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The Bible Challenge

Studies reveal that the number one factor in church growth and spiritual development is regular engagement with Scripture. This, however, has not been a strong suit for most Episcopalians. Church historian Diana Butler Bass notes that Episcopalians are the best educated of the more than 20,000 Christian groups in the United States, but rank almost last in terms of biblical literacy. The irony is that almost all of the growing churches in the United States excel at encouraging and supporting their members in reading the Bible on a daily basis.

Episcopalians rely instead on reading the Bible aloud in worship. Studies reveal, however, that 95% of what is heard is forgotten within 72 hours. Episcopalians offer Bible studies, but less than five percent of our membership participates in a Bible study.

A new ministry called The Bible Challenge, which my parish and I started in 2011 at St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Fort Washington, Pennsylvania, has harnessed the Bible in a new way that is having a national and global impact.

The Beginning: The Bible Challenge was born on Christmas Day 2010 as I sat by the fireside and read in a friend’s newsletter that he was inviting his church members to read the entire Bible with him in a year.

I was struck by the idea. With January fast approaching, there did not seem to be enough time to invite my parish to join me, but I could see the benefit of doing this on my own.

For over 20 years I had faithfully read the Lectionary, knowing that it omits many of the most challenging portions of Scripture. I believe that many of these omitted passages relate to what we read on the front page of the newspaper, thereby preventing Episcopalians from engaging in many difficult theological questions. The idea of rereading all of the books of the Bible in sequence and seeing how the narrative cohered seemed like a great challenge.

Feeling spiritually and physically exhausted, I took up the task to replenish my own soul.

I began reading Genesis and soon added a psalm each day and a chapter of the New Testament to the three chapters of the Old Testament I was reading daily. Before I knew it, I had developed a reading plan to read through the entire Bible in a year.

I was so spiritually enlivened by rereading the Bible, that by January I decided to invite some friends in the parish to join me. Having marketing in my bones, I sent personal invitations to members of our church and later to friends beyond. The response was amazing. Many replied, “Thanks for the nudge. I have always wanted to do this. Count me in.” In a month, we had over 180 members and over 90 friends participating in what we called The Bible Challenge.

The Results: We live in a culture where people want a challenge and like to measure what they have achieved. Reading the entire Bible in a year is such a challenge. So, I invited people to make a spiritual resolution for the New Year and created a system of accountability to offer support and help participants sustain their commitment.

Two years later, the biblical literacy in my church has increased greatly, and a large portion of our members have developed a daily spiritual discipline of reading the Bible.

It is also impacting our church in dramatic ways. So far our pledging for 2013 has increased by 27%. We have had strong stewardship, but never like this. The Bible Challenge helped us to form Christians who are deeply rooted in the Bible and possess a well-formed and contagious faith that leads them to Christian service.

Spreading the Word: We created the Center for Biblical Studies to share The Bible Challenge nationally and globally. One year later, over 2,000 congregations in 27 countries are participating and 30 Episcopal and Anglican bishops are leading their diocese in The Bible Challenge. The General Convention of the Episcopal Church endorsed The Bible Challenge and is encouraging every Episcopalian, Episcopal church, and diocese to
participate.

Why Accept? The Bible Challenge is designed to help Episcopalians and Anglicans develop a daily spiritual practice. The average Episcopalian now attends church once a month, and we cannot make progress by doing anything once every 30 days.

Trying to comprehend the Bible by reading a few verses aloud in church each Sunday is like trying to listen to eight measures of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony once a week for 52 Sundays. It’s impossible to comprehend its beauty and hear how it coheres. And, important parts of the Bible such as Proverbs or even the story of Noah’s ark are rarely read in church. In his 1549 Book of Common Prayer, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer did not propose reading the Lectionary, but rather the reading of the entire Bible.

The ultimate goal of The Bible Challenge is to help individuals develop a life-long daily discipline of engaging Scripture and thereby become a more dynamic Christian. As one of our vestry members notes, “This is one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. My favorite time is getting up first on weekends and sitting with my cup of coffee and Bible. I almost get disappointed when it is time to stop reading.”

Getting Started: Many Bible Challenge participants read a printed Bible, but about half have downloaded the Bible on an iPad, iPhone, Kindle, Nook, or Droid. They read it on the airplane, as they commute by train or bus at any time of the day that they desire.

They can read the Bible as slowly as they desire or focus on one gospel or the New Testament. Each parish and diocese can adopt The Bible Challenge as they deem best.

We also encourage churches to offer support groups called The Good Book Club or Intelligent Talk about the Bible, but not to insist participants attend.

“The time is ripe for such a challenge,” notes Bishop Shannon Johnston of the Diocese of Virginia, where 122 churches are participating in The Bible Challenge.

The Rev. Paige Blair, rector of St. Peter’s, Del Mar, notes, “The Bible Challenge is enriching every aspect of our parish’s life, from worship to fellowship to formation to mission. We’re talking about this experience in every corner of the parish, making associations with the biblical stories and our daily lives.”

To learn more and see how The Bible Challenge can impact your life or the life of your congregation or diocese, visit: www.thecenterforbiblicalstudies.org or email me at: mzabriskie@stthomaswhitemarsh.org. +


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