Steve Watson: How we read the Bible as a post-evangelical church

Photo by Unsplash / Priscilla Du Preez

When a pastor and his congregation found that their practice of daily Bible study was not working for them anymore, they adapted their spiritual formation.

Roger stood before our quarterly gathering of church leaders wearing faded jeans and a button-down shirt suitable for the gardening and other activities that occupied his retirement years. He sported a short gray ponytail, reminding us of both his age and his perennial countercultural vibe.

He began telling us that the Bible frustrated and irritated him and he didn’t read it much at all anymore.

Roger is a trusted and respected elder, befitting his decades of church leadership and service. I had asked him to tell us about his Bible reading, the spiritual practice we were highlighting that evening.

Our church had emerged from an evangelical tradition that emphasized the Bible and the holiness it was thought to inspire. To encourage spiritual formation in our community, we’d taught seven core faith practices over the years. One was regular, systematic Bible reading. But like Roger, most of our members weren’t reading the Bible anything close to daily, and when they were, it was with growing confusion and frustration.

Privately, if I had been honest with myself, I would have admitted that this was true for me as well.

In my training in evangelical institutions, I’d been taught that with sufficient time and tools, the Bible was reliably clear and helpful. Usually, I was told, a plain reading of the text would lead to greater insight about God and direction for faithful living.

But now I found that even I, a trained pastor, couldn’t always fathom or stomach what I read.

Parts of the Bible are violent, and I could no longer make peace with a fundamentally violent God. Other sections require considerable interpretive gymnastics to not undermine the lives and faith of women, sexual minorities and many other people who have experienced marginalization, not to mention how particular readings have been used as active weapons in that harm.

Given the Bible’s age and complexity, its mix of freedom and patriarchy, love and war, beauty and terror, it’s no wonder that many in our church weren’t reading it anymore.

I understood Roger’s frustration. It was also my own.

So what would we as a church do?

Parker Palmer’s poem “November 22nd” has this gem of a line and a half: “the world unravels always, / and it must be rewoven time and time again.”

Things fall apart; means of accessing God and truth that once worked well no longer do. The world unravels always. But the call is then to grab a needle and thread and get busy mending.

In my own life of faith, and in my work as a pastor, I’m looking for ways to incorporate the classical spiritual disciplines, including Bible reading, in ways that breathe life and produce good fruit in our time and place.

The Bible and the extraordinary story of Jesus of Nazareth are too important to be abandoned.

In our church’s post-evangelical practice of faith, we are still vigorously committed to spiritual formation, but with more honesty, more freedom and wider means of engagement.

We teach reading the Bible as much as ever, but we do so with full awareness that we are reading the Bible from a life 19 centuries after the most recent books of the Bible were written. 

We are honest, talking about all the elephants that enter the room each time we try to read the Bible devotionally.

Last year, I wrote a guide to the book of Revelation for the season of Lent. In it, I acknowledged that the text’s characterization of Jezebel sounds misogynistic to modern ears. Some people were angry with me, but far more were given permission to acknowledge their own reactions to the text.

In our Bible teaching, we make room for the work of the Spirit by putting the learner, not the teacher, in charge of the experience.

When I write about the Bible for our congregants, I don’t tell them what it means but rather share my own experience as a reader: my musings, my difficulties, my responses. When the pastors preach the Bible, we try to model humble reading that employs a hermeneutic of love: how can this reading help me more fully love myself, love my neighbor, love God, love all that God made?

And then we freely encourage the congregation to do the same, making peace with the knowledge that their readings and interpretations often won’t match ours.

I’m just not stressed out about how people in our church may or may not read their Bibles every day. Instead, I’m longing for whole lives with growing wisdom, hope and love. We’re learning to adjust our spiritual formation toward that end.

We no longer tell our members that every single day, if they are serious about following Jesus, they must systematically read the Bible, talk to and listen to God, and do five other things. We teach them to stay engaged in learning more, to keep a curious mind regardless of the answers they may or may not find.

This is exactly what Roger was doing with the Bible.

After telling us how much the Bible as a whole gave him trouble, he shared that recently he had read and reread the four Gospels, exclusively, for three months.

While he still wasn’t reading the rest of the Bible yet, he said that he loved Jesus as much as ever and that his engagement with the life and teachings of Jesus had given him a profound sense of purpose and hope for his retirement years.

There was a time when that story could not have been told at our church, or at least not encouraged. But now we see the mending in Roger’s story, the renewal he’s finding in the Bible. And we celebrate it.