updated: The problem of Scripture-less worship

“Until I come, give attention to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation and teaching” (1 Tim. 4:13).

Why is it that churches that seem to despise the Bible most are also the ones who read it the most in their liturgies and services? On the other hand, why are churches which get blue in the face over the authority of Scripture the ones who rarely read from extensive portions of it? To the first group I ask, “Why bother?” and to the second group I ask, “Why the hypocrisy?” Johnson and Duncan have rightly noted, “One of the striking things about evangelical corporate worship in our times is the evident paucity of Scripture” (Give Praise to God, 140). How many times have we seen the preacher say “open your Bibles to…” only to watch him run away from the text as fast as he can? Thankfully there has been a growing awareness against this putrid trend of Scripture-less services but many go on in the name of Christ every Sunday without a Word from Christ.

One gets the feeling that if Ezra and his crew were to lead services today they would not be asked to come back the following week (cf. Neh. 8:3). If possible, would Jesus even be allotted a spot in today’s typical service so that He could read from the scroll of Isaiah and proclaim its fulfillment (cf. Luke 4:17)? I constantly hear pastors bemoan the fact that their average church member is illiterate when it comes to the Scriptures. However when I ask a simple question, “do you give a dedicated place for the Scripture to be read in your worship service?” you would think I had asked them to give a detailed analysis of the hypostatic union of Christ.

Brothers, read the Scripture to and for your people so that they might hear God’s voice and be changed. The means of evangelism and the continued sanctification of God’s people is the reading and proclamation of His Word. The Church has the distinct privilege to be the pillar and support of what God says and ministers have the unique opportunity to insure that a steady diet of Truth is administered into the ears of the congregation. The only time some will hear the Psalms read (or sung) will be on Sunday mornings. The only time some will ever dive into the dark continent of the “older testament” will be when they hear it read or preached by a Christian minister. The only time many will hear The Gospel (outside of a tract) will be when it is read from one of the four Evangelists.

Do whatever you have to do to make it happen. Cut short the announcements or bump Sister Susie’s solo but heed the words of J. R. Miller who wrote that “The reading of the word of God ought to be an event.” Hear again the words of David Wells,

“This Word of God is the means by which God accomplishes his saving work in his people, and this is a work that no evangelist and no preacher can do. This is why the dearth of serious, sustained biblical preaching in the Church today is a serious matter. When the Church loses the Word of God it loses the very means by which God does his work. In its absence, therefore, a script is being written, however unwittingly, for the Church’s undoing, not in one cataclysmic moment, but in a slow, inexorable slide made up of piece by tiny piece of daily dereliction.” (David Wells, Above All Earthly Pow’rs , 9).

Update: thanks to Matt and Chris who reminded us of Daniel Block’s stirring quote from a paper he delivered at ETS and subsequently published in Giving the Sense, 435):

“Evangelicals must rediscover that in the reading of the Scriptures worshipers hear the voice of God. Despite our lofty creedal statements and our affirmations of the inerrancy, infallibility, and authority of the Scriptures, the relative absence of the Scriptures is one of the marks of contemporary evangelical worship. At best the Scriptures are read piecemeal and impatiently so that we might get on with the sermon, which suggests to the congregation that our interpretation of Scripture is much more important for them than the sacred word of God itself. At worst we do not open the Scriptures at all. In our efforts to be contemporary and relevant, we dismiss the reading of the Scriptures as a fossil whose vitality and usefulness has died long ago. . . .In the process we displace the voice of God with the foolish babbling of mortals, and the possibility of true worship is foreclosed. And then we wonder why there is such a famine for the word of God in the land (Amos 8:11-14).”

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19 responses to this post.

  1. Amen, Amen, and Amen.

  2. Posted by Matt Waymeyer on October 27, 2006 at 7:56 pm

    I can’t remember if it was Daniel Block or Walt Kaiser, but three years ago at ETS one of them said that the public reading of Scripture is the only part of your worship service that is infallible.

