an ongoing war inside me. While the Spirit inclines me to wax stronger, my flesh inclines me to wax weaker.

Which begs a question: How can we grow stronger and stronger in reading, reflecting and responding to the Word? Here are three ways to increase Bible Engagement:

Use a Bible reading guide.

I find Bible reading plans tend to be the death of me. When I hit Leviticus I’m starting to yawn and when I get to Numbers my days are numbered! Bible reading plans also feel mechanical. I want to read the Word to meet with Jesus – never to check a box simply for the sake of reading through the Bible in a year. While I don’t like reading plans, I do find reading guides helpful. Reading guides, like the Scripture Union Guides, steer the reader through the whole Bible in 4-5 years. It’s a slower reading focused on reflection and it helps me contemplate the Word in manageable portions. Most importantly, a reading guide includes suggestions on how I should apply the Word – and that’s essential.

Spice it up.

William Cowper in his poem The Task says, “Variety is the very spice of life, that gives it all its flavour.” When Bible reading seems to lose its flavour it may be helpful to spice it up. There are many ways to spice it up. Sometimes I’ll read from a different version, listen to an audio adaptation, or watch a Bible video. Children can spice it up with a free Bible game like Guardians of Ancora. Writing the Word, singing the Word, memorizing the Word, dramatizing the Word, journaling the Word, drawing the Word, or praying the Word also helps me spice it up. There are loads of online options that help us spice it up too. There’s the YouVersion app, Bible Gateway, Study Bible apps, or journaling apps for sharing readings with others like the Replicate app.

Do it together.

“Two are better than one” (Ecclesiastes 4:9). Bible engagement is easier when we do it together. Sometimes reading the Bible with a friend or family member is the only motivation that gets us into God’s Word when we’re tired, frazzled or plagued by the tyranny of the urgent. That’s because when someone else encourages us to read and reflect on God’s Word it tends to lighten the load, strengthen the discipline of Bible reading, and spur us on. Bible apps make this easy. They let you see what your friends have highlighted, enable you to read their margin comments, facilitate sharing of passages with social graphics, or make it possible to read Bible guides together. But for me, there’s nothing to beat face to face Bible engagement. Most nights I read the Bible together with my family at the dinner table. Our discussions flowing from the Bible reading are usually stimulating and grounding. And because we do Bible engagement together, it’s the glue that binds us to one another and to Jesus.

That’s it in a nutshell. Bible engagement usually increases when we use a Bible reading guide, spice it up, or do it together. So here’s to waxing stronger and stronger!

© Scripture Union Canada 2019

2 Corinthians 4:5


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Storying Scripture

For our spiritual well-being, after Jesus, Bible stories are what we need most in life.

Sharing Bible stories is called “storying” or “storying Scripture.” Storying is a recently coined phrase to describe the process of carefully crafting stories from Scripture so that they stay true to the original text but are told verbally in a natural and appealing way that engages the listener.

Storying Scripture can be done in two ways – word for word from the text, or not word for word.

The word for word method:

  • Someone memorizes a story from the Bible
  • The story is recited to a group of listeners
  • The listeners tell the story back to the person who recited it
  • The person who recited the story recites it again
  • Everyone discusses the meaning and application of the story

The not word for word method:

  • Someone tells a story from the Bible in their own words
  • The listeners read the story using their Bibles
  • The listeners see if the teller missed anything in the text
  • One of the listeners tells the story in their own words
  • Everyone discusses the meaning and application of the story

In both methods, once the story is told, retold and rebuilt, questions become the basis for the ensuing discussion. There are five key questions:

  • What did you notice?
  • What did you learn about God?
  • What did you learn about people/yourself?
  • How are you going to apply this story this week?
  • Who could you tell this story to?

