“Do you know what your problem is?” the business consultant we had hired asked me. “You’re lazy.”
At the time, I was running a successful Bible division for a well-known publishing company. Before that, I had been a pastor for 15 years. “Lazy” was not one of the words I would have chosen to describe myself.
“You’re not lazy when it comes to creating and selling more Bibles,” the consultant continued. “But what are you doing to help people engage their Bibles once the cash register has rung?”
I didn’t have a good answer.
Like many in the church, I had come to assume that if we simply got the Scriptures out there—that if we translated, published, and sold enough Bibles—then we’d done our job. God would take it from there.
Since then, I’ve learned the unvarnished reality: in North America, we have more Bibles than ever, but less and less real engagement.
Bibles, Bibles Everywhere
Americans buy 25 million new Bibles every year—and that’s not counting the millions that are given away by churches, Bible societies, and other ministries. The Bible is not only the best-selling book of all time; it’s the best-selling book every single year!
Yet we all know that the incidence of Bible reading is going down, not up. In the last few decades, one in five Bible readers has given up on Scripture. Today, twice as many people think the Bible is a fairy tale as did when I started in ministry.
The problem isn’t just outside the church, either. Willow Creek’s groundbreaking REVEAL study uncovered a surprising hunger for God’s Word among our congregations: 87 percent of churchgoers identified in-depth Bible study as “very” or “critically” important. No other spiritual need scored this highly.
But the REVEAL study also contained more sobering news: Only one in five churchgoers says their church offers in-depth Bible engagement.
For me, there is a compelling sense of opportunity and urgency in these numbers. As the authors of the REVEAL study concluded, “The Bible is the most powerful catalyst for spiritual growth. [Its] power to advance spiritual growth is unrivaled by anything else we’ve discovered.”
But how many of us have figured out how to unleash this power in ourchurch communities? And if we don’t find a way to better Bible engagement, how much longer before our parishioners start looking outside the church for spiritual direction?
This question prompted a two-year journey at Biblica (formerly International Bible Society). For more than two centuries now, we’ve translated and distributed Bibles all over the world. We’ve been privileged to serve as stewards of the NIV, the most widely read contemporary English version of the Bible.
But we’ve come to realize that translating, publishing, and distributing Bibles—while important—isn’t enough. It’s not good enough to ask, “Do people have the Bible?” We also have to ask, “What kind of experience are they having with the Bible?”
Three Barriers to Engagement
Today, it’s safe to say that our congregants’ Bible experience isn’t always everything it could be. What’s getting in the way of meaningful engagement? I propose the existence of three barriers:
Too many of us read Scripture in fragments.
From topical reference Bibles to verse-of-the-day emails, we tend to parcel Scripture into bite-sized fragments. Even the modern verse divisions in our Bibles—which weren’t added until the mid-1500s—encourage fragmented reading. We’ve made the Bible feel more like a reference book than a story.
For the most part, biblical books were meant to be read as whole units, from beginning to end. Yet if we engage the Bible at all, we’re more likely to do so in a verse here or a chapter there. We’ve refashioned God’s Word in the image of our sound-bite culture; as a result, readers can lose sight of the bigger story.
Too many of us read Scripture without a sense of context.
We all know the Bible is an ancient book written by ancient scribes. We all know it’s the product of a world vastly different from our own. But if we are to discover the Bible’s implications for our lives today, we have to bridge the gap between its world and ours.
Let’s face it—that’s easier said than done. More often than not, we’ve soft-pedaled the Bible’s foreignness. We haven’t fully come to grips with the reality that the Bible was written for us, but not directly to us. In the words of N.T. Wright, we have to learn to read it “with first-century eyes.”
Too many of us read Scripture in isolation.
Many treat Bible reading mainly as a private discipline. We have private devotions and personal quiet times. We’ve been taught to ask questions like, “How does this verse apply to me?”
Personal Bible study is a wonderful thing. But in prioritizing individual experience over that within the community, we may have been unwittingly influenced by our Western, me-centric culture—more so than we care to admit.
The Bible was originally the product of a very different mindset. Its books were written, first and foremost, to whole communities. They were composed, for the most part, to be read during public gatherings. Think of the many times Israel assembled to listen to the Law—or when Paul instructed that his letters be read aloud to the entire local church.