  3. Good stuff Matt. I remember hearing Alistair Begg describe the “ordeal” of reading the Scripture in the Free Church of Scotland where he was raised. The service would be still and then suddenly the side door would open and a man would walk through holding the church’s pulpit Bible and the people would stand to their feet (without asking). Then the minister would approach the pulpit and declare in thick Scottish tongue, “Now hear the Word of our living God” and commence the reading. That’s an event!

  4. Matt-

    Was that in Atlanta? I recall that statement. I believe it was Block and he stated it in the midst of encouraging pastors to select longer portions of Scripture (say, an entire chapter or so) so as to allow the people to hear the voice of God throughout and entire context.

    What do you men practice in your own churches?

  5. Chris,

    We just do drama skits.

    Seriously, right now we are rotating between the Psalms (currently at 75) and the Gospel of John (currently chapter 2)on Sunday mornings. Whoever preaches in our pulpit is also responsible for the Scripture reading. I usually give a one minute intro to the passage, ask the people to stand, read it and then pray a pastoral prayer for illumination and understanding.

  6. Posted by Matt Waymeyer on October 27, 2006 at 9:01 pm

    Chris,

    Yes, it was in Atlanta, and it sounds like it must have been Block. He and Kaiser taught back-to-back in the same room and on the same topic, so I couldn’t quite remember. In fact, those two seminars can be found in written form in Kregel’s “Giving the Sense: Understanding and Using Old Testament Historical Texts” (eds. David M. Howard and Michael A. Grisanti).

  7. Matt and Chris,

    See my updated quote from Block at the bottom of the post.

    PSL

  8. “What do you men practice in your own churches?”

    We do use responsive readings many Sundays, if the hymnbook has one that goes with the theme of the service. Because of the multitude of translations that allows everyone to get involved. I especially like to use them to introduce our prayer time and will often use a Psalm (not read responsively) in that way. Since we have the Lord’s Supper every first Sunday, I will read a passage from which I make my comments. On November 5 I’m planning on using one passage to introduce the Lord’s Supper and another to introduce the benevolence offering. I like to use passages that expect a response of some type. If I’m doing the reading I will explain what response is expected based on what the Word says. In addition, I still read the text from which I’m going to preach unless it is a huge (several chapters) text.

    I didn’t grow up in a tradition of public reading so I’m still feeling my way but making it an event more often (as we do with our Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter service readings) appeals to me.

  9. Good stuff!

  10. In our church I read a portion first thing after I yell, good morning, usually a Psalm…

    Before the sermon the congregation stands and we read the entire text I will be preaching from, then prayer…

    Oooh, yeah, we just switched to ESV as “official” pew bible, so now we can all read together…(enter Yul Bryner) so let it be written, so let it be done…

    I knew there was a reason I came over here at 12:40 in the morning, and no, not for sermon material, lol…

  11. I wholeheartedly agree that much of what goes on in a modern worship service is lacking in any spiritual grounds. The systematic reading of scripture for most has fallen by the wayside. A mere 100 years ago most public schools taught the bible as a major subject, my how times have changed.

    In our church we do devote much time to public scripture reading but I would not go so far as to say that we ritualize the practice into a formal system. There should not only be an emphasis toward public reading of scripture but also toward private reading of scripture. I know the practice of daily devotions is not popular in our go go go world. So I would say that in general the lack goes both at home as well as at church I personally have begin using a life journal Whole Bible Daly Reading Plan its even available online http://www.enewhope.org/bible/ and the change in my life and in my ministry as a worship leader has been nothing short of amazing.

  12. Scriptureless Worship

    Often, it’s hard to trace back how I’ve made my way through the internet to a specific blog post. Unlike Hansel and Gretel, I’m not prone to leaving a trail of bread crumbs behind me. (Okay, so that was a really bad metaphor. Fill …

  13. In my life, I have heard many testimonies from people about how the Daily Office or the Sunday Liturgy enabled them to pray at times they would not otherwise have been able to pray. The words are there when a person otherwise has no words to utter. It is one way of allowing the Spirit to pray for us – we groan and utter the liturgy, praying that we can feel and mean the words and the Spirit prays for us.