There are many benefits to storying Scripture:

  • It’s ideal for oral preference learners
  • It’s highly relational
  • God’s Word is central
  • It builds intimacy with the story
  • It communicates from heart to heart
  • It involves everyone
  • Both tellers and listeners get to “own” the story
  • The threefold repetition of the story provides 3 different ways to “hear” it
  • An atmosphere is created through the use of body language and voice
  • It resonates across cultural or ethnic divides
  • It sounds more “alive”
  • It engages sanctified imagination
  • It’s an entry point for truth to be seeded in hearts
  • It’s reproducible
  • All ages can do it (Mary Margaret tells the story of Jonah)

There’s great power in telling stories. Since the dawn of creation people have used stories to share their history, communicate ideas, establish values, shape behaviour, advance a cause, strengthen community, and form a worldview. So here’s to storying Scripture – to doing it well – to sharing the Story in ways that transform our understanding of the world and our view of God.

Recommended Resources:

Terry, J. O., Basic Bible Storying: Preparing and Presenting Bible Stories for Evangelism, Discipleship, Training and Ministry, Church Starting Network, 2009.

Tiegreen, Chris, Story Thru the Bible: An Interactive Way to Connect with God’s Word, NavPress, 2011.

Willis, Avery T. and Mark Snowden, Truth That Sticks: How to Communicate Velcro truth in a Teflon World, NavPress, 2010.

© Scripture Union Canada 2019

2 Corinthians 4:5


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Bible Engagement and Orality

According to the International Orality Network, 80% of people in the world don’t understand God’s Word when it’s delivered to them by literate means because they’re oral preference learners. Even in literate cultures, many people won’t read God’s Word, or prefer oral ways of connecting with God’s Word.

Strangely, even though most local churches are comprised of people who favour listening to the Word, the chosen approach is to ask people to read the Word. In a world that depends largely on verbal communications, shouldn’t the primary approach to Bible engagement be oral?

Before people connected with the Bible as a book that was read, the Bible was shared from mouth to ear (2 Peter 1:21). For centuries most people heard it. Maybe that’s why 80% of the Bible is narrative. God gave us a Story composed of many stories because stories are well suited for people who favour speaking and listening.

Interestingly, on the occasions when the Bible mentions the Scriptures being read, the greater context is usually about people listening attentively (e.g. Nehemiah 8:3, 2 Kings 23:2). In fact when reading and listening are compared, there are far more texts that speak about listening than about reading (e.g. Psalm 85:8, Matthew 7:24, Luke 11:28, John 8:47, Romans 10:17, Hebrews 2:1).

I’m a prolific reader and love writing. That makes me different to most people. When it comes to Bible engagement, I don’t assume that others will enjoy reading the Bible like I do. Unfortunately, the readers and writers of the world, in large part, haven’t seen it this way. Since Gutenberg’s Press started printing Bibles, reading has been the go to means for Bible engagement.

To see literacy as somehow superior to orality is problematic. Speaking and listening is ingrained in us. Even in the most literate cultures, orality is an enormous and inescapable part of human life. We should therefore see orality for what it is, and make the best use of it for Jesus and His kingdom.

In both pre-literate and post-literate cultures, rather than placing an emphasis on empowering people to read God’s Word, we should be placing the emphasis on empowering people to listen to God’s Word. There are many ways to do this. Consider the following:

  • Bible videos or movies
  • Podcasts
  • Social networks
  • Songs
  • Audio Bibles
  • Drama
  • Storying Scripture

Promoting an emphasis on listening to the Word is not suggesting that reading the Word should be dismissed. But it is an acknowledgement that reading, in and of itself, isn’t the holy grail of Bible engagement.

The reality is there are many people who have difficulty with reading, or dislike reading. Equipping them to listen to the Word is an expression of love and common sense. We should meet people where they are, not expect them to meet us where we are. So if you tend to equate Bible engagement with Bible reading, it’s time to change your outlook. Bible engagement is multi-faceted. In a world where most people are oral preference learners, we should focus on helping people effectively listen to the Word in ways that edify, inform and inspire them to live for Jesus.

Your thoughts …

© Scripture Union Canada 2019

2 Corinthians 4:5


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Bad News – Good News

According to Stephen Bullivant, a professor of theology and the sociology of religion at St Mary’s University in London, “Christianity as a default, as a norm, is gone, and probably gone for good – or at least for the next 100 years.” [The Guardian, March 2018].

