How to Reclaim Communal Reading of the Bible
Bring people together around God's Word
How do you read the Bible?
Do you find a quiet corner at home where you can read it silently? Do you fire up a Bible app while being jostled on a commuter train? Or do you wait for a Sunday service and follow along as you hear it read—and explained—to you?
You might find it surprising that silent reading was generally unknown in Bible times. In its original form, Scripture was read aloud, and usually in community.
The Word Heard
In the Old Testament, we see the prophet Ezra assembling the nation of Israel and reading them the Law of Moses, inviting them to reaffirm their covenant to the Lord (Nehemiah 8:1-12). In Luke, we find Jesus standing up before his local synagogue and reading part of the scroll of Isaiah (Luke 4:16-21). When Paul wrote a letter to a church, he would send the scroll with a messenger, who would read it to the congregation (Colossians 4:7,16).
This public reading of Scripture was common. Because biblical texts were hand-written and scrolls were rare and expensive, virtually no one owned a personal copy. In the days of Jesus, each synagogue generally had one copy of the Torah, which was kept in a large cabinet. In fact, these texts were so rare that if you read them individually and quietly it might be considered a selfish act.
Yet in our digital age, where Bibles can be purchased at the dollar store and Bible apps can be downloaded for free, it can feel a bit different to read the Bible with others and out loud. In many corners of our culture, people are retreating behind the screens of computers or cell phones for solitary experiences. And in the religious sphere, at least for those in the evangelical tradition, there is great emphasis on the individual’s response to God. In such privatized church environments, it might feel uncomfortable to encounter the soul-shaping Word of God in concert with others.
But what would it look like if we returned to this ancient practice? What if we recovered the practice of reading the Bible in community?
Benefits of Reading Together
Consider some of the benefits of reading Scripture with others:
- Hearing the Bible read offers a fresh perspective and brings an added alertness to the content. Last year my son and I read through the Bible in a year; we’d read a passage from the Old Testament, the New Testament, and a Psalm or Proverb aloud to each other each morning. Though I’d read several of the passages dozens of times previously, these familiar sections often met me in new ways through hearing it read aloud in ways reading it silently and alone never did before.
- Reading it with others can jolt us out of the accepted American mindset of individualism and into a bigger story that includes many others. It can remind us that God’s story is more than just me and Jesus. We are a part of a larger family of believers.
- Reading it aloud helps us relish and soak in the Scriptures more richly. Because our eyes can scan words faster than our mouths can formulate them, the act of slowing down to hear the passage through an audible reading can help us to pay attention more keenly. Reading aloud reminds us that depth can be more important than speed.
- Hearing someone else read—with their unique reading personality of pauses, intonation, gestures, speed, and style—makes the passage more personal and forces us to listen more attentively than if we were just skimming over a page ourselves.
- Reading with others allows space for discussion, interaction, dialogue, and engagement before, during, and after our reading.
Ways to Try Reading Communally
Consider some of these practices, resources, and ideas:
- Several groups are beginning to host listening experiences where they gather simply to read the Bible out loud. A group of Christians in Portland would gather together on Friday night for a meal, then sit in the living room and hear an entire book of the Bible read aloud, with no commentary. Then they would close in prayer at the end of the evening. For this diverse group of people, it was a deeply formative, meaningful, and fun practice.
- A student-heavy church in Virginia challenged members to only read their Bibles with others—a roommate, a friend, a group—for an entire semester. Many found the experience to be eye-opening and continued the practice long after the semester ended. Try using the resources available through Community Bible Experience, which challenge groups within churches to read together.
- Consider reading a short passage of Scripture together as a family at the breakfast table or at the end of dinner before the dishes are cleared. If your kids are old enough, have a different person read each day.
- When traveling with others or on road trips, listen to Scripture together in the car on audiobooks, via CDs or through apps such as YouVersion or Bible.IS.
- During one Lent, we challenged people in our church to read the four Gospels and answer four questions for 40 days, calling it the 4:4:40 challenge. We encouraged participants to connect weekly over a meal in someone’s home throughout the season of Lent and discuss the four questions together.
- What did Jesus say about himself?
- What did Jesus teach about the nature of reality?
- What did Jesus tell his listeners to do?
- How did Jesus model what he taught in the way he lived?
Reading Scripture in community can be a fun and formative practice, bringing out the rich texture of the story of the Bible in new and fresh ways. It just takes a little initiative to think differently than our current default mode of silent and individual.
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