Church Lifeboat

Have you ever played the party game “Lifeboat”? You’re a group of survivors from a ship that has sunk; adrift on the ocean with your food becoming more and more scarce. Each player is a character of some profession who has to defend why they are important and shouldn’t be tossed overboard. It’s a bit of a brutal party game, but I’ve sometimes mused about what a church variation would look like.

Imagine that, instead of people, all the elements of your Sunday service are in the boat and you have to think through which ones are most important. What would be thrown overboard first? Maybe the coloured lights … the crêche ministry … the post-church supper? More importantly, which elements would be last in the boat? What would survive until the very, very end? What aspects of your service do you consider the most vital, the most irreplaceable, the most important?

This may seem like a silly thought experiment, but these questions have been on the mind of many a minister over the last few years as pandemic restrictions forced them to pare back services to their barest elements.

Many looked to the example of the developing church:

And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers (Acts 2:42);

or Paul’s instructions to Timothy:

Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching (1Tim 4:13).

It’s this devotion to “the public reading of Scripture” that I want us to reflect on in this article. Where does the reading of Scripture rank in your church’s “lifeboat” priorities? Is it seen as vitally important, or would it be thrown out of the boat before the music ministry or maybe the sermon?

In some churches, the public reading of God’s Word is not much more than a formality before the sermon

Sadly, in some churches, the public reading of God’s Word is not much more than a formality before the sermon—which is treated as the “main event”. Even reformed evangelical churches can slip into relating to the Bible that way. I recall one service leader informing the congregation that “Simon will do the reading, followed by the minister who will bring us the Word of God.” It was possibly a bit of a slip of the tongue on their part, but it has always stuck with me and a good illustration of how we can devalue the ministry of public Bible reading.

Valuing Public Bible Reading

Back in the early 2000’s I regularly attended various Christian conferences and camps both through University groups and my church. I noticed that the reading before the Bible talk was often given to junior members of the group as a sort of an “entry level” ministry that might make them feel involved without requiring much experience or effort.

We know that the public reading of Scripture is valuable … but we treat it as just another roster.

Sadly, that can also be the pattern at many of our churches. We know that the public reading of Scripture is valuable—an important ministry of the church—but in practice we can treat it as just another roster that needs to be filled.

Think about the Bible readers at your church. How long are they given to prepare? Are they expected to have practised their reading? Are they encouraged to talk with the preacher beforehand to understand the passage or to know what part they will be focusing on in the sermon? Are they provided with any training to help them read well? Are they given feedback on how they can improve their reading for next time?

I suspect the answer would generally be “no” to many of these questions. Now consider the preacher. How prepared and trained do we expect them to be? Or if that’s too high a bar, what about the musicians and the singers? We expect them to be in tune and well prepared. We expect them to come early and practise. Why do we expect less of Bible readers?

Preparing for the TGCA Conference

Back in June this year, I was asked to organise the Bible readers for TGCA National Conference. First, they asked me to read the entire book of Titus for the first session of the conference—something I highly recommend doing before starting a sermon series on a book of the Bible.

Second, they asked me to recruit four other Bible readers from various states and help them prepare shorter sections the letter to read before the other talks. What a privilege! And what a great opportunity to put all my talk about valuing the ministry of public Bible reading into practice.

Here’s an example of some of the things I did to prepare:

  • I cut and paste the text of Titus from Bible Gateway into a Word document. I slowly began working through the text, breaking it up into a format that made it easier to read and understand the flow of the letter.
  • A month or two before the conference, I recorded a full reading of the passage which I kept on my phone and listened to often. This helped me “marinate” in the passage, becoming more and more familiar and comfortable with its words, structure and ideas.
  • I sought out suitable candidates for the team: readers who would not only be attending the conference, but would be willing to spend time preparing in the weeks leading up to it.
  • Along with providing these readers with tips and training material, we all caught up on Zoom for a group workshop. We:
    • spent a couple of hours discussing what makes a good or bad Bible reading;
    • read through Titus a couple of times;
    • prayed for this ministry;
    • worked through my three key principles of public Bible reading—clarity, comprehension and conviction.