    Secondly, the liturgy contains the traditional truths of the Church. You will never be praying any kind of bad theology along the lines of “You’re not being healed because you don’t want healing enough”. These timeless truths sink into the unconscious and come back to our consciousness just when we need them – and I believe their “return” is often God-inspired.

    You asked we bother. It’s actually because we do care about God and the bible.

  14. Thanks for dropping by Pam. However I think you missed the point of what I was saying when I made reference to those who shouldn’t bother.

    It was not an attack on reading liturgies and the sort since I would be calling some of my own practices into question by stating such. I was pointing out what has been noted by certain pastors for centuries (e.g. J.C. Ryle in the Church of England) which is that it is a ridiculous exercise to make a ritual out of something you don’t believe. You may differ and find nothing wrong with reading out of a book you don’t believe is God’s Word spoken through men yet inerrantly inspired but I find it silly since it’s what the OT prophets might have called “lip service” (Jer. 6:10).

    Pam, the fact is the God of the Bible doesn’t care about our ritual but He does care that what we do and say brings all glory to His name and is done as He prescribed and not according to the traditions of men.

    It is a fact born out in history at many junctures that traditions both ancient and modern can take on a rote flavor where the people’s lips are moving but “their hearts are far from the Lord”. I hope you didn’t miss my larger point which was the Church of Jesus Christ needs to recover the public reading of God’s Word.

    Blessings to you

  15. “At best the Scriptures are read piecemeal and impatiently so that we might get on with the sermon, which suggests to the congregation that our interpretation of Scripture is much more important for them than the sacred word of God itself.”

    Reading PamBG’s response caused me to go back and read the post again and I noticed this part of the post. One thing that has helped me in my public Bible reading has been a German pronunciation course that I took while serving in East Berlin. I learned for the first time how things sound and actually learned as much about how English sounds as German does. I try always to read it as if I was the actual author himself. I don’t know if it helps anyone else but it helps me to, for lack of a better word, “connect” to God in my public reading.

  16. Posted by Rob Davis on November 1, 2006 at 8:35 pm

    I have stumbled on to this blog and am glad to find the emphasis on expository preaching.

    Since most sites ask for some sort of introduction before one posts, here is mine, briefly:

    I am a pastor of Grace Community Bible Church, an independent, Reformed, Baptistic church in Highland, IL (about 30 miles east/northeast of St. Louis. I am 46 years old, married to my beautiful bride for 24 years, and have three boys ages 21, 17 & 14. After spending 12 years in the Navy Band in Washington D.C., I spent several years in the SBC serving as a minister of music & youth and then as a pastor, and I attended an SBC seminary (Midwestern). I’m sure that is enough boring information for now :-)

    We use Scripture in our services in several ways. Sometimes a passage is read by one person in the congregation, sometimes I design it as a responsive reading read by 3 or 4 persons from the congregation, sometimes we read responsively as a congregation with a leader, sometimes a Scripture reading is the basis of a time of prayer, sometimes the Scripture reading leads into a time of testimony, and most Sundays the hymn/psalms/choruses/prayers are intertwined with Scripture readings that tie the entire service together.

    Because of Christ,
    Rob

  17. Thanks Rob for dropping by and sharing a little about your ministry and family. It’s great to hear of pastors like yourself who are giving the Scripture a prominent place in your church’s worship. Constructive comments like yours are always welcome. Preach the Word!

  18. which is that it is a ridiculous exercise to make a ritual out of something you don’t believe. You may differ and find nothing wrong with reading out of a book you don’t believe is God’s Word spoken through men yet inerrantly inspired but I find it silly since it’s what the OT prophets might have called “lip service” (Jer. 6:10).

    Pam, the fact is the God of the Bible doesn’t care about our ritual but He does care that what we do and say brings all glory to His name and is done as He prescribed and not according to the traditions of men.

    I would not disagree with the principle of what you are saying, but I still disagree with broadly categorising the formal liturgical approach as something that is likely to be done by “people who don’t believe”.

  19. This david wells would agree with that david wells

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