Encouraging a culture of Bible reading

Last year someone pointed out to me we had no system at church for encouraging people to read the bible for themselves. My reaction to this was of course denial. But his analysis was on the money. Occasionally personal quiet times might be encouraged from a sermon, or I’d speak to people one to one about their bible reading. I’d obviously try and model it myself.  But despite an evangelical commitment to the centrality of scripture we mostly just lived in hope that people might read it themselves. There was no system in place to build a culture where personal bible reading was encouraged.

Perhaps the strangest thing about that omission is that the need was so obvious. Negatively, we struggle and struggle against biblical illiteracy - many of our regulars would not have read the Old Testament. Positively, I’m convinced that encouraging better listening to God’s word has the most potential to see immediate and sustained growth in the love and knowledge of Jesus.

So this year we’ve tried these things to put a system in place to encourage personal bible reading:

  1. we encouraged a church wide sign up to a one year bible reading plan. We gave out printed versions, and gave links to online plans. Rather than asking people to commit for a year, we asked them to commit for 20 days - with the expectation that this smaller target might give time for a good habit to develop
  2. we use the start of the month to remind people about the plan and to encourage people to sign up afresh 
  3. during January the preaching series was on selections of Psalm 119 so we were spending time thinking about what it means to delight in God’s word
  4. the Children’s Program this year has the option for parents to sign up to a ‘Connecting church and home’ single page email that encourages a home bible reading to prepare for the coming Sunday
  5. On the first Sunday of each month I’m preaching a one off sermon on a book of the bible. So from February to June we’ll do Genesis to Deuteronomy. By doing this we are chipping away at the strangeness of the Old Testament and giving people the encouragement to take it away and read it for themselves. This pattern roughly matches the one year bible reading plan. I’ll try and do outlines that people can use to assist their own reading.
  6. We will interview people from the front of church about how their bible reading is going and how it is changing them.

None of this is rocket science but it is time consuming - I’m convinced though that this is time well spent. If our members spend time in the word they are growing themselves and encouraged for ministry and mission to others.

At this stage there is lots of anecdotal support for these initiatives. More people seem to be reading their bibles. More after church conversations seem to be over what people are reading during the week. I’m being asked questions that come out of personal reading. We will conduct a survey later in the year to see what the actual take up has been. The vibe so far though is that the culture has shifted a bit - and for the better.


Feature photo:"CQ"

The Rev Michael Kellahan has experienced the highs and lows of church planting. He also understands ministering in a less well-resourced context, and is currently rector of St Barnabas, Roseville East in Sydney's north.

Comments (24)

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  • Sandy Grant
    February 22, 12 - 8:31am
    Michael, thanks for encouraging us in things which aren't rocket science. But maybe a little bit of science for the mix.

    I like your "try it for 20 days" approach. And then try again later, if you fall off the wagon. (That's how they are advertising giving up smoking, claiming every attempt gets easier and a bit further. Maybe the same thing works when trying to start something.)

    But is 20 days a long enough initial commitment?

    I once heard some research about forming habits, which said it takes quite a bit longer to form habits and much less time to break a (good) habit (as opposed to an addictive one).

    I googled. And the first hit was informative... It claimed people often quote 21-28 days as the answer for how long to form a habit. It says there is not much good evidence for this.

    But then it reports published research which suggests:
    * on average it took 66 days before a new behaviour felt automatic.
    * the time it took varied a lot depending how hard the habit was (drinking a glass of water at lunch was quicker to become a habit than 50 sit ups each day).
    * early repetitions were rewarded with bigger increases in 'automaticity'.
    * missing a single day does not reduce the chance of forming a habit.
    * there is a sub-group of people who seem more resistant to forming habits.

    This may suggest it would be worth encouraging people to give it a go for 2 months as an initial goal.
  • Colin Murdoch
    February 22, 12 - 10:57am
    A welcome article Michael...

