Keep These Words in Your Heart

The Spiritual Discipline of Scripture Memory

The left back pocket of my everyday jeans shows wear; that’s where I carry my journal. I like to have paper and pen with me at all times. I suppose writing on paper makes me officially old-fashioned. My daughter-in-law Kay does her daily journaling in an app on her phone.

The type of pen-on-paper journal I use has a small envelope in the back. The envelope is where I keep my current Scripture memory project. These are not individual verses, but larger chunks: stories, psalms, the Sermon on the Mount, and sometimes an entire epistle. They take me weeks to memorize, so I’m glad to carry these projects in my pocket. I set aside times to memorize, but I also know that I’ll have a few unexpectedly available minutes every day when I can open the back envelope of my journal and redeem the time (Ephesians 5:16).

My current project is to memorize all of Jesus’ parables. I do this because I want to be more like Jesus. But I also know that most Christian gatherings include telling a story by or about Jesus. I want to be ready for the Sunday when I’m called upon to take my turn at telling a portion of the Christ story.

The Spiritual Discipline of Scripture Memory

The Bible encourages God’s disciples to personally carry Scripture’s words not only in books or phones or even pockets and journals, but in their hearts and minds (Proverbs 7:3). Tim Brown, president emeritus of Western Theological Seminary, always reminded his preaching students to start not with commentaries, but by doing the work of memorizing the week’s biblical text. I’ve heard Brown remind preachers and laypeople alike that hiding God’s Word in our hearts is commanded of us, will give us a sure defense against temptation, gives us words to pray with, sharpens our witness to the truth, and produces hope.

The discipline of Scripture memory has great value for the individual but also for the congregation gathered for worship. When Scripture comes from the heart, it is heard, seen, and felt more deeply.

When we move past the rush of a cold reading, Scripture can slow down. There can be greater opportunity for a natural variety of pace and the wonderful emphases that pauses can bring.

When everyone moves their eyes from the page, we suddenly see things we have been missing. The speaking of the Word can be accompanied with gestures and facial expressions, a helpful prop, a group tableau, or a projected image that can be looked at and savored even by the speaker.

When the Word has been hidden in one’s heart, it can be spoken as a personal testimony. People can reveal how Scripture has impacted them in the ways they recite it. Their witness inspires our own heartfelt longings.

Worship as Formation

A personal spiritual discipline prepares us to enter into corporate worship, and likewise, corporate worship prepares us to live more Christianly. Hiding God’s Word in our hearts is a treasured personal practice, and the gift of God’s Word delivered from the heart on the public platform can be a formative experience for all who are ready to receive.

But in many of our congregations, no one presents Scripture from memory. For this to change, someone will need to model reciting Scripture from the heart. Leaders will need to assign texts and set deadlines. Worship designers will need to acknowledge that not every biblical text must be followed by a sermon. Indeed, it is possible to easily include Scripture memory in our services by simply asking members of our congregations what passages they already hold in their memories. Such a question might prompt people to share how a specific passage connects to their spiritual journey.

How often should someone quote a passage of Scripture from memory during our worship services? Every Sunday, I contend. Some Sundays it will be only a single verse. Other Sundays, a longer passage will have been prepared. A regular pattern of reciting Scripture from memory during worship affirms that worshipers prize hiding God’s Word in their hearts and invite everyone into this practice as a discipline of the Christian life.

The Discipline of Memory

Every person who sets out to hide Scripture in one’s heart develops one’s own practices. But the worship leader should be a careful shepherd when preparing a Scripture presenter. Here are some suggestions I give myself when I prepare to present Scripture from memory:

