Have you ever attended a prayer meeting at church? If you’ve never attended one, let me describe it. Some time during the middle of the week, a group of church members get together for an hour or so at the church for what most people would consider a Bible study. Church members come with Bibles in hand to sit around a table and listen as the pastor or one of the elders methodically goes into exegesis of a group of text or maybe a chapter from one of the books of the Bible. The goal of midweek service is to provide another connection point with members and to help educate them on the Bible. At one point in time prayer meeting was considered the thermometer to the health of a church. Today however, it’s just one of many relics churches hold onto with steely grips as attendance drops and engagement disappears.
A few weeks ago I decided to go to our church’s midweek prayer meeting. I’ll be honest, prayer meeting isn’t my thing. It’s painful. I always thought it was supposed to be like a small group, but it more closely resembles small church. Our pastoral staff has been making a big push for people to attend so I thought “maybe it’s different”. I came in with my youth group, which immediately set off a flurry of activity. I assume if you walk into any church it would look about the same, a group of the church’s older members with their Bibles. So my group of teens definitely was a shock to the system. As we walked into the fellowship hall the tables were in a horseshoe with people sitting on all sides. At the front of the room was one long table where whoever was leading that night would sit and face everyone else. From where I sat it kind of looked like Di Vinci’s “The Last Supper”, pastor seated in the middle with those most comfortable sitting at the front on either side.
Like every prayer meeting I’ve ever attended, we started with prayer then the text for the week; taking turns going around the room reading one verse at a time until we were through the chapter. Then the obligatory question “what stands out to you in this set of verses?” That question was what I came for. I was there to discuss and explore. To say crazy things that jumped out to me about thoughts that I hadn’t had before. After all that’s what theologians have been doing for centuries. They read a text, start thinking, and get ideas. They make assumptions about the tone, try to guess at the intent, and form a relationship with the events and characters. After all, none of them were around when it was written. Sure they do historical and archaeological research in an attempt to know what’s going on, but deep down no person responsible for “Christianity” was there. Needless to say, my approach to the evening was not appreciated by anyone other than my youth group.
Christians need to stop coming to prayer meeting like students to calculus class and approach it like a book club. For centuries we’ve indoctrinated Christians in the holy reverence of the scripture and eliminated any way to read it for the sheer joy of reading. In doing so, we’ve made the Bible a chore. We don’t appreciate the stories, the characters, and the odd set of circumstances they share.
Imagine reading The Hunger Games one paragraph at a time. Then stopping and reminiscing and seeking out the meaning of that one paragraph before moving on to the next one. How boring would the story be? How arduous and painstaking would it be to get through to the end, and by the time you do it’s not a thrilling conclusion to an amazing story. It’s a sigh of relief that you’ll never pick that book up again. That is what we have done with the Bible. No wonder Christians are among the least knowledgeable group of people on the Bible.
The Bible should be read like a book club book. Whole stories and sections given to the group in advance and rather than coming together and reading it out loud, you sit and discuss the totality of the story so far. You break down how it made you feel while reading it. Which characters spoke to you? How can you relate to the story? What did all of it mean?
The problem with this approach however, is that we’ve been taught for millennia that we aren’t qualified to do that. We insist that to properly educate ourselves on the Bible we must have it presented to us by a pastor. We aren’t educated enough or connected with God enough to discern the truth of scripture. It’s like saying I can’t read a book and enjoy it unless it’s through a class at the local community college. Sure, many of us read the Scarlet Letter or MacBeth in high school literature class, but who would honestly say they enjoyed it (other than the students who became English teachers of course)?
Recently I’ve challenged myself to understand the Bible for the amazingly life changing book it is and not just required textbook material. I’ve approached it as one continuous story, not a collection of quotes and sayings to throw at people. As I’ve done that I’ve seen something I was never taught growing up. I saw the story of God. The Bible transformed from rules and guidelines and verses I needed to memorize for acceptance at church into an amazing story full of heroes and villains, love and hate, heartbreak and redemption. I saw the characters as real people with real problems, not fairy tale stories so far removed that I couldn’t relate. As I allowed myself to do that I felt my faith come alive in a new and earth shattering way. I connected with the amazing story of a God so heartbroken at the rejection of his creation he does everything to recover it.
I’ve shared my new approach with others to take the chore out of Bible reading and it’s changed their lives. They too become connected with a bigger story that’s still occurring today. It makes the Bible alive and keeps God alive with it. There’s nothing wrong with prayer meeting or old school Bible studies. But, if you’ve been going to them for a while and feel like they’ve lost their luster. I challenge you to start a book club. The Bible can be your first book. Start at the begining. Read it with all the vigor and character as your favorite novel. Give Abraham some skepticism and Jesus some sarcasm in their voice. Do it and I guarantee you’ll be a better Christian for it.