A recent study sponsored by LifeWay Research and highlighted by Facts & Trends shares some unfortunate but unsurprising results: “A third of Americans who attend a Protestant church regularly (32%) say they read the Bible personally every day. Around a quarter (27%) say they read it a few times a week.” They divide the results demographically and provide lots more information, but the facts are clear enough: plenty of good, Christian, Bible-believing folk are not spending time in the Word every day or even every week.
Over the past few years, I’ve found the most common prayer request from the people I shepherd is that they would be faithful in personal devotions, and this has been my constant prayer on their behalf: “Lord, I pray that she would simply open her Bible and read even a small portion today. I pray that he would close his eyes and pray, even for just a few minutes.” While I receive some requests about difficult circumstances and advanced matters of obedience, the most common by far are the simplest: Pray that I would read and pray.
This has shaped me as a pastor and as a preacher. Our church is biblically-literate and theologically-conservative. Many people have come to it specifically because they crave sound doctrine and expository preaching. It would be tempting to believe that in a church like this the majority of people would be in the Word just as much through the week as they wish to be on the Lord’s Day. But I’ve long since learned this isn’t the case. Even in a church like this, many people struggle to do what they believe they ought to do.
I suspect nearly 100 percent of the people who took part in the study and who attend my church believe they are supposed to be reading the Bible through the week and that they feel some guilt that they are not doing so. Also, nearly 100 percent have the level of literacy and the access to resources that would make it possible. The issue is not ignorance, personal expectation, or raw ability, but commitment. People simply do not do what they believe they ought to do and, on one level, actually want to do.
This leads me to a few points of personal application that may be helpful to you as well.
First, make it your assumption that when people come to church on Sunday, many or even most of them have not read the Bible or even thought much about it since the previous Sunday. Don’t assume that the congregation has spent as much time in the Word that week as their pastor (hopefully) has. This ought to shape the way you construct your services and the way you prepare your sermons.
Second, give the congregation lots of Bible in your worship services. From beginning to end, from call to worship to benediction, soak your people in the Word. Open with scripture, read scripture, confess sin through scripture, provide assurance of pardon through scripture, pray scripture, preach scripture, sing scripture, and send people on their way with scripture. Then, as you converse with people after the service and through the week, continue to give them scripture that encourages and equips them. Be a minister of the Word!
Third, be careful about using guilt as the motivator through which you try to convince people to be in the Word day-by-day. That has been tried and found wanting. Like I said, the issue is not that Christians don’t know that they should be in God’s Word. Rather, most don’t see the tangible benefit to their lives and thus allow other things to nudge it out of the way. It is far better, I think, to model the centrality of the Word in the worship services and in your own life, then to call for a similar centrality in their family and personal lives. Instead of badgering people with their lack of commitment, impress them with the joy of being in the Bible.
Finally, preach simple sermons. The longer the pastor spends in the Word and the more hours he commits to study, the more he can be drawn to the minor nuances and small details of his text. But he needs to remember that many or most of the people he is preaching to have barely had a biblical thought all week. Most don’t need to be taught advanced lessons but reminded of basic truths. Preaching should never be trite or silly, but it can be simple even while accurately communicating what is true and good and pure.
Pastor, remember that you are a minister of the Word. Just like a mom ministers comfort to her sad child or a doctor ministers healing to a sick patient, you are to minister the Word to your people. Whatever else you do, however else you help people, be sure you’re at least faithfully ministering the all-good, all—sufficient, all-powerful Word of God.