I’ve enjoyed the short BBC series “My Mediterranean with Adrian Chiles”, as he explores the relationship between the three monotheistic faiths present in the Mediterranean region. It has allowed me to look afresh at how many view the concept of religion in the world, and how we as evangelicals come across in a pluralistic world. One of the men interviewed in the programme stated, “Evangelicals take the Bible more seriously, they read it, believe it and try to live by it.” It is a bold statement to say that you take the Bible more seriously in one tradition of the church over another.
So here’s two questions from me at the start of this year: In what ways do Scottish Baptists take the Bible seriously? How might we increase our engagement with it in 2016?
Is it simply about how much time we spend reading it? A few years ago, along with over fifty other members of the local church, I completed the Bible in a year. Many will have started the New Year with this intention. Can I encourage you to keep going, as I found it truly inspirational and a great way of engaging with the wider messages of the Scriptures? Taking less time to read than a TV soap or daily news broadcast, we travelled together, discussing the Scriptures when we met as well as online, and together we rejoiced when God used it to speak to us, including my calling to serve as your General Director.
In the past week, I have looked at how much personal Bible Reading is actually encouraged within our evangelical circles and compared it with other traditions of the church, and it doesn’t look good! The average daily reading plan produced by evangelical organisations has significantly more words written by a human author in the last year than the enduring word of God. What does this tell us? Might we have lost confidence in the ability of the word of God to speak to us alone? Other reading plans used in other Christian traditions appear to hold a discipline of simply listening to the word of God. For example, the Anglican app, “Daily Prayer”, suggested for my morning reading 4 Psalms, 2 gospel readings, 1 reading from Genesis and another from the prophets. And for evening devotions it suggests readings from the Psalms, the prophets, the gospels, the epistles and the book of Revelation. And if I wake in the night, 3 short Scripture readings will see me through to morning.
But it is not all about quantity in private devotion. We believe in the gathering of believers together to read the Scriptures, to hear the word of God; to listen to what it has to say to us and to those gifted to preach, teach and prophesy. So how much listening to the written word of God is happening in our churches? The established churches have a rich tradition of liturgy and will include at least an Old and New Testament reading in every service, often of quite some length. Within our own less formal approach to worship, there is still the tendency to include a reading of Scripture somewhere in the service but the quantity seems to be diminishing. It may be the result of the importance we generally place on exegetical preaching, which may mean the sermon is focusing on just a few words of Scripture. It may be because our modern style of worship has drawn us away from using Scripture as a call to worship, or reminder of the revelation of the God we worship. Often hidden away in the sermon, mixed with our human words or read immediately before the sermon, it can come across as the prelude to the main event.
Those who know me well will also expect me to say something at this point about how much of the Bible is heard by children who come to church. My great concern is that in many of our churches, the answer may be none. They are taught the stories of the Bible in their Sunday groups without ever hearing the actual biblical account and any Bible reading that does happen in the service is often once they are gone.
“Evangelicals take the the Bible seriously”? Of course they do, our commitment to preaching is clear evidence of that. We are also good at beating each other up about lack of devotion, lack of prayer and lack of Bible reading. Many carry burdens of guilt about the quality of their “quiet time” and I do not want to add to that burden. However, I do want to encourage us to examine our corporate practices and to consider how we might grow the amount of direct Bible engagement we experience when we gather for worship in 2016, finding creative ways of allowing the word of God to dwell richly among us.
Rev Alan Donaldson
Baptist Union of Scotland