JACKSON, Tenn. – Jan. 12, 2007– Some time ago I visited a church in another town; it was a pleasant service, with pretty music and a brief but impassioned sermon. The service concluded with the congregants embracing and encouraging each other.
After the service, I eyed the hundred or so adults who exited the sanctuary. Something about the service had made me curious, and my suspicion was validated: I saw only about 15 Bibles in their hands.
The pastor’s sermon had raised this suspicion. Halfway through it, I realized that he had not made a single reference to Scripture. In fact, he never mentioned the name of Christ during the entire service! The sermon had revolved around encouraging the flock to think about how they might live their lives according to their own definitions of right and wrong. It was a moral-sounding sermon, but it had not centered upon the Word of God.
This church was not Baptist, but I was saddened to have a similar experience a few months later at a large Southern Baptist church. This time the worship was lively and the songs contained Scripture. The sermon was expository, proceeding clause by clause through the passage. It was, in fact, one of the best biblical sermons I’d heard in recent memory.
I left that service feeling invigorated, until I noticed something as I walked through the parking lot: almost no one carried a Bible. I realized that even my host, a minister with a parachurch organization, hadn’t bothered to bring his Bible with him. There was no reason to open the Word and read it for oneself: the Scripture passages had been flashed on the sanctuary wall. We had spent an hour hearing God’s Word, but the congregation had been passive consumers in nicely padded seats, not active readers and worshippers of Christ. They had instead been entertained; it was a pleasurable experience, but the service had not caused people to dig into God’s Word.
Worship should glorify Christ! We are not worshipping the Bible when we give it prominence; we are underscoring that God’s revealed Word is the authority under which we live and through which we know Christ. Intimacy with Scripture is central to intimacy with Christ Himself.
Intimacy is not a passive quality; it requires us to “do” something, to pursue a relationship. James 1:22-24 implies this dynamic state: “But prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks at his natural face in a mirror; for once he has looked at himself and gone away, he has immediately forgotten what kind of person he was.”
This exhortation reminds us that “doers” are changed by God’s Word and not merely passively entertained. Nowhere is this concept more important than in Bible study and worship. When those of us who are teachers and preachers allow people to be passive in their use of the Bible, then we are in direct violation of our responsibilities as leaders.
We should take a regular inventory of our teaching and preaching to see if we are encouraging an active use of the Bible. A visual check is simple: Are Bibles present and open in people’s laps, with pens in-hand and in-use? An auditory check is helpful as well: When a Scripture reference is called out, can pages be heard turning to the appropriate passage? When additional Scriptures are cited, can an immediate rush of page-turning be heard throughout the room?
If these checks provide disappointing feedback, it is easy to encourage active use of the Bible. Stop printing entire Scripture passages on outlines or Powerpoint slides; instead, provide Bibles for those who did not bring a copy and indicate the page number of the passages in that Bible. This will encourage those who are not familiar with finding passages with an easy way of finding the passage without allowing them to be passive. In fact, I would recommend placing a prominent sticker on these Bibles encouraging people to take them home and return them the following week. Additionally, these Bibles could have the plan of salvation pasted in them or even several brief devotionals that lead the person to study the Bible during that week.
We should encourage our Bible study classes and our worshippers to read the passages out loud through responsive readings. We should encourage them to sing Scripture in song. We should pray prayers that include appropriate verses. In short, Bible studies and worship services should drip with active uses of God’s Word.
When we are “hearers” alone, we are passive and do not allow God’s changing grace to work through our lives. When we are “doers” in study and worship, we cannot help but to allow God’s love to overflow into every aspect of our lives, including our relationships with others.
Once upon a time in our churches, we said that there was nothing more intimidating to the forces of hell than an open Bible in the hands of a godly man or woman. We need to stop allowing people to sit with their Bibles absent or closed, for without an open Bible, there is no way to be a godly person.
Gene C. Fant Jr. is the acting dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Union University in Jackson, Tenn. He is a Sunday school teacher at West Jackson Baptist Church and also serves as a supply preacher.
By Gene C. Fant Jr.