Faith Works 1-28-17
Aspirational goals and Bible reading
Recently, the Barna Group, a research and resource company focusing on Christian trends, released the results of the latest in an ongoing series of surveys about Bible reading.
They've been around since 1984, and for the last five years they've worked with the American Bible Society to assess American Christian habits and practices around Bible reading.
Two-thirds of those already reading the Bible say their time and commitment have stayed about the same in 2016, with a quarter saying it has increased. A significant number would like to spend more time than they do in study of the scriptures, but more express that goal than – at least by their own self-reporting! – actually get around to doing so.
You can see more about these surveys at their website, www.barna.com; in general, the folks behind the study say that it's very like gym memberships at the start of the year. Resolutions start out with good intentions and high aspirations, but just as this week starts an annual drop-off of all those new treadmill runners and weight bench occupants at the fitness centers, folks tend to drop off what was a sincere desire to go deeper in "the Word" in 2017.
I think there's another useful comparison here: just as you can start out with too aggressive a goal, lifting too much weight, pushing to run before you've even acclimated yourself to walking a mile here and there, so you can set an unrealistic goal in Bible study.
As a pastor, you may be surprised to hear how often I push against the idea of "reading the Bible right through." Yes, some people do that every year, and bless 'em. It's not the only way, just as running a marathon is not the only way to put one foot in front of the other in exercise on the street.
The Bible is largely not a chronological read. It is in stretches, which itself then confuses people when it seems as if the narrative doubles back on itself - which it does, and as you learn about how these 66 books came together into one weighty volume, it does so within a certain structure that itself teaches us something about how God speaks to us through it.
And then there's Leviticus. Third book of the Bible if you're heading in front to back. Asking a relatively new Bible reader to take on Leviticus is like handing a Faulkner novel to a fifth grader. Give it time, let it speak when the reader is ready, but don't start there. Just don't!
Here's one thought: start out with a pattern of Psalm reading. Read two a morning. Read them, reflect on them, spend some of your own prayer time with the Lord, then read them a second time. And so on. Yes, that means that by the end of January you will have not even gotten halfway through just Psalms, but this isn't a race, it's not a project to prove something, not to God or to fellow believers. Let the Word of God speak, and that's not an experience limited to those who've read the entire volume.
Or pick a gospel. Matthew, Mark, Luke, John. I'd start a new reader on Luke, some pastors say Mark (it's very short, Luke is very reader friendly). One chapter a day, maybe even half sometimes. Read, reflect, pray, read again.
Just like gyms and coaches, different pastors might suggest various training programs, and most of us are also willing and able to craft a plan for Bible reading to particular persons: you, for instance. Sure, just ask them. Honestly, nothing would make most preachers happier than having someone say "could you help me develop a reading plan?"
The most frequent reason I see and hear as to why folks with good intentions tend to drop off is just like what wrecks fitness plans: some mix of presumed expectations and guilt push them to try too hard, and then collapse in a heap. But any walking in the fresh air is better than not exercising at all; any regular pattern of reading, even if you put Revelation and Daniel off until much later, is going to let the Bible bless you much more than limiting your intake to what you hear read on Sunday.
Why read the Bible at all? Well, the Barna folks say 57% of those surveyed had an answer I think is quite correct. They said it draws them closer to God. And that's all the reason I need to hear.
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him what your Bible reading practices are at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter. (Seriously, I'd love to hear what patterns some of you use!)