Preaching the Bible to Those Who Have Never Read It

Bible with Cross Shadow(Creative Commons Image by David Campbell on Flickr)

Blockbuster films and scandalous exposé-style books based on the Bible continue to generate millions of dollars. Nevertheless, many pastors and church leaders feel that basic knowledge about scripture seems to be in decline, both in the church and in their wider communities.

Curiosity about the Bible is alive and well in our culture but biblical literacy is not.

While this trend has long been recognized and addressed by theologians and ministers, you wouldn’t know it by hearing some of the sermons preached in our churches every Sunday. Many preachers continue to talk about biblical characters and stories as if everyone in earshot had grown up hearing and memorizing scripture. They didn’t. Some preachers talk about the Bible as if everyone in attendance recognized it as a source of authority and as an avenue to God. They don’t.

Perhaps worst of all, many preachers lean too heavily on liturgical structures (such as the Lectionary) to communicate a basic, cohesive Christian narrative of our world and God’s purpose for us in it. But these tools were never designed to tell that story alone.

The Revised Common Lectionary, for example, requires a lot of support in order to be successful. Four readings (Old Testament, Psalm, Epistle, and Gospel) are interconnected via subtle theological webs. Each week’s lections are a masterful puzzle that even trained professionals require a little help with now and again.

But if the preacher is unwilling or unable to teach, say, Matthew’s creative interpretation of the Psalms, where does that leave our hearers who may not know what a Psalm is, that lots of people prayed them, or that they were written long before Jesus came along?

Further, we sabotage ourselves when a difficult, confusing, or harsh text is read but never commented on. This often unintentionally sends the message that the Bible is something we are ashamed of — like a boisterous, close-minded relative you wish didn’t come to parties.

Arguably, the Revised Common Lectionary is calibrated for a culture with high biblical literacy. Without that foundation, the entire theological cathedral that is the Lectionary collapses under the weight of its own towering exegesis.

So where does this leave the twenty-first century preacher?

Many Christian leaders have found success by organizing their preaching according to the Bible’s narratives. This has the advantage of reinforcing a Christian story of the Bible, which is easier to teach and remember. In my experience, reinforcing the Christian biblical story from Creation to New Creation is one of the most effective ways of preaching the Bible to an audience that doesn’t know it very well.

But not all churches are willing or able to abandon the Revised Common Lectionary and its considerable ecumenical and logistical benefits. So, is it possible to preach a grand story of the Bible, even when one is working from within the RCL?

I believe the answer is yes, if one is attentive to the challenge. So here are some practical tips on preaching the Bible to those who have never read it:

1. Identify a Christian Story of the Bible for Yourself

You can’t teach it if you don’t know it. The story (or stories) will vary in form depending on your theological convictions and the confessions of your tradition, but one good example is: Creation – Israel – Jesus – Church — New Creation. What do each of these mean to you? Where does your preaching text fit into this grand narrative of the biblical story?

2. In Your Sermon: Peg the Readings to the Timeline

It doesn’t take much time but it can be infinitely helpful to clue your hearers in as to where they are in the story (and where you are taking them in your sermon). This is especially helpful for Old Testament texts, which most often can be pegged to “Israel,” but are often interpreted as dealing with “Jesus” or “New Creation” as well.

3. Don’t Underestimate How Much People Don’t Know

Assume nothing and explain everything. Who is Abraham? Why is David so important? What did the Apostle Paul do? This isn’t just good pedagogy. It’s good hospitality. There are those in your congregation who may feel embarrassed or ashamed of their lack of Bible knowledge or their unfamiliarity with theology. Let them know that you’re aware of them and that you’re happy they’re there.

4. Don’t Assume People Accept Scripture as an Authority

“The Bible says … ” simply doesn’t have the same rhetorical force it once had. Many people are ambivalent towards scripture and skeptical of what influence it might have in their life. Try phrases like this instead: “There is this old story … ”, “An early Christian theologian said … ”, “This ancient prophet thought … ” In short, let the power of the message be its own authority.

5. Be Honest About Sameness and Otherness in the Bible

Like falling in love or traveling in a foreign culture, part of the thrill of encountering scripture comes from alternating epiphanies of sameness and difference. Speak honestly about both the human universality and the ancient otherness of scripture. We are robbed of the opportunity to fall in love with the Bible when it is either brought artificially close or abstracted unnecessarily.

6. There Are No Bible Scholars in the Room

Phrases like “Luke’s Jesus … ” or “the Priestly writer” may have satisfied your seminary professors but these concepts are complicated — even for theology students. Always make sure you’re preaching to the people who are actually in the room.

7. Beware of a Utilitarian View of the Bible

Sometimes in our efforts to make scripture more “relevant” or “practical” we can adopt a stance towards the Bible that seeks to “apply it” only to our problems. While this mentality can be effective, if should not be our only approach. The Bible is not merely something we use; it is something by which God uses us. In our pursuit of relating Bible stories to our own lives, let us not forget to relate our lives to God’s grand story of all creation.