It’s the kind of memory that will scar a child. I had been recruited by some family friends to put in a day’s work on their property and along the way had worked up quite an appetite. Late in the day, with my stomach growling, they told me they would be making their world-famous pizza for dinner. That sounded like just the thing. But when they finally brought out this “pizza” I quickly observed that it had no crust, no meat, and no cheese. And while I’m no connoisseur of Italian cuisine, I’m quite sure I had legitimate grounds to question whether this was actually pizza at all. Why? Because it was missing the very elements that make pizza pizza!
I had a similar feeling a few years ago when I visited a church that many people consider one of the most important and influential in the world. It is one of those churches that serves as a textbook example of how to create an experience that is compelling and attractive. And I quickly observed that it was missing many of the elements that make worship worship. The entire service went by without a single prayer, without any real congregational singing, without an expository sermon, without the Lord’s Supper. Also notable by its absence was the reading of Scripture. Sure, a few isolated verses were read during the sermon, but never more than a verse or a half verse, and never for any purpose but to back up a point of the sermon.
This, I think, is one of the greatest losses in today’s church—the reading of Scripture as an element that stands on its own. It would be unusual to go any church and not hear a single verse of the Bible, but it would be nearly as unusual to go to a church and hear the Bible read as a self-standing element of worship. And this despite a clear biblical command: “Until I come,” says Paul to Timothy, “devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching” (1 Timothy 4:13). There’s little doubt that Paul is telling Timothy that the pastor’s responsibility to his church goes beyond simply preaching the Bible—it extends also to reading the Bible. He should read it publicly and teach it publicly.
It seems to me that this is a good question for every pastor: Pastor, how are you devoting yourself to the public reading of Scripture? I expect it’s clear how you are devoting yourself to exhortation and to teaching, but what about that other part? And it seems to me this is a good question for every church: In what ways is this church devoting itself to the public reading of Scripture? I’m sure just about every worship service from every denomination and tradition contains an obvious element of exhortation and teaching. But is it equally clear that the church is devoted to reading God’s Word?
I expect there are a number of reasons why few churches still read the Bible as a self-standing element that consumes a considerable amount of time in the service, and let me offer a couple. First, I think many people have lost confidence in the power of the Bible on its own, even without preaching. It’s right and good to emphasize the preaching of the Word; but it’s not right and not good to de-emphasize the reading of the Word. Second, we believe that a sermon is more compelling or more attractive to the people than a Scripture-reading. And if this is true, it means we have perhaps slipped into the attractional model of church where our first consideration is not “what does God tell us to do?” but “what will be compelling to people?”
With that in mind, perhaps it’s good to zip from one of Paul’s letters to another to remind ourselves of the Bible’s power. Let me ask: If there is something your church can offer every week that has the power to save, teach, reprove, correct, train, and mature, wouldn’t you want to emphasize it? Wouldn’t it be foolish not to offer that to the people week by week?
Well, sure enough, in his second letter to Timothy, Paul reminds him that the Scriptures are able to “make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” and then tells him, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16–17). There it is! The Bible is able to do all this as it is preached, but also as it is read! Preaching may help people better understand and better apply the Word, but preaching is not necessary for people to be saved, to be taught, to be reproved, to be corrected, to be trained, to be matured. The Bible is the breathed out Word of the living God, so it has intrinsic divine power and can do all of these things on its own. This being the case, denying our churches access to the Bible is denying them access to a very special, very powerful means of grace. Conversely, providing them access to the Bible is providing them access to a very special, very powerful means of grace.
The simple and sad fact is that many churches offer far too little of the Bible, and as they do that, they offer the equivalent of meatless, cheeseless, crustless pizza—they offer worship that is missing one of the key elements of worship. And though it’s very possible for a church to have too little of the Bible in their services, it’s very nearly impossible to have too much.