August 22, 2011
The Bible Challenge
Note: Check out Marek's Tip Sheet for creating a Bible Challenge in your own congregation.
Episcopalians take pride in reading more scripture aloud in church on Sunday than most denominations, but few Episcopalians have read the entire Bible.
This year our church found a dramatic way to change that in one parish, and it is having an enormous impact on our congregation. We now think that it could have a great impact on churches across the United States and around the world.
On September 15 we will begin sharing this ministry around the Anglican Communion and throughout the world as we launch a new website for The Center for Biblical Studies (www.thecenterforbiblicalstudies.org). The CBS is designed to support individuals, clergy and churches of all denominations in reading the Bible from cover to cover.
This ministry started after Christmas, when we launched “The Bible Challenge.” As a priest, I realized that I personally needed to get more serious about reading the Bible. For years, I had been reading the Daily Lectionary, but there were times when my reading became sporadic. Occasionally, I read a book of the Bible with a commentary, but it had been over twenty years since I had read the entire Bible.
After Christmas, I read in a colleague’s newsletter that he was encouraging his parish to join him in reading the Bible from cover to cover. He offers this challenge each year, and his church has prospered under his leadership. As a result of his appeal, 15 members of his church decided to read the Bible with him.
Our church is less than half the size of his parish, but because of a particularly strong appeal we were fortunate to have 178 parishioners and 80 friends from beyond our church join The Bible Challenge. They range in age from 13 to 93. The difference in attracting more people to read the Bible is that we used technology to spread the message far and wide.
After a few days of reading the Bible by the fireside at night and or a cup of tea in the morning, I found such peace and joy that I decided to share this with others. I sent an email to members of a men’s group that I had started about eight years ago called, “Beer, Burgers and the Bible.” I noted that if we gave ourselves to reading God’s Word, the Lord would honor what we were doing, and it would to help us become more faithful followers of Christ, and therefore more faithful spouses, parents, grandparents, employers, employees, neighbors and friends.
Sending this email was like fishing in a stocked pond. Many men responded, “I have always wanted to do this. Count me in.” I discovered that reading the entire Bible was a lifetime goal that many wanted to accomplish, but they needed someone to challenge them to do it and to help them to reach their goal.
I started contacting everyone on my email address list both within and outside our church and invited them to join The Bible Challenge. I sent emails to persons who never darken the door of any church and to colleagues nearby and far away.
As our numbers picked up, I preached a sermon about The Bible Challenge. Fifty more people signed up within 48 hours. I took names down at the church door and quickly connected with them by email welcoming them into the challenge. We announced the challenge each Sunday and how many people had joined it, and we prayed for those who were participating. People like to be part of something successful, and more joined.
We have husbands and wives passing the Bible back and forth across the bed stand at night. A husband and wife who are both physicians and commute 40 minutes each way to work are listening to the Bible on CD as they drive. The Dean of the Yale Divinity School has joined us and is reading the Bible each day on his iPhone. Lawyers and executives in our parish who commute by train into Philadelphia are reading the Bible on their iPads, Kindles and Nooks.
We offer free Bibles to those who do not have one and encourage participates to read the New Oxford Annotated Version of the Bible, but allow them to read any translation that they select. We also invite them to read three chapters of the Old Testament, one psalm and one chapter of the New Testament a day. We realize that many people may get bogged down in some more tedious portions of the Old Testament and be discouraged from reading through the entire Bible. So we encourage our participants to have some variety in their reading and find some spiritual sustenance each time that they sit down to read the Bible.
Nonetheless, we allow people to be free to read the Bible in whatever fashion they desire to read it. We do not tell them how to read it from a conservative or liberal viewpoint. Some have asked for more than a year to read the Bible. We encourage them to take as long as they need. Our chief goal is to help each reader discover the deep joy of reading God’s Word and to develop a lifelong spiritual practice of reading the Bible.
Our parish has numerous weekly Bible studies, but the success of The Bible Challenge will probably increase the need to start more study groups. We are restarting our Education for Ministry (EFM) program, holding a Bible conference in April of 2012 with Professor Walter Brueggemann and are inviting a series of lay leaders and Bible scholars to preach and speak about the Bible in 2012 when we re-launch The Bible Challenge.
The Bible Challenge is transforming our parish, and it will probably strengthen our stewardship, membership, and worship attendance. Because of its success, we are creating The Center for Biblical Studies to promote The Bible Challenge across the country and around the world. We will invite churches of all denominations and even persons who have no church affiliation to join us.
We are privileged to have Archbishop Rowan Williams join our International Advisory Board along with our former Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold, Bishop John Chane, Bishop Fred Borsch, Walter Brueggemann, Deirdre Good, Phyllis Tickle, Barbara Crafton, Ian Markham, Margaret Guenther, Miroslav Volf and many others.
Liberal Protestantism is dying, and the mainline church is in peril. In the Diocese of Pennsylvania, we have closed 23 churches in the past 16 years and are on track to close many more. Meanwhile there are millions of people who want to read the entire Bible and who only need a nudge and some ongoing support to reach their spiritual goal. We can help them.
Few churches invite their parishioners to read the entire Bible. We are convinced that this is a life transforming experience. We believe that by reading the entire Bible, God may revitalize countless congregations and transform countless lives.
If you or your parish would like to join The Bible Challenge or to help us launch The Center for Biblical Studies, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or 215-233-3970 ext. 120. We welcome your participation.
We hope to keep a list of individuals, clergy and churches across the country and around the world that are participating in The Bible Challenge. By communicating with one another, we hope to offer ongoing support and learn from creative and innovative approaches that individuals, clergy and churches take.