  1. Pray. Invite others to pray with and for you.
  2. Acknowledge that this is work, and it will require commitment.
  3. Start well in advance. Give yourself weeks, not days.
  4. Work from the same text throughout the memory process.
  5. Memorize out loud.
  6. Stand up. Move around. Gesture. Jump.
  7. Work in many different spaces.
  8. Repeat.
  9. Say the words many different ways, changing up pitches, emphases, speeds, and volumes.
  10. Figure out all the structures, noting where the text repeats, where it contrasts, and where it tells a story. Find the verbs in each sentence.
  11. Find the transitions. Know how the line of thought moves across the transitions.
  12. Ask questions of the text—lots of questions. Reflect on the author’s intent.
  13. Craft mental pictures to help you enter the world of the text.
  14. Get a prompter to help you. Don’t let them help you too quickly. Tell them to wait until you ask. Ask them to note where you changed the words, but ask them to tell you AFTER you’ve finished going through the whole text.
  15. Several days ahead of time, rehearse in the space in which you will perform.
  16. Rehearse the text for many different people in many different places at many times of day.
  17. Once you are very secure with the words, speak the text very quickly in a monotone.
  18. Set aside times to work. But also use a minute here or there throughout the day to whisper all or a portion of the text.
  19. Remind yourself why you’re doing this: to honor God, serve the church, and change your heart.
  20. Pray more.

I also must offer a few warnings. Some people use various mnemonic devices (memory tools) such as letters, imaginary furniture in an imaginary room, alliterative sentences, and even melodies. While these might be valuable for the early part of your process, you must also allow time to work free of them or else your presentation will always seem rote. Finally, remember to rehearse with a microphone. When you arrive prior to the worship service, there will be other people preparing, and the technical staff might be planning to do only a quick mic check. What you really need is a full mic check, speaking through the entire passage with all the movements and variations of volume you plan to use in worship. Depending on the length of the Scripture, you might need to make arrangements with the tech people ahead of time.

 

A Case Study

My friend Jon Brown studied preaching with his father, Tim. Jon has now been a preaching pastor for twenty years, and from the start he embraced the value of interiorizing Scripture. Every week, he memorizes both the biblical text and his sermon. I asked Jon to tell me his process. He said he draws a distinction between memorizing and interiorizing. He calls the first part of the process memorizing, but he’s not satisfied until he can be interrupted in the middle of speaking the text and then easily pick up where he left off. At that point, the memorized text has become interiorized—a part of him, moving from his head to his heart.

Because of his rhythm as a pastor, he is not able to start weeks in advance. He starts on Sunday afternoon by reading the text for the following Sunday morning. He follows the Narrative Lectionary, and he always uses the NRSV so the specific words are known. On Monday, he sets aside time to memorize. He repeats a phrase until he knows that small part, and then he adds to it. He works aloud. He writes it out. He adds movements. He speaks the passage at varying speeds. The memorization process raises questions, and by Tuesday he begins research to pursue the questions. He then moves into the interiorization phase. He speaks the text often, both to himself and to others. He slips portions of the text into conversations throughout the remainder of the week. Thursday is for writing the sermon. The writing is part of meditating on the text. Friday is a rest day, but the text continues to work on him. On Saturday, he edits and reimagines the sermon. On Sunday morning, he rises early to speak both text and sermon aloud in the worship space once or twice before the worshipers arrive.

Learning from Subscribers

Scripture Memory
My worshiping community practices Scripture memory. This practice is particularly meaningful this year: we plan to memorize a hundred verses in celebration of the church’s centennial. We view this practice as an offering to God on this momentous occasion. We’ve printed and distributed a commemorative booklet of the verses we plan to memorize. We recite Scripture from memory together during worship, and the verses are further reinforced in Sunday school. And when the pastors visit their parishioners, we make it a point to go through the verses with them. In so doing we witness how our community is developing a practice of reading God’s Word and committing it to memory. Most keep the booklet close at hand. Some pray with the memory verses; others even put them in writing. This longstanding congregational practice has grown into a purposeful daily practice for individuals and for the church.
—Rev. Roy Koh, Singapore

Everyone Gets Involved

One of Pastor Jon’s concerns is that his own spiritual practice will seem exclusive— something pastors do so no one else has to. To help combat this sentiment, he once asked my wife, Karen, and me to encourage other Scripture presenters to get involved. One of my favorite Sundays was the day we had ten additional people helping tell the story of Moses receiving the Ten Commandments. Pastor Jon told the first part from Exodus 19. Then each of the ten others came to the microphone and spoke one of the commandments. When it came time for the sixth commandment, a four-year-old boy made his way to the microphone and spoke from memory the four words: “You shall not kill.” He had been given an assignment that he could accomplish, and his words were all the more poignant because they were spoken by someone his age.