    Often because many assume Christians are doing as Christians should do, Bible Reading, Prayer, etc, we converse and relate on that level, when in fact some aren't.

    Your preparedness to try and turn that around with those you minister is commendable!
  • Philip Griffin
    February 22, 12 - 11:49am
    Thanks for posting this timely article Michael. Whether the time you have set is too short or too long, your congregation is being taught that reading the Scriptures, including the Old Testament, is extremely important. And of course, reading both Old and New Testaments out loud at church is also vitally important. Thanks again.
  • Grant Hayes
    February 22, 12 - 11:56am
    Be careful what you wish for.

    An increased engagement with the Bible does not always improve evangelical faith.
  • Stephen Davis
    February 22, 12 - 1:38pm
    I think if one truly has God's spirit within him/her then they will want to make reading the Bible an ongoing part of their daily activities. When we become Christians, God's spirit imparts the desire to us to follow God through both Bible reading and the manner in which we conduct our daily living.
  • Grant Hayes
    February 22, 12 - 2:27pm
    SydAngs routinely over-estimate both the benefits and attractions of privatised Bible study for the average pew-sitter.

    History shows that such DIY enthusiasm often leads to privatised interpretation, resulting in heresy, enduring doubt, freethinking, unbelief, or obsessive crackpot lunacy.

    The regular church-based practice of public Bible-oration plus sermons - if done properly - should obviate the need for any intensive, private Bible reading by the pew-sitters. After all, without a relatively high level of literacy (one that can deal with the subtleties of numerous ancient textual genres) plus finely honed theological formation, they are unlikely to "handle Scripture rightly".

    Why not take their ambivalence/selectivity about personal Bible-reading as a God-given opportunity to ensure they are filled with correct doctrine?
  • Stephen Davis
    February 22, 12 - 2:47pm
    Grant, there are some very good points in your last post, more good than bad actually, but that aside, Christians will still read the Bible in a private capacity, just my own situation for example - there have been some things I have read in private that I point blank just did not understand. I then took these passages and discussed them with either my minister or an elder in the congregation. There are also commentaries on each book of the Bible although I think you have to be careful about which ones you choose. There are a lot of passages in the Bible which are quite straight forward and that anyone Christian or not could understand what was being said. There are also Bible studies which can be very helpful as well. Having said all that though, there are some parts of the Bible which are quite hard to come to grips with.
  • Robert Denham
    February 22, 12 - 10:30pm
    Using your system Grant, does it also follow that there is no need for daily prayers, since the systematised public praying in the Anglican services should suffice?

    One of the pitfalls of privatised reading of the scriptures may be the growth of different interpretations, but praise God that more & more people are reading the scriptures! The joy of it should be that as they do, they will be chatting to each other about the meaning of the text, & there should be more people able to raise doubts about the less accurate understandings of the text.
    If I were God (& everyone including me is glad that I am not!), then if I didn't want lots of Christians to read the scriptures in order to understand what I had revealed, then I would not have given my Spirit to all who believe. For one of the functions of the Holy Spirit is to remove the veil from our understanding, & a second is to give us the mind of Christ, the mysteries of what God has revealed.
    The ministers' role is then to help people understand more of what they have been reading, & how it all fits together, rather than going over the basics again & again. That is, people will be maturing in their faith... wouldn't that be fantastic!
  • Robert Denham
    February 22, 12 - 10:32pm
    I didn't put the references in for the roles of the Spirit, as I thought it would be good for people to read the Bible to discover where they are themselves.
  • Grant Hayes
    February 23, 12 - 1:48pm
    Robert Denham @ #9
    Using your system Grant, does it also follow that there is no need for daily prayers, since the systematised public praying in the Anglican services should suffice?
    Doesn't follow, Robert. Prayer derives from speech/thinking, a capability that is far more basic to humans than is reading, especially reading the sorts of ancient, translated texts that require a Moore College degree to "handle rightly".

