According to the 10th Annual “State of the Bible” survey released by the American Bible Society, Bible reading has declined over the course of this pandemic. Christianity Today, reflecting on this data concludes that diminished engagement with our local churches, due to the various COVID19 restrictions and protocols is a major contributing factor.
That may be so.
That is almost certainly so, and yet, I confess that I found it harder to read my Bible in 2020 than in any previous year that I can recall. That despite being maximally engaged with my local congregation. Our region did go through a brief period of severe lockdown, but we maintained a robust online presence and I led small group bible studies and continued to meet and engage with individuals – with appropriate masking and distancing protocols observed. We are now running multiple services at multiple locations at 30% of building capacity and by means of these extra measures, are able to get about 70% of our people into a communal worship space on any given Sunday morning.
I would still say that 2020 was not a banner year for me in terms of my Bible reading.
As of today, I am still one day ahead in the RMM Bible Reading Plan (for more information about that see here) and I expect to complete my journey through the whole Bible – Old Testament once, New Testament and Psalms twice – on December 31st of this year. But simply “getting it done” is not my true ambition. I want to go deeper, I want to feel the refinement of my character, I want to see and savour the person of Jesus Christ as taught and revealed and celebrated in the length and breadth of Scripture.
And that was a struggle for me this year – as I imagine it was for many others.
It wasn’t just the complications around church (though that was a factor), it was more than that. It was the constant distraction of daily case counts and political briefings and apocalyptic predictions and general social disintegration.
2020 was a very hard year to read through the Bible.
So how can we do better in 2021?
That is the burden of this article. I humbly offer these 5 suggestions and I genuinely solicit your feedback as to anything you can think of that I may have failed to mention.
1. Use A Plan
As I mentioned above, I use the Robert Murray M’Cheyne (or RMM) plan and have been doing so since 2012. To be perfectly honest, I started using it because D.A. Carson and John Stott said that they used it and I have been profoundly impacted by the teaching and ministries of those men. I’m sure that’s not the best reason for doing anything, but happily, it worked out well for me.
The RMM plan probably isn’t the best plan for everyone. For one thing, it is among the most robust and demanding of the available options. It takes you through the whole Old Testament once and through the Psalms and New Testament twice in every calendar year. If you are a Psalm lover like me, then this is exactly what the doctor ordered, but if you are just hoping to get through the whole Bible once, then there are likely better plans for you to consider.
For an extensive list of Bible Reading Plans see here.
Whatever approach you choose, in 2021 you should definitely work with a plan.
If you are using the “magic 8 ball” approach to Bible reading you are almost certainly asking for trouble. In a time when your mind is being bounced around by serious cares and concerns (such as in a time of global pandemic!) you need to be grounded in some sort of routine and schedule. You want to be told WHAT’S NEXT as opposed to just fishing around for WHAT’S RELEVANT. When we are looking for “relevant” texts we are actually putting the cart before the horse. You have to understand your situation in order to determine what is relevant. If you think this pandemic is a scam and a deceit of the government your eyes will be drawn to Psalm 118:9:
“It is better to take refuge in the LORD than to trust in princes.” (Psalm 118:9 ESV)
But if the conspiracy angle seems a little far-fetched to you then you will more likely be drawn to Isaiah 8:12:
“Do not call conspiracy all that this people calls conspiracy, and do not fear what they fear, nor be in dread.” (Isaiah 8:12 ESV)
The point is, if we decide what is relevant and then go look for readings that support us in that belief, we will only be engaged in what psychologists refer to as “confirmation bias”. That is pretty much the opposite of what Bible reading is supposed to do. Reading the Bible is supposed to edit us, correct us, retune us and give to us a wider and much longer perspective.
So read the Bible.
From cover to cover.
And let the plan tell you what chapters to read today.
That’s good counsel at any time – but particularly in a time of plague and pandemic.
2. Make a Quiet Space
Quiet was much harder to come by in 2020. As schools were temporarily shut down and workplaces went remote, home became noisier and more chaotic than ever before.
Clean out a closet, install a light under your basement staircase, or simply get up earlier than your earliest rising child – do what you need to do to begin your day in quiet communion with the Lord.
Susanna Wesley, who gave birth to 19 children, 10 of whom survived infancy, used to pull her apron up over her head whenever she wanted to pray and enjoy some communion with the Lord. The children learned to be quiet when mother went into her tabernacle.
Whether that would work in your home or not, I have no idea.
The point is that you need to carve out a space – and a time – where you can be focused and attentive in your meeting with the Lord.
The old KJV translation of Psalm 91:3 says marvellously:
“Surely he shall deliver thee from the snare of the fowler, and from the noisome pestilence.” (Psalm 91:3 KJV)
COVID19 has been a particularly noisome pestilence. It is always sending us data, information, updates, instructions and colour coded warnings. Whether that is necessary or not, from the perspective of public health, I am not in a position to say, but I can attest to its general destructiveness to the discipline of spiritual communion.
In 2021, if we want to do better and go deeper in our times of devotion and Bible reading, we will need to work harder at creating and maintaining quiet spaces.
3. Create or Join A Group
As the Christianity Today article cited above intimated, there is a connection between bible reading and community reinforcement. We have some ladies in our church who have become Bible memorizing machines – largely because they use a common tool and regularly meet to test each other and hold each other accountable. The same basic benefit applies to any form of group, team or community.
Get a few friends together, choose a plan and figure out a way to meet and hold each other accountable. If you can’t meet physically, at least for the first few months of 2021, consider meeting online. It’s not perfect, but it’s certainly better than nothing.
I put together a group of friends and Bible readers this past year during the heart of the pandemic lockdowns. We were all RMM users and so we decided to talk through the previous week’s readings on a Zoom call and to record it and then release it as a podcast and a video. The podcast format was surprisingly well used as people found that they could listen to it while washing dishes, walking the dog or folding laundry. We’re thinking about doing the same thing again this January if, as appears likely, another lockdown is imposed in our area. If we do, and you would like to be a part of it, you will find it here.
The folks at TGC USA have also created a discussion and fellowship forum for bible readers on Facebook that you can find here.
Being part of a group is always helpful – but in 2021, I suspect that it will move from “helpful” to “necessary” on many personal rankings.
4. Locate Good Resources
Reading the Bible is not very edifying if you don’t understand what you are reading. Sometimes you just need someone or something to tell you where this story fits into the overall narrative and who these people with the strange names are and what exactly this story has to do with Jesus – once you figure all of that you are usually good to go.
So how can you get that information?
I recommend building a library of short, introductory, RELIABLE commentaries as the best way to press through common Bible reading problems. Reading a commentary is like reading a book of the Bible with an older and more insightful Christian friend. You benefit from their maturity and perspective and you are forced to wrestle with difficulties that you might otherwise choose to skip over.
Of course it is very important to choose your reading companions wisely. Many commentaries undercut faith by their overly critical approach. A commentary that caters to the prevailing mood of the academy is unlikely to feed and nourish a hungry soul. I’ve found the Tyndale Commentary set to be a reliable and accessible guide to both Old and New Testament books of the Bible. I’ve also enjoyed using The Bible Speaks Today – edited by Motyer and Stott – for these types of devotional journeys. Both of these sets can be purchased through any Christian Book seller or can be added to a Bible software program such as Accordance or Logos.
Audio bibles and Bible Reading Podcasts can also be very helpful. For stay-at-home parents and commuters, the opportunity to do 1 or 2 of your daily readings in an audio format is a game changer! Many Bible apps have an audio function and there are a handful of Bible Reading Podcasts that are worth checking out as well. You can find the Into the Word podcast wherever you find your podcasts or you can also download the Into the Word app which includes an audio Bible function.
Given that this past year was also (and perhaps relatedly) a year of theological strangeness and extremism, having reliable tools by your side as you read through the Bible in 2021, is probably a very good idea.
5. Make A Concerted Effort To Go Deep and Slow
I had to work very hard to slow my brain down this year in order to truly immerse myself in my daily readings. I found the press of conflict, conspiracy, data and confusion to be a real distraction. Just this morning I had to go back and re-read Revelation 10 because I got to the end of the chapter and realized that I didn’t remember a single thing that I’d just read. I had been thinking about other things. So I went back and read the whole chapter over again.
Do not allow yourself to become a skimmer. Force yourself to go deep and slow.
There are two things that I’ve found helpful in pushing back on this particular challenge. One is to make use of a Journaling Bible. A Journaling Bible gives you the chance to summarize your thoughts, ask your questions and even record prayers beside the passages that you are reading. The very act of engaging your pen and moving your fingers seems to focus and sharpen the mind. As a happy side effect, after 4 or 5 years you will end up with a full Bible that you can hand off to a loved one as a keepsake and family heirloom. For a few tips on how to do that see here.
The other thing that has helped me is choosing a single book of the Bible to press deeper into alongside of my regular “through the Bible” reading. I tend to use a paper commentary as a guide to a much slower and more thoughtful journey through individual books of the Bible over the course of the year.
If you want to attempt this in 2021 let me point you towards a couple of my absolute favourites:
- Derek Kidner on The Book of Genesis
- Francis Andersen on The Book of Job
- Alec Motyer on The Book of Isaiah
- Leon Morris on Luke
- John Stott on Acts
- E. Hughes on Hebrews
- Edmund Clowney on 1 Peter
- Colin Kruse on The Letters Of John
Reading a whole commentary in 2021 might be just what the doctor ordered. It might be an excellent way to press back on novelty, immediacy and urgency in favour of the reliable, tested and true. Just as reading a long novel is a great way of pressing back against the loss of attention span due to Social Media, so too taking a deep dive into a particular book of the Bible, along with an old, trusted friend, is a great way of pressing back on the mental, spiritual and psychological effect of this “noisome pestilence” known to us forever as COVID19.
May these few thoughts guide you deeper into a discipline of loving, attentive and fruitful communion with your Creator and Savior in the coming year.
Pastor Paul Carter
To listen to the most recent episodes of Pastor Paul’s Into The Word devotional podcast on the TGC Canada website see here. You can also find it on iTunes. To access the entire library of available episodes see here.