November 2012
Liturgy, Music, & Leadership

Transform Your Congregation: Read the Bible

If you pay much attention to goings-on in the Episcopal Church, you’ve probably heard of The Bible Challenge. Right here in the Vestry Papers, it’s been covered a couple of times.

The Bible Challenge, a systematic way to read the whole Bible in a year, might seem like a gimmick, but it’s much more than that. In fact, I think projects like this have the capacity—more than anything else—to transform and animate the Episcopal Church.

A few years ago, the parish I was serving began to read the entire Bible together. Despite having several theology degrees, I had never read the Bible this way: fast enough to get the flow of the narrative. Reading the Bible with others was invaluable, as we shared insights, puzzlement, and encouragement. For the first time, I must confess, I began to grasp the astounding sweep of God’s love for us and our part in God’s story.

I’m not alone in claiming that engagement with the Bible has changed my life. There are some researchers who have studied spiritual practices and vitality at hundreds of congregations of all denominations, beginning with the Willow Creek Church. As it turns out, church programs have almost no impact on spiritual growth. Instead, the survey paints a remarkably consistent picture of something entirely different.

The research identified stages of spiritual growth, ranging from seeker (“exploring Christ”) to fully Christ centered. Study of the data also revealed the key catalysts for advancing from one stage to the next. The most effective practice for fostering spiritual growth is engagement with scriptures.

In other words, people who reflect on or study the scriptures are more likely to become spiritually mature. This practice is more effective than other practices, according to the research. You can read more in Move: What 1,000 Churches Reveal About Spiritual Growth by Greg Hawkins and Cally Parkinson.

Ironically, we in the Episcopal Church have shackled ourselves into a spiritual world that looks much like the pre-Reformation world. These days, in the Episcopal Church it is too often the clergy alone who are thought competent to read the scriptures. At first, when I encourage lay people to read the whole Bible, they’ll say something like “I can’t” or “I don’t know enough.”

But with encouragement and a bit of perseverance, anyone can (and should!) read the Bible. Not only do we learn some facts, but more importantly, we learn the truth of our lives, the very meaning of our humanity. For centuries, some Christians have insisted that reading the Bible is akin to a sacramental experience: the very act of encountering God’s word opens up our hearts to receive the Word. I can testify to that!

To be sure, the Bible Challenge isn’t the only way to engage with the vast sweep of the scriptural story. There are other read-the-Bible in a year plans. One can pray the daily office (for convenience, using the Forward Movement prayer website or our iPhone app). If you decide to try out the Bible Challenge, Forward Movement has published a companion book of essays to go with each day’s reading, with contributions by clergy, lay leaders, and scholars from around the Anglican Communion. Among the contributors is Bishop Justin Welby, the next Archbishop of Canterbury.

However you decide to read the Bible, I think you’ll find that it will change your life. If your congregation can find a way to do this, amazing things will happen in your church. Really. I’ve seen it with my own eyes, and I’ve heard the stories from others.

By all means, let’s continue to gather for worship on the Lord’s Day. Let’s serve those in need (another key catalyst for spiritual growth). But let us Episcopalians stop finding excuses to avoid reading the Bible. Our denominational allergy to the scriptures is closely related to our continued shrinkage. The good news is that it’s easy to fix. Let us open our Bibles. And in that we will find the Good News.

The Rev. Scott Gunn is executive director of Forward Movement, whose mission is reinvigorating the life of the church.

This article is part of the November 2012 Vestry Papers issue on Liturgy, Music, & Leadership