Holy Week Worship in an Era of Biblical Illiteracy


As we prepare for Holy Week, I am struck by the increasing challenge of exploring the profound meaning of Jesus’ passion, death, and resurrection in a community with relatively little knowledge of the Bible. What advice do you have for retooling our approaches to worship in light of biblical illiteracy?


Recognizing the problem is essential. Learning not to say “as you all know . . .” before we refer to a Bible text in our sermons is a good first step. There is too much to lose by unwittingly shaming people who do not have a broad knowledge of Scripture, especially when we long for just this kind of person to be present among us as we worship.

Beyond this, what we should not do in response to the decline of biblical illiteracy is to use less of the Bible out of fear that people will not understand it. Rather, we should redouble our commitment to drawing from the full range of biblical texts that illuminate the meaning of Jesus’ passion and death, and provide helpful, accessible, winsome explanations of what we are doing and why it matters.

Outside the church, organizations and thought leaders have responded to financial illiteracy and nutritional illiteracy not by running away, but by developing “sticky,” illuminating approaches to teaching this literacy—all while explaining patiently why it matters. We can do the same.

Holy Week is an ideal time to begin. Not only does it celebrate the epicenter of the Christian faith; it also is a time when people may well be open to at least a short-term burst of intentional engagement.

Imagine an introduction like this: “This week, we will practice together a way of engaging our Bibles as with a beautiful symphony, noticing how texts from each part of Scripture weave together to convey the compelling beauty of what Jesus’ death and resurrection mean for us. Every single text we read this week will offer us a glimpse of the magnificent gospel.”

Then, try practicing a three-fold pattern for each of the key days of Holy Week, inviting worshipers to engage first a text of evocative anticipation in the Hebrew scriptures, then the dramatic narration of Holy Week events in the gospels, and last a bold interpretation of these events from a text later in the New Testament. For example:

  • On Maundy Thursday, notice how Exodus 12:1–14 sets a dramatic backdrop to Jesus’ last meal, how John 13 narrates the story itself, and how 1 Corinthians 11:23–26 guides our worship in response.
  • On Good Friday, notice how Isaiah 52:13–53:12 poignantly anticipates a suffering servant of God. John 18–19 tells the story of the day itself. Hebrews 5:7–9, 10:16–25, or 10:16–25 unfold the dramatic implications.
  • On Easter, notice how Ezekiel 37 or Isaiah 25 offers a vision of resurrection, how Matthew 28 narrates the events in Jesus’ life, and how Acts 10:34–43, Colossians 3:1–4, or 1 Corinthians 5:6–8 explain the vision’s fulfillment and meaning for today.

Once we see the beauty of the pattern, why would we want to live without it?

Here are some additional ways this triptych pattern can be incorporated into the worship and faith formation of a community:

  1. Though it’s preferable to use these passages within a worship context, if you don’t gather for worship on those days you can still use the pattern to inform public worship when it does happen and suggest it for personal devotional reading on the other days.
  2. In an ideal world, with no time limits, there would be time to read an integrated set of extended Bible readings at each service, lingering after each passage for silent wonder and prayerful reflection—an approach that fits very well in a Holy Week retreat (a great idea for many contexts, including for religious seekers and new believers). For those with time limits, excerpts from each of three texts can still be read, illustrating the pattern of anticipation-narration-reflection with suggestions for home devotional readings of the full texts.
  3. If you normally begin your service with a song set, consider a trio of songs inspired by one of these complementary texts.
  4. Use the triptych pattern to inspire visual art: one image derived from the Old Testament text, one from the gospels, and one from the later parts of the New Testament.
  5. For those planning church education classes, it’s helpful to invite students of all ages to set aside e-versions of the Bible for a time and to pick up a physical copy, putting bookmarks at each text and getting the feel in their fingers of the pattern of ancient anticipation, dramatic narration, and evocative reflection.

I am not making up this pattern of Bible reading. This is how the Bible was used in public worship in the early church—an era when no one owned personal Bibles and in which biblical literacy was (at least at first) quite low. By reading each week from the Hebrew Scriptures, gospels, and later parts of the New Testament, communities were exposed each and every week to each part of the Bible. Pastoral liturgists lingered over which pairings of texts would most faithfully proclaim the Bible’s message, often (and especially during Holy Week) choosing texts which amplified the gospel text’s narration.

These pairings come down to us in lectionaries, or organized systems for reading the Bible over time. Even for those of us who are allergic to using lectionaries and the discipline they impose, these systems can be a rich source of wisdom as we shape a diet of Bible readings for use in our own contexts.

It’s possible, too, to extend the range of texts even further, adding to the three texts a relevant psalm for each occasion: Psalm 116 for Maundy Thursday, Psalm 22 for Good Friday, and Psalm 118 for Easter Sunday, for example. And the pattern can be expanded for each day during Holy Week, with readings that follow the events in Jesus’ life between Palm Sunday and Easter.

In sum, realize that classic lectionaries offer time-tested advice for which Bible readings, when read in concert with a given occasion in the life of Jesus, can offer new believers a profound encounter with the meaning and significance of these events.

Rev. Dr. John D. Witvliet is director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and professor of music and worship at Calvin University and Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He also teaches in the religion department at Calvin University.

Reformed Worship 134 © December 2019, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.