Yes, Scripture Reading Really Does Change People
I grew up in a typical evangelical church of the 1960s and 70s. Specifically, it was the First Baptist Church of Dominguez, a Missionary Baptist Church nestled between Carson and Long Beach, California. It was a Bible-believing, gospel-preaching, altar-call-featuring church connected denominationally with a number of churches in Southern California and the farm-rich California central valleys. These congregations initially consisted of families that fled the Dust Bowl and the hardships of the Depression to start anew in the West. Ours was a good church, an evangelical church, a faithful church, as were its sister churches.
And yet, I don’t recall ever hearing the Scripture read during a church service aside from the few verses upon which the sermon was based.
What was true of my neighborhood church was true of all of Southern California’s large evangelical churches that I visited at one time or another during my teens and early 20s: Swindoll’s Evangelical Free Church of Fullerton, Chuck Smith’s Calvary Chapel, Ray Ortlund’s Lake Avenue Congregational, David Hocking’s Grace Brethren of Long Beach, MacArthur’s Grace Community Church, and Lloyd John Ogilvie’s 1st Presbyterian Church of Hollywood. Substantial Bible reading simply wasn’t a feature of evangelical churches of that time and that place. Neither, I suspect, has it become a feature of typical evangelical churches today.
I spent two years attending an Anglican theological college, Trinity, in Bristol, England. This meant attending a plethora of local Anglican churches: low church, high church, liberal, and conservative. They all held one thing in common: the Prayer Book and the substantial Bible reading as mandated by the lectionary. These readings ran the gamut: Old Testament, New Testament epistles, Gospels, psalms.
The irony was rich and continues to be.
By and large, evangelicals in the United States do not read the Bible in their public services. Anglicans, some of whom are liberal skeptics, few of whom believe in inerrancy, do. Strange.
Why don’t evangelical churches read the Bible? I could come to only one conclusion: they don’t think it’s important. Considerable time in their services is given to singing and preaching and announcements and perhaps even to informal chatter. Yet Scripture reading is omitted, apart from the verses to be preached. Why? I repeat: They don’t seem to think it’s that important. They don’t see value in it. It might be or is likely to be boring. And so, Bible-believing, inerrancy-defending evangelical churches don’t perceive enough value in simple Bible reading to give it a place in their public services.
In Worshipping with Calvin, I give examples of people transformed by the simple public reading of Scripture, including one J. C. Ryle (1816–1900). However, evangelicals shouldn’t require anecdotal testimonies of the transformative power of Scripture reading. After all, we have Scripture’s own self-testimony. Are we not said to be born again by the “living and abiding word”? Do we not come to faith by “hearing the word of Christ”? Do we not grow by the pure milk of God’s Word? Are we not sanctified by the truth of God’s Word? Is the Word of grace not able to build us up and give us an eternal inheritance? Is the gospel Word of truth not constantly bearing fruit and increasing? Is the Word of God not living and active and sharper than a two-edged sword? Is the gospel not the power of God for salvation? I could go on (1 Peter 1:23–25; Rom 10:17; 1 Peter 2:2; Jn 17:17; Acts 20:32; Col 1:6; Heb 4:12; Rom 1:16; cf Eph 6:1; 1 Thess 2:13; 2 Tim 3:15; Jer 23:29; Is 55:11; 1 Thess 1:5; Jas 1:21).
MY TURNING POINT
The turning point for me came on a stormy autumn night in 1977. Several Trinity students and I walked across the Bristol Downs to St. Mary’s Redcliff Parrish church, a conservative Anglican congregation. Around mid-service, a man stood to present the Old Testament reading from the prophet Isaiah. He read slowly, carefully, and with emphasis. The effect was powerful. No, it was dynamic.
Then the irony hit me. I began to ask, “Why do we evangelicals not include extended lectio continua reading of Scripture (the historic Reformed practice) in our churches?” Of course Scripture reading can be boring. But any element of worship can be poorly administered. That’s why we should take care to read Scripture skillfully. The reader should be well-acquainted with the text so as to read with understanding and nuance. Let’s face it. The fear of boring a congregation is a lame excuse.
If we believe Scripture’s self-testimony, we cannot perpetuate the neglect of substantial, systematic Bible reading in the public services of the church. It is one of only five items identified in the Westminster Confession of Faith (XXI.3-5) and its sister confessions (London, Savoy) as necessary elements of a worship service regulated by God’s Word. The Westminster Assembly’s sister document, the Directory for the Public Worship of God, recommends a chapter from each testament in each of the two Sunday services.
At least a chapter would be a good place to start.