In one Sunday evening service, not long after I took up the pastorate of a new church, I started to give the Biblical reference for my sermon. I said something like, “It’s in the book of Ephesians, just past the middle of the New Testament. If you opened the Bible to Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts, Romans, Corinthians or Galatians, keep on going toward the back of the Bible. If you’ve turned to Philippians, Thessalonians, Timothy or Hebrews, go back the other way, more toward the front of your Bible.”
A number of the long time churchgoers in the congregation laughed at that. I let them know that it wasn’t a joke, that there were those who came to our services who didn’t know the Bible well enough to find some of the books. I asked them never to laugh at that again, since we didn’t want to have someone feel ashamed of not having learned something that the long time churchgoers had learned perhaps in their childhood. It’s my experience that many times new believers and the spiritually curious don’t get a lot of help with some basic Biblical navigation. Many times their spiritual hunger and curiosity would find greater satisfaction if they simply had some basic guidance, given with kindness and consideration, during the course of normal preaching and teaching. Many times more experienced believers forget how precious the Bible can be to a new believer, especially if that person has had little or no exposure to it before, and provide too little basic guidance on how to navigate through the written Word of God.
I’ve noticed that in many churches there isn’t much guidance given to someone who isn’t already familiar with the Bible on where to find the text for the sermon, and many times there isn’t any common sense guidance given during the normal course of preaching and teaching on where to find the text for a sermon or lesson. Projecting the text on a screen is helpful, but there is more guidance that could be given. Most books of the Bible are short enough that someone could read them easily in an evening, and it can only be commendable for someone listening a series on a book of the Bible to be interested in reading that book on his or her own. Here are some suggestions:
- If there is a church purchased Bible in the pew of a church, give the page number of the text in the church bulletin or project it on the screen. Biblically inexperienced listeners may not have the order of books in the Bible sufficiently memorized to be able to find a text, but they know how to turn to a page number.
- From time to time remind people in the congregation that the vast majority of Bibles have the page numbers for the individual books of the Bible in the front of the Bible. Let them know it’s OK to look there for a reference, since it can take years for someone to get sufficiently experienced with the order of the books to be able to find some references quickly. This seems obvious to someone who has experience with a Bible, but it might not occur to someone who has never used a Bible until recently.
- Provide some coaching when letting people know the Biblical text for preaching or teaching on where to find the books of the Bible. In this day, I think that this would apply even for the larger and well known books such as Psalms, Isaiah and the four gospels. This is extremely inoffensive and many are grateful when it is done with kindness.
- Occasionally let people know in a kind and perhaps humorous way that King James English is not inspired, and that there are more modern and understandable translations available. My experience with using the New International Version during my own preaching and teaching is that many times someone would come up to me and say something like, “I can understand that Bible that you’re using better than the one I have. Where can I find a Bible like that?”
- Occasionally let the people know that there are study editions of the Bible and books like Bible dictionaries and commentaries that can provide greater background information on the Bible.
- More experienced believers should be aware of anyone nearby fumbling through a Bible to find a text. A bit of help quietly and kindly given will often find a grateful heart.
This may seem like very basic guidance, but it’s easy for someone who has been in church and followed the Lord for years to forget what it’s like in those first few days and months of seeking to learn God’s Word. New believers in Christ often seem to be born with a deep hunger for the Word of God, and often they will keep on going into the Word once they get some guidance. Their inexperience shows in those days, and it’s not because of ignorance or stupidity, but because of lack of exposure to the Bible previously. Quite frankly, professional people with advanced degrees may never have come to a realization that Jesus and the apostles didn’t speak in King James English or that a Bible has a table of contents. It’s not that they are stupid, uneducated people, but they simply hadn’t been exposed to the Bible before or thought about these things before.