  • Michael Kellahan
    February 23, 12 - 2:15pm
    I'm genuinely at a loss to understand why you would think hearing God's word as strange or difficult or novel. Consider Psalm 78:
    1 My people, hear my teaching;
    listen to the words of my mouth.
    2 I will open my mouth with a parable;
    I will utter hidden things, things from of old—
    3 things we have heard and known,
    things our ancestors have told us.
    4 We will not hide them from their descendants;
    we will tell the next generation
    the praiseworthy deeds of the LORD,
    his power, and the wonders he has done.
    5 He decreed statutes for Jacob
    and established the law in Israel,
    which he commanded our ancestors
    to teach their children,
    6 so the next generation would know them,
    even the children yet to be born,
    and they in turn would tell their children.
    7 Then they would put their trust in God
    and would not forget his deeds
    but would keep his commands.
    8 They would not be like their ancestors—
    a stubborn and rebellious generation,
    whose hearts were not loyal to God,
    whose spirits were not faithful to him.

    God's people have always spoken his word to the next generation - even before they can read.
  • Michael Kellahan
    February 23, 12 - 2:17pm
    thanks for link
    we'll be asking people how they went with a survey after so that'll be our real test
    we'll also need to think about how to bring newcomers into it so that it isn't just a once a year sign up
  • Michael Kellahan
    February 23, 12 - 2:19pm
    Stephen - yes I agree - the Spirit is at work to give us a thirst for God's word & to open it to us & to write it on our hearts. His work doesn't need to be played against our work at helping people in this though (not that you suggested this)
  • Michael Kellahan
    February 23, 12 - 2:23pm
    I should have said that all of these ideas were stolen (& probably stolen twice). The monthly sermon on an OT book was from a Briefing article late last year (?) written by someone in an English setting - if anyone have a link that would be brilliant. Online bible reading plans are legion! A quick google search will give you lots of options. The underlying ministry practice of putting systems into place to move from intention to implementation is from Nelson Searcy & the Saurkraut course.
  • Grant Hayes
    February 23, 12 - 2:40pm
    Michael @ #12
    I'm genuinely at a loss to understand why you would think hearing God's word as strange or difficult or novel. Consider Psalm 78:

    I'm at a loss to see how you derive this from my comments here. I have neither stated nor implied that hearing the content of Scripture declaimed is "strange or difficult or novel" (??)

    As for hearing Scripture declaimed, that's what happens when the Bible is read out in church, is it not?

    As for being instructed in the meaning of Scripture, that's the function of the sermon, is it not?

    It's all very well for those so inclined - who have the education, energy, and leisure - to burrow into their Bibles privately. Good for them! I get the impression from SydAngs, though, that private Bible-reading is not just an option for the equipped and interested, but a positively pious work of righteousness for all Christians - a sort of litmus of godliness. If God regarded Bible-reading as highly as SydAngs do, then, in effect, he would privilege mere bookishness as a fruit of the Spirit!
  • Michael Kellahan
    February 23, 12 - 2:51pm
    the way we are to delight on the Lord and feed on him, is to delight in, and feed on his Word.
    this isn't some strange thing Sydney Anglicans have come up with.
    it isn't mere bookishness.
    it isn't something new for privileged few.
    think of the Psalmist 'Oh, how I love your law' or
    think of Jesus's description of how we are to live from every word that proceeds from the mouth of God
  • Grant Hayes
    February 23, 12 - 3:06pm
    Michael @ #17

    None of these line-items necessarily involves privatised Bible-reading, Michael. All of them can be addressed by public Bible-oration and sermons in the regular weekly gathering. And that's how they've been addressed for the majority of professing Christians for most of church history.

    Privatised Bible-reading for all members of the flock (not just the educated ecclesial specialists) is a fairly recent innovation. Nothing wrong with it per se, but it's not entirely identical to the love of God's Word/Law you reference above.

