“Faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ.”
It’s not often that the closing session of an adult Sunday school class is the beginning of something new, but that’s what happened at our church.
We had opened our study of the gospel of Mark by reading the entire book aloud to each other. We studied various aspects of the gospel together, then ended the fifteen-week class by re-reading Mark aloud. This time we invited others to join us as we gathered at the home of one of our members on a weekday evening. At the end of the evening, a number of us decided to do this again with another book of Scripture.
We have now read Hebrews, Galatians, the chapters in John describing the Passion, Ecclesiastes, and Ephesians, and have plans to continue. It has been a wonderful and spiritually enriching experience.
The format we have been using is quite simple, and I’m pleased to share it here.
We gather in a home on a weekday evening. We open with prayer, then someone presents a brief introduction to the book, giving a few details about the background, structure, and biblical context of the Scripture we are about to read. No one is expected to read the text ahead of time.
There is one copy of the selected text, divided into clearly marked sections in paragraph form (with verse and chapter references omitted), printed and placed in a three-ring binder. Someone begins by reading the first section, and then passes the binder to the next person, who reads the following section, and so on. This way, at any given time there is only one reader and the rest of the group are hearers.
For most of us, this approach to receiving Scripture was unfamiliar. There are two ways in which we most commonly encounter Scripture. The first is during Sunday morning worship when it is read aloud and expounded from the pulpit. In this context we are usually given Scripture in small chunks, a paragraph or two at a time. The other way we commonly encounter Scripture is in personal devotions, where we read short sections silently to ourselves.
Hearing large sections of Scripture in one sitting is an experience of being immersed, washed over, and carried along by the text. The words and verbal images just keep on coming, and we are overwhelmed. It becomes too much for us to grasp the content of it all in the way we are accustomed to processing information. We are disarmed of our usual defenses and resistance to change.
However, we are not left in confusion and disarray, for this all happens in the happy company of other believers who, with the same intention of heart, are receiving the same Word. And there is help and protection in that. Scripture is a two-edged sword that cuts to the quick, but it is also healing when it cuts. We are overwhelmed by God’s Word, but it is a gentle overwhelming.
Once the Scripture has been read, we cannot stop the discussion from happening. It is usually a time of reflection, of sharing and making sense of impressions, more than an occasion for expressing opinions or clarifying positions. Sometimes the structure of the text becomes more immediately apparent. Other times the imagery takes over. For example, when we read the letter to the Ephesians we were struck by how Paul’s approach was deeply mystical and deeply pastoral at the same time.
There is an aspect to these events that harkens back to the early Church. According to the university chaplain, “Reading entire books from Scripture aloud and in community is a transformative activity. This is how Scripture has been read for most of Jewish and Christian history, so our practice of this Spiritual discipline is really a return to our historic religious roots.”
It is a historical reality that before the printing press, the vast majority of Christians received the gospel message by hearing it rather than reading it. Actual texts were few and far between, and literacy was a skill possessed by a small percentage of people. Texts were written not to be read but to be heard. Paul’s letters, for example, were read aloud to the gathered church and then passed on to other congregations.
Our sessions have attracted a wide range of participants. A high school student brings his mother and grandmother. “To hear things in the spoken rather than written word gave a different perspective on the text,” he commented. A university professor has brought Korean seekers to our class. Our group has included university students, a retiree, the pastor, and the local university chaplain.
We are quite excited that this activity has also become a ministry. The format is simple and straightforward. It brings worship into the workaday week and into the home. It teaches us about Scripture and how it works. It disarms us and gives us the opportunity to participate in Scripture in a direct and refreshing way. And most importantly, this is an experience shared with other brothers and sisters in Christ.
- The reading process should not be rushed. Take all the time necessary for the words to be placed kindly and respectfully before the group. Do whatever is necessary for the text to be heard.
- Make it clear from the beginning that if anyone feels uncomfortable reading aloud, he or she may simply pass the binder to the next person.
- Depending on the length of the overall text, take a break halfway through.
- A short text, such as one of the epistles, can be read through twice.
From Our Pastor
What is so appealing about these meetings is that they facilitate such a direct engagement with Scripture, that they are communal, and that the discussion and reflections go deep fast. When a dozen of us believers read a good chunk of Scripture together aloud, the Spirit always—always—moves us to new and deeper insights. The benefit is a deeper engagement with Scripture, but also a shared experience with other believers. In other words, these readings are clearly building the body of Christ at All Nations Church.
From a Participant
The power of Scripture is always amazing to me, but there is a deeper level of understanding when I hear it aloud in the company of fellow Christians. The discussion that follows is always thought-provoking and helps me to better understand Scripture. I always look forward to an opportunity to meet and read a book together. I feel totally at home to relax, stare at the wall, and let the Word fill the room. It’s one of my favorite “ministries” I participate in with my church family.