A few weeks ago I met with Jimmy for the first time. Jimmy is a Christian man, regularly goes to church, and is striving to follow Jesus as a husband, father and worker in the city. I d been asked to meet up with him, because others were worried that he was stalling in his Christian life, not growing in maturity, and maybe beginning to drift away. (What a great thing to have brothers and sisters who love you enough to notice and try to do something to help!)
As I got to know Jimmy over a cuppa, I started asking him about how things were really going. I looked for ways that I might be able to give some help and encouragement. The struggles in his marriage with communication issues and misunderstandings and break-downs in trust and the rest were nothing out of the ordinary. I suggested a few books I had read and found very helpful. The fears he had for his kids growing up in a diverse and often hostile environment were real and heartbreaking. The rush of hormones, the confusing search for identity and affirmation. Again, all pretty normal stuff, and again I was able to suggest things I had read and found helpful and that my kids read and found helpful.
And so we steadily came to the heart of the matter, the matter of Jimmy’s heart. How was Jimmy walking with God? Did he have confidence that because of the Lord Jesus he was forgiven and at peace with God? Yes, all good there. What areas of his life were still places of temptation, sin, guilt or shame? A few important points for prayer there. Did he feel that he was growing as a Christian and making progress in living more as Jesus would have him? Well, not so much. In fact, not so much for quite a long time. And knowing the Word of God brings maturity and growth, How are your quiet times going? Do you regularly read the Bible and pray on your own? Are you a part of a Bible study group?
Silence. His gaze dropped and his eyes welled with tears.
On a hunch, Are you much of a reader?
His eyes lifted and his head tilted to one side.
The weight of guilt that Jimmy had been carrying now fell on me. It dawned on me that everything I had said and every suggestion I had made just heaped on more shame and a growing sense of helplessness. I should’ve known better!
I m guessing reading is a real battle for you champ. Is that about right?
According to the ABS, 44% of Australian adults don’t have the literacy levels they need cope with every day demands in life and work. The literacy demands of fitting into the average Anglican Church in Sydney would rule out even more. Only about a quarter of Australian adults complete university education of any level, and roughly the same number didn’t finish grade 12 at high school. My church friends almost all come from the most educated quarter of the population.
In different parts of our city those stats are wildly skewed one way or another. People who come from a non-English speaking background are really up against it in terms of literacy. This goes some way to explaining why many of our churches struggle to welcome, integrate and care well for them.
Evangelical Christians are rightly insistent on being people of the Word. The Word of God is living and active. God creates and sustains all things by his powerful Word. Specifically, God brings salvation and new life to all who believe that Word, the gospel of the Lord Jesus. The Bible is God’s Word in written form, and so naturally it is right to make sure that the Bible is at the centre of our life and ministry. Evangelicals then are people of the Word, or in other words, people of the Book (the Bible). But must we be so bookish?
One of the great steps forward for Christians at the Reformation was that for the first time in history ordinary individuals got access to their own Bibles, and increasingly in their own languages. We can t overstate what a tremendous and liberating blessing this was. That’s why the translation and distribution of God’s Word in as many languages as possible ought to be one of our highest priorities.
Today we enjoy extraordinary access to the Word of God, in so many forms and often for very little cost or even for free! This access has, over the years, dramatically changed the dynamic of how we approach and interact with the Word of God. We now have expectations about patterns of what Christians do with the Bible that have served so many of us so well over such a long time, that we find it difficult to question them. It is important to question them though, because I fear that we might be unintentionally creating elitist road-blocks for many ordinary Australians wanting to follow the Lord Jesus.