We need a Bible experience that doesn’t just begin and end with “me.”
Three Cs of Engagement
These barriers to engagement are not inconsequential. But I believe they can be overcome by focusing on the three Cs of engagement:
The complete Bible . . .
For starters, we need to clear away some of the clutter that’s collected around the Bible. Study notes, cross-references, and verse numbers have a role to play, but let’s be honest about the fact that they encourage us to read in fragments rather than whole books. We need a panoramic view of the entire story.
Understood in context . . .
Before we can ask (much less answer) the question, “What does this passage mean to me?” we need to ask, “What did it mean to the original audience?” We need to go back in time and step into the world of the Bible’s writers and recipients.
Experienced in community. . .
Recovery movements understand what many of us in the church have missed: Great undertakings are far more likely to succeed when they are group efforts. Smokers, for example, are six times more likely to quit if they are part of a support group.
Bible engagement is no easy task, so individuals shouldn’t be left to go it alone. Our Bible experiences will be richer and more meaningful when we share them with the whole community of faith.
Community Bible Experience: A Step Toward Better Bible Engagement
We live in interesting times. There is a window of opportunity—one that will not last indefinitely—to really engage people in the Scriptures. Our parishioners are hungry to hear God speak—as hungry as they’ve ever been. Many churches, publishers, and Bible societies are finding innovative new ways to address this need.
At Biblica, we’ve spent the last couple years turning our vision for Bible engagement into concrete reality. We started by designing a different kind of Bible—one that presses the “undo” button on much of the artificial formatting that’s been added to Scripture over the years. We have given the Bible an un-makeover.
We published this new edition, called The Books of the Bible, without chapter and verse numbers, cross references, or study notes. We restored the natural section breaks within each book and arranged the books in a more natural order. (For example, instead of arranging Paul’s letters from longest to shortest—as they are in most Bibles—they appear in chronological order.) We included introductions that reveal the context and literary structure of each book. In short, we designed The Books of the Bible to be read from beginning to end.
But we didn’t stop there, because we believe that a better Bible experience demands more than just another Bible product. It takes a whole different approach to the Bible, the whole community of faith experiencing the whole story of redemption.
Last year we began testing this approach we call a Community Bible Experience. For approximately eight weeks, the whole church reads a section of Scripture (starting with the New Testament) from beginning to end using The Books of the Bible. Participants share the experience with one another through small groups that are deliberately more like book clubs than traditional Bible studies.
This experience isn’t about mining all the right answers from Scripture; it’s about helping people experience God’s Word on its own terms. It’s about whole communities immersing themselves in God’s story.
Already Community Bible Experience is generating powerful stories of transformation—new believers reading the New Testament for the first time, entire youth groups rallying around the Bible, and churches reaching out to the surrounding community through Scripture.
“We’ve never engaged so much of the Bible at one time,” said Brad Gilliland, pastor of Immanuel Community Church in Colorado, one of the first churches to hold a Community Bible Experience. “In terms of what God is doing, I feel like we’re the strongest we’ve been in a long time.”
As a pastor, you already know the importance of Bible engagement. We at Biblica would like to be your fellow travelers on the road toward a better Bible experience.
Community Bible Experience officially launches this fall, but we’re holding one more “test run” with a number of churches this spring, during Lent.
We are offering you the free opportunity to gather a small group of 10 leaders from your church—it could be your staff, your elder board, or other members of the congregation—and commit to journeying through the New Testament as a group this Lent.
Biblica will provide up to 10 free copies of The Books of the Bible, New Testament edition, to each of the first 100 churches who respond. (The cost to participate in a Community Bible Experience, normally $5 per person, will be waived.) We will also provide online access to a downloadable audio version of The Books of the Bible and other resources, including:
- Promotional video
- Reading plan
- Discussion guide
Because this is a test run, we’re asking you to help us refine the experience for others, by telling us what works and what doesn’t. But we’re also asking you to consider sharing the experience with the whole congregation by holding a church-wide Community Bible Experience this fall.
A better Bible experience is possible, but it starts with the complete Bible understood in context and experienced in community. My prayer is that engaging the Bible in this way will be as life-changing for you and your church as it has been for me.