A Hunger for Bible Literacy, Part 1

bible study handsBy Matt Sapp

Wanna know a secret? No one reads the Bible anymore.  Can you name the last time you opened your Bible at home? If you can’t, know that you’re not alone.

Whatever your background with church—whether you haven’t missed a Sunday since you were a child or you’re just finding a faith of your own as an adult—most of us have one thing in common.  Very few American Christians—regardless of their church involvement—read the Bible consistently on their own. 

Several years ago I sat in a church pew on a Sunday night listening to well-known Christian evangelist Tony Campolo. As he taught from the pulpit he called out to the congregation a chapter and verse of the Bible and asked us to recite the scriptures with him.

All he got back from the congregation was uncomfortable silence and blank stares.

I was never very good at recalling scripture by chapter and verse, and I’m still not. I’m no memory verse or Bible drill champion.  But all of us should know the Bible better. And to know the Bible better, we have to read it more. 

This isn’t a post, though, to blame Christians for not reading the Bible. This is a post to acknowledge that the church needs to do a better job of teaching people HOW to read the Bible.

Why don’t we read the Bible anymore?  The Bible is hard to understand. You can’t just pick it up, flip it open and start reading—at least not if you expect to get the most out of it. So, mostly, people just don’t read it in the first place.

That means that Christian leaders need to do a better job teaching the basics of scripture, and not just for our members’ sake—many pastors (myself included) could benefit from a review of the basics, too!

People have very basic questions when approaching the Bible like, “Where should I start reading?” And, “What should I know about the Bible before I start reading so I can understand it better?”

It seems like it should go without saying, but our churches MUST be prepared to intentionally engage these questions from our adult members if we want them to read the Bible more consistently.

When we open the Bible, if we want to understand it better, we should bring some basic questions (and answers) to our reading.

  1. How and when did the Bible come into existence?How did we end up with the sixty-six books of the Bible? What did the first Christians read before the Bible was formed?
  2. What Bible translations should we be reading from? Why do we have so many different translations of the Bible? What are the differences between them?
  3. What type of literature is the particular book of the Bible we’re reading—poetry, prophecy, history, gospel, letter? When was it written and where? And, what does that mean about how we should read any particular text?
  4. What is the author’s purpose for writing?Are there big questions the author is likely trying to address? What kinds of answers were the first readers of scripture looking for? And, what kinds of answers should we be looking for in a particular text?

Once we’ve answered these questions, we need to help our church members READ THE BIBLE—not someone’s application of scripture that turns it into seven easy steps for a happy life, and not someone’s interpretation of scripture that tells you why your political positions are blessed by God.

We need to JUST READ THE BIBLE, so we can seek to understand it for ourselves together in Christian community. Once we’ve developed an appropriate foundation, we need to trust our collective ability to interpret and apply God’s word in our own contexts and for our own lives.

That’s a long way of saying we need to recommit to the Protestant principle of the priesthood of all believers.

Last week, my church Home Group met to talk about what we’d like to study together over the next couple of months. Here’s the feedback I got from my group. They simply wanted to know more about the Bible and how to read and understand it for themselves.

I nearly wanted to cry when I heard their responses—both for joy that there’s a hunger for meaningful engagement with scripture and in sadness at realizing how poorly we’ve engaged that hunger in our congregation.

So over the next several weeks, my home group is going to start trying to answer some of these questions as we simply READ THE BIBLE together.

And you wanna know a secret? I can’t wait!

Celebration & Grief: A Season of “Firsts”

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By Joe LaGuardia

As I am writing this, the weather is a warm 80 degrees, and my wife and children are at the beach collecting shells.  There is a slight breeze.  I can tell by the waving palm trees just outside my office window.

All of this is a reminder that I am not in Georgia anymore.  After serving in ministry there for over a dozen years, I will spend my first Christmas season in Florida since we moved to Atlanta in 2001.  Something feels askew, and my biological clock is confused by the lack of changing leaves, “sweater weather”, and frequent wintry trips for hot coffee at Dunkin Donuts.

As my body adjusts, I have become mindful that as I spend this “first” Advent and Christmas at my new church, First Baptist Church of Vero Beach, other people will be spending their holidays with “firsts” as well.  In the last year at FBC, there have been several deaths that have shaped the community in significant ways.

One person who passed, “Chubby” Bass, was well-known for his leadership and commitment to the church.  I am currently in the Sunday School class he once taught.  I gather from the group that he was a legend, and I assume its for good reason.

Another person, Hiram Henderson, was chair of the FBC Pastor Search Committee.  I had two in-person interviews with the Search Committee, and both afforded me some time with Hiram.  He was a sweet and gentle person, and he listened intently as I told the committee of my philosophy of ministry and vision for my future at FBC.  I don’t remember a time when he did not have a big smile on his face–very assuring for me, a candidate nervous about his next call.

When I came to preach in view of a call, there were only a few empty seats in the crowded sanctuary.  One was next to Hiram.  He and I shared a hymnal, and I remember him embracing me strongly, despite his failing health, in the wake of an affirmative vote.  It was the last time I saw him.