Many or most of us would consider the personal quiet time (where one sits alone, reads the Bible and prays) as the bedrock Christian devotional activity. I am convinced that life goes better when I start my day in this way. It’s a pattern that helps me to grow in faith, hope and love. And so for the whole of my Christian life I have enthusiastically encouraged others too, to have a quiet time with God every day. I have often talked about how it is an essential part of the Christian life. What am I saying to Jimmy and the hundreds of thousands of people in our city who struggle to read and understand for themselves? Have I made the ability to have a quiet time the new qualification for being a Christian? Now of course I would never say it like that. I certainly don t believe it for a moment, but I fear that is exactly what new-comers to our churches might hear .
In the Old Testament overwhelmingly it was priests, Levites and Kings who would read the Law – the people would listen. Jesus chided the Pharisees and Scribes with a series of rhetorical questions about what they should’ve read, but the vast bulk of the people were expected to listen and hear the Word. (There are about 6 times more references in the Bible to hearing or listening to the Word than there are for reading it). One of the obvious differences in dynamics then, is that throughout the Bible and for most of church history, reading the Word of God was primarily a group activity. At the Reformation, under Thomas Cranmer, the Church of England adopted a pattern of morning and evening prayer. Twice a day the people of a village would hear the church bell, gather, pray a series of familiar prayers and hear the Word of God read out.
Part of the genius of old skool Anglicanism is that after a little while, anyone could follow and take part in the service whether they could read or not. There was an expectation that you would come each day and hear the Word of God together and respond.
Now I am not arguing for a minute that we should just adopt 450-year-old ways of doing things and expect them to work the same now as then. I do want to ask however, what are the new ways of ensuring that those who can t read are embraced and included in our fellowship, and regularly fed on the Word of God?
If we are serious about reaching our city with the good news of the Lord Jesus – serious about reaching the 44% who struggle with literacy, including many migrants from non-English speaking backgrounds – we need to boldly reconsider how they will hear the Word of God.
Let me quickly suggest some ways forward;
- Let’s actively recapture a habit of reading the Bible out loud with one another, with no expectation that everyone will read. This should happen firstly at home; with flatmates, couples, families, extended families, dorm groups – whoever we live with. We can do it in our workplaces, or meet in parks, cafes, churches, trains – wherever works. (Hebrews 10:24-25 is not just about turning up to church on Sunday)
- Let’s publicise some of the many ways in which people can hear the Word of God electronically these days. (www.faithcomesbyhearing.com, www.megavoice.com, www.biblegateway.com etc.)
- Let’s make our Bible study groups look and feel less and less like school, and more and more like brothers and sisters hearing and obeying the Word. We must understand the Word or there is no point reading it, but understanding cannot be the goal of Bible study. Some of us may help others with the understanding bit, and different people may come to the fore as we get serious about application and transformation. One body, many parts.
- Let’s think through the demand that novelty in church services makes on literacy. New songs every week and different corporate prayers each week are stimulating for the highly literate, but intimidating for the person who is trying to memorise things to fit in.
- Let’s rethink our habits of relying on books to deal with pastoral issues. If you have the extraordinary privilege of being a good reader and you read a good book, perhaps you could make the costly decision to spend time talking about it with others at church rather than just passing it on. If you think that you will not learn anything by having a conversation about something you read with someone who can t read, with all respect, I think that can only be because you ve never done it.
Over the years, mates I’ve read the Bible with who struggle to read themselves, have noticed things in the Word that I missed and asked questions that I don t know the answer to. Because they have relied on me to do the reading, they’ve been a huge help in keeping me consistent. Because I m not doing it alone, my prayer life is far less self-centred and I am much less easily distracted.
To Jimmy’s great credit he will still take my calls, but it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that we have a mountain to climb to re-establish some level of trust and genuine mutuality in our relationship. His willingness to forgive and readiness to listen tell me that he may not have wandered that far from Jesus after all.
 Not his real name
 ABS 4228.0 – Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies, Australia, 2011-12
 ABS – 6227.0 – Education and Work, Australia, May 2015
 In case you re wondering; no, the irony of me trying to make this point by writing a long article from an office where I am surrounded by books hasn’t escaped me. Welcome to my world.