One year our pastors decided to preach through the entire gospel of Mark. My wife organized small groups to memorize portions of the text so that the final result was the entire book being spoken by heart. One week she had been unable to find anyone to prepare the text, so because of my experience she asked me if I could do it with only a few days’ notice. I got an idea. I went to the house of a shy grade-schooler named Matthew, whom I was mentoring. I asked him to sit next to me on his porch and listen to the gospel story. He did so willingly. When I was finished, I said, “Now I’m going to read it again, and when I pause, I’d like you to fill in the blank with the missing word.” He received it as a fun challenge, and he eagerly filled in almost every blank on the first try. Then I asked him if he would be willing to do that same exercise with me on Sunday morning. He stared at me, and I waited. Finally, he nodded his head.

We practiced some more, and on Sunday we presented the Scripture together. It was oddly gripping. I think the congregation was not only delighted to see that shy young man participating, but they were also playing along, seeing if they knew the next word every time I paused.

After the service, Matthew came over to me and asked, “When can we do that again?” That is the question I wanted to hear. I want to hear it from everyone in the church: “When I can I share the Scripture again from my heart?”

Dramatic Readings

For many years Jeff Barker directed Northwestern College’s theatre touring company, which often presented dramatic readings of Scripture. You can find examples of these readings, such as The Sword of Goliath (1 Samuel 17:1–54), on YouTube.

When Memory Fails

As with every spiritual discipline, memorizing the Bible should be a joy and not a burden or a fear. One of the obstacles to presenting Scripture from memory is the question “What if I forget?” The answer is simple: You will forget! We all will. When that happens, we wait and see if it comes to us. It usually will, but sometimes we’ll need forgiveness and help. My dream is that presentation of Scripture from memory will become so common in our services that everyone in the pews will expect to participate, and everyone will be accepting of the moment that a brother or sister says, “I’ve forgotten. Can someone help me?”

But sometimes it is simply not possible to present Scripture from memory. I teach at the Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies. Our school is a hybrid of face-to-face intensives combined with online learning. During each ten-day intensive, we have daily chapel. For at least one of those chapels, I try to have a student model presenting Scripture from memory. For one intensive, I had asked a woman named Tamara to memorize a four-verse passage from the book of Revelation. Two days prior to the chapel, she came to me and said, “I don’t know if you’re aware that I have cancer.”

I shook my head.

She went on. “The medicine I’m taking is messing with my brain. I love memorizing Scripture, but it’s no longer sticking. You’d better find someone else to present the Scripture in chapel.”

I knew it would be difficult for someone else to prepare at that late date, and I also did not want to embarrass her. I said, “Would you be willing to read it?” She smiled and nodded.

I was disappointed that we would not have a model of Scripture memory during that session’s chapels. But then something else happened to help make the Scripture heard, seen, and felt. On the night before chapel, we had an evening worship service. During the service, I noticed Tamara’s hair, and something occurred to me. I felt later that it may have been a whisper from the Holy Spirit. As soon as I appropriately could, I went to Tamara and tapped her on the shoulder. She turned to me, and I said, “Tamara, I have a question about tomorrow’s Scripture.” I continued with a nosy question: “Are you wearing a wig?” She nodded and said, “You want me to take it off.” I didn’t know how she knew what I was thinking.

We made a plan, and the next day, Tamara stood up in chapel with her Bible in hand. She read from Revelation 21 about the new heaven and new earth. After verse three, she paused and reached up and took off her wig. She set it down beside her. There were only a few wispy patches of hair remaining on her mostly bald head. She continued reading:

He will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away
(Revelation 21:4, NRSV).

I didn’t ask Tamara to leave her wig on the platform when she returned to her pew. But that’s what she did. When Tamara graduated from the Institute, she and I talked about that chapel Scripture. We agreed that the Spirit guided us in the presentation of Scripture that day. The Scripture was not memorized, but it was still told from Tamara’s heart. We were helped not only to hear the Scripture, but to see it and feel it.

Jesus is our worship leader, and the Holy Spirit is our helper and guide. Our task is to be faithful on weekdays leading into an overflow of the heart on Sundays. Corporate worship then prepares our return to Monday and another week of daily delight in the Word of the Lord.

Suggested Resources

Jeff Barker is a professor in the doctoral program at the Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies in Jacksonville, Florida, and professor emeritus of Theatre and Worship at Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa.