Bible-reading programs in vogue, but fewer Americans overall reading Scripture

04/16/2014 12:00 AM

04/16/2014 7:43 AM

In their quest to read the Bible cover to cover in three months’ time, 84 people at St. John’s Lutheran Church in midtown Sacramento have pored over about a quarter of the Bible so far. It’s been an eye-opener: The violence – the sheer level of bloodshed in the Old Testament – has taken many of them by surprise.

“Your Sunday school teachers didn’t tell you about that,” associate pastor Leslie Welton said to a recent class of almost two dozen people.

They were gathered in a church meeting room at noon on a bright spring Friday for one of the church’s weekly “Bible in 90 Days” sessions. The classes, which began in mid-March, have offered the group fresh perspective on the Scriptures during Lent, the traditional 40-day period of reflection and sacrifice leading up to the celebration of Easter. The Friday classes skew older, with a lot of retirees in the group, but program participants range in age from 11 to 98. Another class has been meeting on Sunday evenings.

“How many of you are shocked by the blood and gore and carnage?” asked Welton.

There were nods of agreement around the room: Page by page, chapter by chapter, class members are deeply shocked. With its betrayals, infidelities and lessons stubbornly unlearned, its epic levels of carnage and vengeance, this wild ride through the Old Testament is not the Bible they expected.

“But how many of you are surprised by how God intervenes?” Welton said.

Because that’s what the class is learning, too: The Old Testament also depicts a world in which God’s grace shines amid the violence; and in the New Testament chapters still to come, long after Sunday’s Easter celebration, redemption and resurrection await.

“For people looking to renew their spiritual lives, the No. 1 thing they should do is read Scripture,” said Jimmy Hurd, minister of Cordova Church of Christ, which launched its own Bible in 90 Days curriculum during the Lenten season. The Rancho Cordova church offers the program each year.

“That’s the connection with Easter,” Hurd said. “It’s a time of renewal. For a person who wants to renew their spiritual life, this is a great place to begin.”

For a growing number of Protestant churches around the country, programs that encourage congregants to embark on Bible-reading curricula have become a steady trend. The focus of these programs is reading the Bible from cover to cover to grasp the broad sweep of the narrative, rather than drilling down on specific passages for the kind of analysis offered in many churches’ adult Bible study classes.

The Bible in 90 Days is a national ministry that since 1999 has encouraged participants to read the Scriptures from start to finish in three months, at a pace of a dozen pages a day. The Houston-based organization tracks its participant statistics only loosely, said administrator Ellie Tow. While participation by California churches tends to be small, she said, the Bible in 90 Days program has been used in 49 states and 19 countries.

“There’s a sense of pride in having done it,” said the program’s operations director, David Winkle. “And there’s the spiritual component. What you’re reading is the word of God. When you read it, you’re not alone. The power of Scripture is with you.”

Other versions of the trend encourage reading the Scriptures in a year’s time, instead of 90 days. Regardless, the programs tend to be concentrated primarily in conservative churches, said Winkle, among people who already are churchgoers guided by their faith.

In general, Bible readership among the American public tends to be weak, according to a new “State of the Bible” study from the Barna Group, which researches issues of faith and culture. While 88 percent of households report owning a Bible, researchers found, less than 40 percent of people read the Bible once a week – and only 20 percent of Americans say they read the Scriptures at least four times a week and believe that the Bible is the word of God.

To the contrary, the proportion of people who think the Bible is just another book has doubled to about 20 percent in the past three years, the study showed. Two-thirds of the people most skeptical about the Bible are age 48 and younger, the generations most steeped in the solipsism of social media.

“As a culture, we don’t have many opportunities to share a common narrative about who we are and what shapes our identity as a people,” said Dennis Olson, chairman of the Princeton Theological Seminary’s Bible studies department. “The media has scattered people’s reference points, and the stories people listen to are scattered.

“These Bible-reading programs can be an opportunity for the Christian community to regain its story and identify with its story about God and the future and what God calls us to do. That’s the cultural reason behind these programs, being part of a bigger story than our own lives and our Facebook lives.”

At the same time, the programs hark back to the centuries-old value that Protestant churches have placed on reading the Bible, he said.

“There’s a deep tradition within the Protestant trajectory of Christianity to read the Scripture as a way of encountering God,” said Olson. “In the modern era, some traditions in some denominations have been lost. These programs are a recovery of that tradition.”

In Roman Catholicism, that tradition has never vanished, said the Rev. Michael Kiernan of Our Lady of the Assumption Parish in Carmichael.

“From the Catholic point of view, we think we do this all the time,” he said. “If you went to most Catholic churches on Sunday and picked up a bulletin, you’d find a three-part reading for each day from the Old or New Testament, the Book of Psalms and one of the Gospels.”

Over time, verse selection after verse selection, congregants read most of the Bible, he said.

“We don’t just have 90 days but every day for Catholics.”

Welton has been the associate pastor at St. John’s, her first church calling, since November. She rises every day at 5 a.m. to do her assigned Bible in 90 Days reading. The time with the Bible amounts to her meditation, her chance for stillness and contemplation before a busy day.

“We say we follow Christ, but how do you follow anyone if you don’t know what they’ve said?” she said. “I’m passionate about getting people to read Scripture.”

Participants in her recent Friday class gathered around big, round tables strewn with copies of the New International Version of the Bible, as well as reading guides. In the center of each table were small stones – Welton’s version of the Ebenezer stone, a symbol of God’s presence from the Book of First Samuel.

During the class discussion period, voices echoed around the room, the hubbub building, as people talked and laughed and gesticulated.

Carol Raeun, 72, a retired school district secretary who lives in Natomas, signed up to read the Bible every day simply because she’s never done it before.

“I was in confirmation class 60 years ago,” she said, “so I’ve forgotten a lot of the Bible stories. I’m hoping this will strengthen my faith.”

Ann Marie Park, 45, lives in Curtis Park, where she’s raising her 9-year-old daughter.

“I’m getting a picture of the Bible as a book,” she said. “For me, it’s interesting reading it all together and hearing the thoughts of people who lived so long ago. A lot of us are having a hard time with things. When you think of Christian love – boy, that sure doesn’t fit in with a lot of passages.”

Many people, Protestants in particular, may be more accustomed to the concepts of sacrifice and salvation awaiting in the New Testament. The turmoil of the Old Testament can make for difficult reading.

“We’re not asking people to believe any one thing,” said Welton. “We’re reading for content and letting the text speak for itself. But reading the Bible makes us evaluate our humanity, too. Violence in the world isn’t new. Betrayal isn’t new. Lying and cheating aren’t new.

“But there is a remedy. There is forgiveness. God is faithful even when people are not. Seeing that God is present can really be an anchor for people.”

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