  • Michael Kellahan
    February 23, 12 - 3:20pm
    I agree with you - the passages cited don't necessarily involve private reading.
    But passages like Psalm 78 & Deuteronomy 6.4-9 certainly speak of a community shaped by the word beyond some weekly public gathering. So Deuteronomy 6 is
    4 Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.[a] 5 Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. 6 These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. 7 Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. 8 Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. 9 Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.
    Its no accident that Jews and Christians have been described as people of the book. Where there is belief in a speaking God and a written word then of course there is a high value on literacy. Again, no coincidence that the reformation will produce a rise in literacy.
    Of course God's chosen plenty of people who can't and won't be able to read - and some who may not even be able to listen to his word and understand it. But the normal experience of faith is to hear the word.
    So when we live in the time and place we do why wouldn't we give thanks to God for access to his word and encourage his people to taste for themselves and see that the Lord is good?
  • Grant Hayes
    February 23, 12 - 4:12pm
    Michael @ #19
    But passages like Psalm 78 & Deuteronomy 6.4-9 certainly speak of a community shaped by the word beyond some weekly public gathering.

    I'm not suggesting that such weekly public gathering is separate from the rest of life, only that it has ever been the primary source of the reception and exposition of "God's Word" among Christians.

    Where there is belief in a speaking God and a written word then of course there is a high value on literacy. Again, no coincidence that the reformation will produce a rise in literacy.

    Granted. And such literacy also sees a rise in heterodoxy, freethinking, and unbelief!

    The modern-day evangelical valorisation of private Bible-reading is misguided, I think, because it assumes that increased familiarity with Scripture will lead to greater godliness, commitment to doctrine, spiritual zeal, etc. Though this may be the case, it is not always, or even generally, so. A deeper engagement with Scripture can lead to all sorts of conflicts over emphasis, interpretation, implementation, and doctrine. Faith is not always reinforced; sometimes deep doubts arise. Plenty of those who leave the church do so because of an increased engagement with the Bible. It's a sword with two edges.
  • Simon Flinders
    February 23, 12 - 5:26pm
    Another option for people: http://e100challenge.com.au/
  • Robert Denham
    February 23, 12 - 9:08pm
    Is private Bible reading a more recent Christian event?
    The Ethiopean eunuch wasn't a modern man.
    The pre-converted Augustine hearing the children's song of pick up the Bible & read wasn't modern, nor were the children nor their kids' song.
    Maybe there have been times which have focused more on Bible reading, such as the Pietists having their "church within church", or the puritans with their family devotions, or the Wesleyans picking up the pietistic practices of small groups, etc etc. Nothing new under the sun, even the "modern" practice of SydAngs to have private or daily Bible reading (I wonder if the Scripture Union in England also likes being classified as "SydAng"?
  • Mark Elkington
    February 25, 12 - 10:53am
    Michael, thanks for sharing your experience. It’s prompted me to think about this with small groups I'm involved with.

    I know a minister who, new to a church, decided to revamp small groups. One group leader questioned the need for this, saying that many of the groups were running well. His response was to ask the leader if he knew where each group member was at in their walk with the Lord, in particular with personal Bible reading and prayer (with caveats about these as indicators). He didn’t, and the point was well made - leading a group is not just about running a weekly meeting, but actively shepherding people in a hands-on, life-sharing, demonstrative way.

    It may be a small encouragement to know that sometimes words here translate into action! Let us know how it goes.
  • Michael Kellahan
    February 28, 12 - 10:41am
    Offline, someone has suggested I should mention Scripture Union and their various bible reading plans and aids - more than happy to promote this. I know that Daily bible reading notes produced by SU have been used enormously throughout the diocese. A couple of years back we had an elderly member of the congregation die and her back catalogue was then passed on to several of the younger evening congregation who have used them since.
  • Kristen Young
    March 5, 12 - 10:57am
    @Michael - there are also the Youthworks resources such as the REAP journals for children, youth, and adults, to help people think through for themselves what they are reading. They include a bible reading plan and some helpful ideas of how to spend your private reading time. Well worth a look: