February 3, 2019

Reclaiming The Word

“The most obvious casualty has been the prominent place once given to the reading of Scripture.”

Bill Knott

The camp meeting worship leader was clearly flummoxed. He searched the faces of the other huddled platform participants to find support for turning down my unusual request.

When none came to his rescue, he cleared his throat and asked with painful politeness, “So you want to have your passage of Scripture read aloud immediately before your sermon tonight? We don’t usually do that here.”

I mentally rehearsed the sequence of e-mails from the conference office months earlier, insisting that the titles—and the Scripture passages—for each of my six messages must be in hand by February 1. I had complied, grimly guessing that the Bible texts would never make their way into either the bulletin or the worship services.

“The most obvious casualty has been the prominent place once given to the reading of Scripture.”

And I was right—again—a fact in which I take no satisfaction. As Adventist worship styles have evolved in a Christian culture of pervasive Pentecostalism during the past three decades, the most obvious casualty has been the prominent place once given to the reading of Scripture in the worship experience and as the foundation of the sermon. In fully half the Adventist congregations I visit each year, the Scripture reading has either completely disappeared or else been relegated to an introductory element of a worship service that seems designed to keep me “uplifted” and smiling, tapping my toe, and laughing at the preacher’s anecdotes about the challenges of changing diapers.

Let me be clear: I’m not at all averse to worship songs (substantive ones, please) that draw out my affection for Jesus, nor do I have some strange nostalgia for the grim formalism that characterized some of the Adventist worship I knew as a child and young adult. This isn’t a protest about projecting worship songs and hymns on a screen at the front of the sanctuary, though I’ll admit I miss the four-part harmony of hymns once common in many Adventist congregations. It is, however, a cautionary tale about allowing the cultural diminishment of the Bible now standard in many Protestant faiths to become normative for a remnant movement explicitly founded on the public proclamation of the Word.

By definition, Adventists don’t come on Sabbath to hear a beautiful and moving human word about God, whoever He is. We come instead to hear a heaven-inspired and decisive divine word about us, whoever we are. The most brilliant sermon isn’t the one that has me swooning at the preacher’s wordcraft or weeping at the stories, but the meditation that opens up the depths of Scripture with such clarity and practicality that I can’t forget that Word for the next six days, despite the devil’s distractions.

And it all begins with the prominence we give to the Bible in our worship services. If Scripture is only (weakly) read to introduce the theme we intend to follow—“Friendship” or “The Dangers of Judgmentalism”—it provides us neither guidance nor controls on what we choose to say about the topic. But if those planning the worship service, and specifically the preacher, have sat long enough with the Word to let it get down beneath the feel-good bromides we’re inclined to offer each other, then there is a chance—no, actually a likelihood—that we will see and bow before the Lord whom Isaiah saw: “The Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple” (Isa. 6:1, NRSV).*

When I’m invited to a pulpit, I now routinely offer to read aloud the passage of Scripture about which I will then preach—all 12 or 16 verses of it. And on my better days I remember to add one line before I pick up my meditation on the text: “You have already heard the most important words you will hear today.”

* Bible texts credited to NRSV are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. Used by permission.