Is Christianity in Europe as a default, as a norm, gone? Research seems to support Bullivant’s conclusion. Data from the European Social Survey 2014-16 indicates that “the new default setting is ‘no religion’, and the few who are religious see themselves as swimming against the tide.”

German theologian, Evi Rodemann, seems to concur. In response to a Pew Research survey she says, “German Protestants have to a huge degree lost their Christian identity and Christian history is often just a cultural decoration.” Church planting expert Dietrich Schindler adds, “German Protestantism is anaemic at best, irrelevant at least.” [Joel Forster, Evangelical Focus, February 28, 2019]

From the mountain-top to the valley. In the 19th Century the church in the UK was the hub for the greatest missionary advance the world has ever seen. Now, according to statistician Peter Brierley, 95% of UK children and young people don’t go to church [UK Church Statistics 2, 2010-2020, Tonbridge: ADBC Publishers, 2014]. It’s a similar story in Germany. Five-hundred years after the reformation, Christian faith has been pushed to the margins (Evangelicals account for 2% of Christians in Germany).

Christian faith in North America is also in free-fall. According to the Pew Research Center, the growth of the religiously unaffiliated in Canada and the USA has gone from about 4% in the 1970’s to more than 20% in 2010. In Canada, religious disaffiliation for those born in 1987-1995 is 30%. The trends reveal that every successive generation of North Americans are more secular than the previous generation.

What’s collapsed in the UK and Germany, and is collapsing in North America, is cultural historic Protestantism. Cultural historic Protestantism is religion focused on hard work, thrift and efficiency, i.e. it places an emphasis on religious duty and using God-given resources at each individual’s disposal. Rodemann describes it as “reason (not Christ) alone, my work (not grace) alone, my self-reliance (not faith) alone, and my philosophy of life (not Scripture) alone.”

That’s the bad news.

But the bad news may be good news.

The purpose for writing the jumpintotheword blog is tied to sola scriptura. The collapse of cultural historic Protestantism is therefore good news because religion (institutional traditional systems) is the enemy of Bible engagement (see my previous article The Scourge of Bible Engagement). And it’s good news because the disintegration of cultural historic Protestantism means the Christian slate is being wiped clean.

With the Christian slate being wiped clean, cultural historic Protestantism can be replaced with something new. The million dollar question is, “What will be the nature and purpose of the church that replaces cultural historic Protestantism?”

Biblical scholar Richard Halverson says, “When the Greeks got the Gospel, they turned it into a philosophy; when the Romans got it, they turned it into a government; when the Europeans got it, they turned it into a culture; and when the Americans got it, they turned it into a business.”

Missional culture guru JR Woodward says, “We are called to incarnate the Good News, not to overcontextualize it.”

Incarnating the Gospel: With the decline of cultural historic Protestantism there are unprecedented opportunities to get back to God’s Word – back to reimagining the church – back to the church as a spiritual organism – back to embodying and proclaiming Jesus Christ.

Yes, the bad news may be good news. With the spiritual vacuum that now exists in Europe and is growing in North America, opportunities to re-imagine and reform the church abound. But as we take advantage of the opportunities, we must make sure we don’t overcontextualize the Gospel.

To guard against overcontextualizing the Gospel, we must safeguard the way in which we connect with the Bible. We must make sure we don’t read God’s Word in ways that adapt it to our culture. We must be careful not to read God’s Word in ways that interpret our existing church practices back into the text. And we must get back to reading its essence – back to understanding the Gospel, not in the milieu of the shifting sands of post modernity, but in the framework of the life, death, resurrection and return of Jesus Christ.

All this to say that a new season of Bible engagement is needed for the changing times. A season where we break free from the subtle entrapment of deeply entrenched unbiblical traditions. A season where we biblically re-evaluate what the meetings of the church should look like in order to express Jesus Christ in all His fullness. And a season where we practically, and not just intellectually, believe that the Word of God shows us how to truly worship and live for Jesus Christ alone.

© Scripture Union Canada 2019

2 Corinthians 4:5


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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 canceled 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