As was true after 9/11, the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic has people turning back to the Scriptures in droves. Bible sales are significantly up, as are the number of people downloading reading plans from YouVersion.
The big question is: can we sustain this? After the trauma from 9/11 dissipated, Bible reading trends quickly returned to their steep downward trend.
COVID-19 aside, we’re way overdue for a paradigm shift in the way we engage Scripture. Perhaps COVID-19 will be a catalyst for that change.
Changing the Way We Read the Bible
First, we must pivot from snacking to feasting.
Five hundred years ago when we chopped up the Scriptures into 30,000 versified units, readers started engaging the text as we formatted it—in fragments.
According to author Philip Yancey, “The modern church created an entire culture around Bible McNuggets!”
Reading Big isn’t as daunting as we might think. You can listen to the entire Bible in just eighty hours. Compare with binge-watching Friends (87 hours) or The Office (99 hours) or reading Harry Potter (20% longer than the Bible).
On a practical level, if we’re inviting people to Read Big it’s critical that we elevate Reading Bibles, Bibles free from artificial additives like chapter and verses, center column references, etc. Reference Bibles have their place, but they inherently interfere with reading the Bible’s epic story.
Second, we must pivot from isolated reading to communal reading.
In the modern era, Bible reading morphed into a solo sport. We have our personal devotions and quiet times, a good place to begin; but the Bible was never intended to be a privatized affair.
The Scriptures are seeped through with community, written to communities of faith, to be engaged communally. New findings about 1st and 2nd century synagogues reveal they were much more interactive than we previously imagined.
After a decade of challenging people to Read Together we’ve learned that a “book club” model mirrors the synagogue experience better than Bible Studies; that open ended questions like What did you see for the first time? break open conversations in ways that filling in the blanks never will.
The Ezra Moment
History provides an example of a leader who in a time of pulverizing crisis orchestrated a Scripture engagement campaign that still reverberates in the world. The Bible is at the center of our liturgies today precisely because of what Ezra enacted over 1,000 years ago.
After seventy years of captivity in Babylon, Israel came limping home with no king, no army, and no treasury. They were in grave peril.
In a stunning moment of national clarity, the people appealed to Ezra:
“Bring out the Book of the Law of Moses…”
Savvy Ezra leveraged the crisis and engineered a game-changing initiative.
First, he spearheaded an IMMERSIVE Scripture engagement strategy.
After building a high wooden platform made for the occasion, Ezra called the people to a modern-day version of a Bible Reading Marathon.
“He faced the square just inside the Water Gate from early morning until noon and read aloud to everyone who could understand…”
But it didn’t end there. Nehemiah goes on to tell us:
“On October 9, the family leaders of all the people, together with the priests and Levites, met with Ezra the scribe to go over the law in greater detail.”
In the same month, during the Festival of Trumpets, “Ezra read from the Book of the Law of God on each of the seven days of the festival.”
“On October 31, the people assembled again…They remained in place for three hours while the Book of the Law of the Lord was read to them.”
Conventional wisdom says, “walk before you run.” Ezra’s approach was counter-cultural: go big or go home. Many scholars believe they read all the way through their Hebrew Scriptures!
Second, Ezra created a full-blown communal experience.
“…Ezra the priest brought the Book of the Law before the assembly, which included men, women, and all the children old enough to understand.”
Unlike our modern tendency to put the entire onus on the individual, Ezra leveraged the momentum of the crowd.
Ezra’s enterprise resulted a full-blown Scripture awakening. Synagogues, a new invention created expressly for the public reading and discussion of Scripture, started cropping up all over Israel. Song lyrics from poets like David, Moses, and Asaph, were compiled into the Psalms. By the 1st century AD, young boys between the ages of 6 and 10 were memorizing the Torah.
Let’s Make the Bible Central Again
The “Ezra moment” clearly signals that crisis can be fertile ground for Bible revolution. God grant us courage to capture this moment and lead our congregations out of the rut of fragmented and isolated reading.
People once satisfied with Bible memes are now ready for meals. And like all good meals, they are best eaten together.
Paul Caminiti is co-Founder of The Institute for Bible Reading, which in collaboration with Tyndale House Publishers, recently launched a free virtual Bible book club called Immerse from Home. He has been a cultural innovator for the Bible for over two decades. As the Bible Publisher at Zondervan and Vice President of Bible Engagement at Biblica, he helped launch The Bible in 90 Days, The Story, and Community Bible Experience. His interviews have appeared in: Newsweek, The New Yorker, USA Today, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and NBC News. Paul currently lives in Grand Rapids, MI.
Link to Immerse from Home: Bible Book Clubs for COVID-19