On the Day

The National conference came around on the 14th of October and all this preparation paid off. The readers all read excellently and it served both the conference attendees and the preachers. If you do any preaching, you’ll know how much a clear and engaging Bible reading helps the congregation to hear and be moved by the Scripture passage that you will be speaking on. You can then spend less time re-engaging the congregation with the passage they only half listened to, and more time explaining it and applying it to their lives.

A clear and engaging Bible reading helps the congregation to hear and be moved by the Scripture passage.

Many at the conference mentioned how the Bible reading impacted them, which was so wonderful to hear. I mean, we often hear how a powerful sermon has inspired or challenged people, but how encouraging to hear people expressing the same experience from the reading of God’s Word itself!

In the introduction to his Bible talk, Murray Capill mentioned the impact of the Bible reading at the conference. I caught up with him afterward and asked him to elaborate on his thoughts on the ministry of public Bible reading. He said:

The thing which always strikes me is that Paul says to Timothy, Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teachingand we kind of just skip over the first one as if it’s just the preliminary to the real deal, which is preaching. He’s actually got it there as a distinct ministry of public reading the Bible. And most of your early church people didn’t have their own Bible. So that’s how they heard the Bible: they heard it read.

Reading the Bible matters and when it’s read well, it’s really powerful. There’s lots of lousy Bible reading, but sometimes you hear such a good reading of the Bible you almost don’t want the sermon afterwards, because it’s been a ministry in and of itself.

I love it when its like that. And that doesn’t just happen. It’s someone who’s prepared to read just like someone whos prepared to preach. Scripture comes alive when it’s read well.

Supporting Bible Reading at Your Church

Now, I don’t expect the average Bible reader on a Sunday to have been able to spend many weeks preparing their reading. But we can all treat this ministry with the importance it deserves and make practical steps to improve the quality of the Bible reading at our church. The goal is not to be more impressive or more professional. The goal is simply to see the value of this ministry and the value of when it is done well. Just like those preaching, or playing music, or those on prayer or service leading, our Bible readers need training and time to prepare. They need feedback and support.

Here’s some simple initial ways you can support the public Bible reading at your church:

  • Relate to, and speak of, the Bible reading as a vital and important ministry, rather than just a roster than needs to be filled.
  • Don’t simply have the Bible reading happen while the kids are going out to Sunday School or treat it as less important than the sermon.
  • Give your Bible readers time to prepare their reading and encourage them to do so.
  • Make sure the preacher is available to answer questions about what a certain verse means or how it should be read, and importantly, make sure your readers know that they are allowed to ask.
  • Provide some training for your Bible readers before they read and feedback afterwards so they know what they did well and how they can improve.

Now, I could write volumes on little practical tips to improve the quality of your public Bible reading, but ultimately it starts with both the Bible readers and church leaders valuing this ministry.

My favourite quote on this topic comes from the Scottish preacher, W. E. Sangster in his book The Approach to Preaching (1951):

Bible reading offers the widest scope for the enrichment of public worship and it is a great pity that the Scriptures are often so badly read … When the Book is well read and made to live for the people, it can do for them what sermons often fail to do: it can be the very voice of God to their souls. If it fails to be that, the reason is usually to be sought in the lack of high seriousness with which many men come to the task. Their whole manner suggests that anyone can read the Scriptures in public: even a child. The people listen with respect but with only a tithe of that understanding or, indeed, tingling eagerness which skilful readers can communicate to a congregation.”

If we are to take Paul’s instructions seriously, to “devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture” (1 Timothy 4:13), then the ministry of public Bible reading deserves to be given more time and weight in our churches. We all say we esteem the Word of God very highly, and we aim to have every aspect of our services shaped by God’s Word in some way. Well, the Bible reading IS God’s Word spoken to the congregation directly. And for people desperately hungry for truth who may not have gotten around to picking up their Bibles all that much over the week, the ministry of public Bible reading every Sunday is vital food for their souls.

Simon is developing training resources for churches to support their public Bible reading ministry. If you are interested in finding out when that is available, please submit your interest at: www.PublicBibleReading.com