Sometimes, I wonder if I am making any progress. I recently preached yet another sermon on a topic that I have been preaching on regularly since pretty much the beginning of my professional ministry. It is a topic that is important to me because it is tied so intimately to the faith I hold and seek to help others discover and develop. Sometimes, I approach the topic directly but this time, it came as part of a series of sermons on the letter of James.
As I planned the sermon series, I realized that once again, I would be dealing with the issue of Christians reading the Bible—or rather, Christians not reading the Bible. I gave the sermon the usual thought and meditation and prayer but discovered myself wondering about the bigger picture.
I understand the issue: I have read the dismal statistics concerning Bible reading among Christians; I have talked with individual believers about their difficulty reading the Bible; I have scolded and cajoled theology students about their lack of Bible reading. I understand the problem. When Christians don’t read the Bible and get all their Christian training from others, their faith will inevitably be stunted and inefficient at the very least and misguided and wrong at the worst.
But as I was preparing, preaching and reviewing this sermon, I was wondering why believers don’t actually read the Bible. I was not just thinking about the stated reasons: its hard to find time; I can’t understand it; its such a big book and so on. I am trying to figure out the deep down, essential reason that motivates people to ignore such an important resource in their faith development.
For me, reading the Bible was a natural step in my faith. I became a believer, the Bible was a book for believers therefore, I should read the Bible. There was never any question about that. Certainly, there were some times when I didn’t read it much but those times were actually few and far between, especially after I discovered that the Bible came in many flavours. All through my life, reading the Bible has been a regular part of my daily routine.
But then again, I read all instruction manuals and guide books—and keep them where I can find them and refer to them. I never know when I might forget where that infrequently used release button is on some tool or another. Not reading a manual or guide book strikes me as a really poor approach to discovering how best to use and care for a new item. And in the same way, reading the Bible seems like a no-brainer for anyone new to the faith—or anyone who has been in the faith for a while for that matter.
And yet, I keep discovering that the majority of people I minister to haven’t actually read the Bible through—and some probably haven’t actually been exposed to any more of the Bible than what they hear weekly in worship. This confession comes out as I carry out pastoral visits, lead Bible study and talk with people casually. The confession of not actually reading the Bible is generally made with some sense of guilt and often followed by the person’s declaration that they should read the Bible (more)—but the next time we meet, I get the same confession and declaration.
And so, I keep at it. I keep reading and studying the Bible myself. I keep teaching and preaching the Bible. And I keep encouraging people to read the Bible themselves. I preach on it, I help people find appropriate Bibles to read or listen to, I answer questions and give explanations, I even encourage skimming or skipping the slow parts. And sometimes, someone will actually start reading the Bible because of what I have been saying and modelling. And even more exciting is when the person who started reading discovers the actual presence of God through the Holy Spirit as they read.
I wish I could prepare the one sermon that would convince everyone to read the Bible or develop the can’t resist reason that would get every believer reading the Bible regularly. But given the reality that there isn’t one sermon or reason that is going to get everyone reading the Bible, I will keep plugging away, trying to help people discover that most of their questions and struggles in the faith are a whole lot easier to deal with if you read the guide book.
May the peace of God be with you.