One Sunday morning we drove to a Presbyterian church in Fergus, Ontario, where our son’s Wesley Chapel Free Methodist Church choir was to sing. At the appointed time, the sexton entered from a door behind the pulpit bearing a large Bible and, with deliberation, opened it on the pulpit. This was a sign that the service could now begin. When the benediction was pronounced, the sexton went to the pulpit, closed the Bible and, carrying it chest high in front of him so all could see, preceded the minister down the aisle to the door. The symbolism was clear: this service was conducted from beginning to end under the authority of God’s word.
As I watched, I thought of a trend I and others have witnessed in evangelical churches over the past decade. I have seen the Bible given a less important place than it deserves in public worship. For example, my wife attended a service in the Midwest in which no Bible reading of any kind was a part of worship and the preacher himself made casual mention of Scripture only a couple of minutes before the end of his sermon. My wife wondered if anyone else had noticed this glaring omission.
An isolated case? A minister friend on vacation attended a church which advertised itself on the front lawn as a “Bible Church.” He was surprised that at no time was the Bible read except for a few verses before the pastor preached. Consider also, that this very week, while speaking to a denominationally diverse class at Northeastern Seminary, Rochester, NY, I asked, “How many of you lead or attend a church where there is no separate Scripture reading as an act of worship?” Nine of the 19 raised their hands.
How radically different this is from the longstanding practice of having the Bible read, a portion from each Testament, as a separate act of worship. This custom traces back through the church historically even to the practice of the synagogue when our Lord was called upon to read.
The first time I heard this trend explained several years ago I was told that our worship services should be designed with seekers in mind. Unchurched people have neither the attention span nor the interest to give to the reading of Bible passages. The idea was that you had to give them a service that was contemporary and, above all, relevant!
The reason for deleting Scripture reading from worship, however, may be more serious than merely modern man’s short attention span. The omission may expose to the light a great reduction in the authority we grant the Bible, an authority such as the sexton enacted in the Presbyterian church.
No one can question that there is an authority crisis in homes and schools of this country. The daily news trumpets the results — battered parents battered children, battered teachers. But in damaging ways this crisis may be showing itself in the church as well.
Since the authority of the Scriptures has been passionately asserted by classical Protestantism, what but a reduction of that authority can be suspected when the word of God is both diminished and diluted in public worship in favor of a greater outpouring of the words of man?
This is no mere issue of taste in public worship. A Barna nationwide survey reports that 86% of teenagers in America claim that they are Christians. Three out of five teenagers say that they believe the Bible is totally accurate in all that it teaches. Yet, 2/3 stated that Satan is not a living being but merely a symbol of evil; six out of ten said that a good person can earn eternal salvation through good deeds; and a majority (53%) said that Jesus committed sins while he was on earth.
In all candor, this is serious error. Reading the Bible in church at least once a week may not by itself correct it. But the erosion of an emphasis on the authority of God’s word and the drift into obvious heresy on the part of young professed Christians should ring alarm bells and cause pastors and church boards together to look at whether or not the Bible has both professed and actual authority in their worship.
Churches may not want to copy the early Presbyterian way of symbolizing the authority of Scriptures in worship, but the evident slippage may prompt us to ask questions. For example, if the slippage can go so easily unnoticed in public worship, what place is Bible reading getting these days in the family life of Christians? Is Bible content really being addressed in Sunday Schools? Are children led to memorize Scripture? Do Pastors show evidence of wrestling with Scripture in preparation for preaching? The omission of the reading of the Bible as an act of worship may be symptomatic of a serious problem that needs to be addressed.