Engaging Scripture in Worship

Q

Our new pastor thinks that worship is one of the most important places for practicing good Bible engagement disciplines and has asked our worship team to learn more about this. They never talked about this in my worship leadership training program. What is this all about?

A

I agree with your pastor. A worship service is a prime occasion for engaging with the Bible. For millions of Christians throughout most of history in many cultural contexts, it was the only place they could engage with the Bible directly. Even in communities with rich practices of regular group Bible study and personal Bible reading, in worship we engage the Bible in a different way.

As I reflected on your question, my own thinking was sharpened by listing several ill-advised ways of engaging Scripture in worship, including:

  • Treating it as merely a repository of religious ideas to think about
  • Treating it as merely a collection of ancient writings
  • Ignoring the historical and cultural contexts in which it was written
  • Ignoring the stunning range of the kinds of texts included in the Bible
  • Only ever reading one passage at a time without cross-referencing other texts
  • Reading the Bible only by yourself without noticing how others engage it
  • Only reading tiny snippets of the Bible at a time—only as much as you can fit on a greeting card
  • Treating the images and metaphors in the text as inessential ornaments only loosely connected with the main point
  • Reading a given text quickly and assuming this is good enough
  • Having a Bible around to look good, but never really opening it at all!

(Perhaps you could invite others to add to this list of bad Bible engagement habits. The exercise of creating this list will make it much easier to generate a list of good goals we want to work toward.)

Now let’s generate a positive vision to counteract these approaches. Notice how even ordinary worship services invite us into something much richer and deeper.

  • FORMATIVE: When we sing or pray texts directly from the Bible in worship, we learn to apprentice ourselves to these texts. When we sing or pray a text from the Bible, we don’t merely think about it; we plant the seed of God’s Word more deeply within us.
  • CONTEMPLATIVE: When sermons are based on particular Bible passages and not just general themes, we practice dwelling with (or stewing in!) a particular text for anywhere from fifteen minutes to a half hour or more, depending on our context. In a world of hurry, this practice of slowing down to listen to an extended proclamation based on a text is a discipline of attentiveness we need.
  • AUTHORITATIVE: When in worship a reader concludes a reading by saying, “The Word of the Lord,” and we respond, “Thanks be to God,” we practice Scripture’s authoritative claim on our lives. While that simple phrase doesn’t automatically mean we will treat the Bible authoritatively, that discipline is still a powerful symbolic gesture that makes a congregation’s aspiration clearer.
  • SYMPHONIC: When worship services routinely read at least two passages of Scripture together in juxtaposition, we learn to see connections throughout the Bible’s sixty-six books. We practice the hermeneutical principle that “Scripture interprets Scripture.” And over time, we may well learn to notice that those connections are not all of one type. While some texts improvise on earlier texts (e.g., Mary riffs on Hannah’s song of praise), others offer striking and instructive contrasts (e.g., Jesus’ command that we pray for our enemies instead of paying the back a “tooth for tooth”).
  • NARRATIVE: When in worship we learn to stick with a passage or set of passages over time (e.g., a six-week sermon series on Philippians, or a lectionary-shaped journey through the gospel of Mark or the book of Exodus), we resist the temptation to engage Scripture only as a set of proof texts or inspirational quotes that we can sprinkle into our lives. We learn to immerse ourselves in more extended Biblical passages.
  • COMMUNAL: When congregations draw on preaching texts all week long to shape prayers, study, and conversations in ministries, we learn to engage the Bible not just individually, but communally.
  • CONTEXTUAL: When congregations encourage their preachers to study the text and to include comments in their sermons about the literary features of the text in its historical and cultural context, we practice the discipline of honoring the organic nature of the Holy Spirit’s inspiration of the text.
  • IMAGINATIVE: When congregations commission poets, artists, dancers, or songwriters to engage and to evoke the meaning of scriptural texts, congregations practice stretching their own theological and pastoral imaginations.
  • GOSPEL-CENTERED: It is quite possible to read the Bible extensively without paying attention to the Jesus-centered, trinitarian vision at the heart of the gospel message. In public worship, we ideally place every text we read inside services that are trinitarian and Christocentric.

What a beautiful vision: engaging the Bible in a formative, contemplative, authoritative, symphonic, narrative, communal, contextual, imaginative, gospel-centered way.

Group Bible studies and personal and family Bible reading can also contribute to these aspirations. But worship is also indispensable for shaping healthy, vibrant disciplines of scriptural engagement. What could be better for engaging the Bible than thoughtful disciplines that have as their central concern inviting us together into nothing less than a public covenantal conversation with the triune God?

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.