Today I visited with a family members who stood sentinel with their mother, grandmother.  She passed away peacefully and seemed as beautiful as she was on the first day I met her six months ago.  She was 103 years old and had been the oldest living member of First Baptist Church.

There are countless other individuals I can think of who will be grieving a lost loved one this season: Families of Pappy Kouns, a local baseball legend in these parts, and Dana Howard, to name a few.  Then there are friends and families in the church who lost loved ones in the wider Vero Beach community.  I may not have officiated these funerals, but attending them has made me experience the depth of love and grace that exists in this place I now call home.

When I lost my father some three years ago, I knew from experience that the first year is often the hardest. Shit hits you over and over again like those constant waves my kids are spying at the beach right now.

Every birthday, holiday, season, and transition can bring back both the celebration that memories evoke, as well as the sadness of grief which seems just as fresh as on the first day of a person’s loss.

Coincidentally, the Advent and Christmas theme at FBC this year is “‘Tis the Season,” and it certainly is.  It is the season for many firsts.  All we can hope for is that there will be those who walk alongside us, helping us find a sure footing even when we may only have enough strength to put one foot in front of another.

Standing up to the Bullies

bullyBy Matt Sapp

What if Christians did a better job of standing up to bullies?

Bullies are mean. They pick on people weaker than they in order to feel powerful.  Bullies come in all shapes and sizes.

Pastors can be bullies. Politicians can be bullies. Your boss at work can be a bully. The big kid on the playground can be a bully.

We’ve all come across enough bullies in our lives — some of us may have even been bullies ourselves — to know that it takes a lot of courage to stand up to one.   And because too few people stand up to bullies, bullying is increasingly becoming an accepted style of leadership in our world and even in our churches.

Bullying, though, is decidedly not a Christ-inspired model of leadership.

THREE MODELS OF Christian LEADERSHIP: PROPHETS, PRIESTS AND KINGS

During the month of November, we’re talking about  leadership at Heritage Fellowship Church, and we’ll explore three different Christ-inspired types of leaders—prophets, priests and kings.

This Sunday, we’re starting with prophets, and one of the easiest ways to identify a prophet is to look for someone with the courage to stand up to a bully. Prophets are people who stand up to bullies.

JESUS MODELS PROPHETIC LEADERSHIP

Jesus modeled prophetic leadership in his very first sermon when he spoke out on behalf of the poor, the blind, the imprisoned and the oppressed (Luke 4).  And guess what? Before he could even finish speaking, bullies ran him out to the edge of town and tried to kill him.

As it turns out, bullies and prophets have never co-existed very well.  In fact, like in Luke 4, prophets drive bullies up the wall. If you want to smoke out a bully, bring in a prophet.

One of the problems with identifying bullies, though, is that bullies don’t call themselves bullies. A lot of times bullies actually seek to fashion themselves as prophets, but they’re just wolves in sheep’s clothing.

BULLIES ARE FALSE PROPHETS

That’s why the Bible refers to bullies as false prophets. If you want to try something fun, start replacing the words “false prophet” in scripture with the word “bully.”

So, how do you spot a bully? The surest way to spot a bully is to notice when someone is using a position of power and privilege to further denigrate and marginalize already oppressed minorities. Or, like Jesus, speak up on behalf of the marginalized and the oppressed and see who protests the most vehemently.

Bullies may claim they are being prophetic, that’s what false prophets do. But don’t be deceived. I can’t find a single place in scripture where God uses prophets to trample on the downtrodden.

Prophets do the exact opposite.

PROPHETS VS. BULLIES

Prophets are the ones on the bottom of the pile shouting up. Bullies are on the top of the pile shouting down.

Prophets speak on behalf of the forgotten, abused or otherwise oppressed. Bullies prey on them.

Prophets find us at our weakest moments and come alongside to lift us up. Bullies find us at our weakest moments and come alongside to take advantage of us.

Prophets seek to point us to the power and goodness of God. Bullies seek to convince us of their own power and goodness.

PROPHETIC LEADERSHIP TODAY

So what does prophetic leadership look like today?

Two prophetic leaders in my own larger community of faith, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF), are Stephen Reeves and Steve Wells. They, along with many others in the CBF community, are calling for basic fairness and just protections for Americans who are being taken advantage of by the title pawn and payday lending industry.

You can learn more about the work they’re doing HERE. I’m proud to partner with them and support their work.

Stephen and Steve are doing all the things I’ve described prophets as doing above.

They’re shouting up from the bottom of the pile. They’re seeking to work alongside and lift up some of the most vulnerable Americans. They’re speaking out on behalf of people whom the powerful and privileged have taken advantage of. And they’re doing it all in a way that points to the power and goodness of God.

This week at HERITAGE we’ll talk about several different ways to identify prophetic leaders, and we’ll even think about how we might become prophetic leaders ourselves.

Until then, remember this starting definition of what a prophet is. A prophet is someone who stands up to a bully.