Local Churches Giving Up On Meaningful Appreciation of Scripture?

Last Sunday found me at the final area performance of The Prophets by Brad Sherrill. St. Mary’s Episcopal had a great crowd but I estimate over 50 more people could have been accommodated.

Brad’s dramatic recitation of portions of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and some of the lesser prophets literally brought their words to life against a backdrop of projected scenes. The effect was awe inspiring, bringing the viewer in close contact with this important biblical material having strong parallels with our present day.[img_assist|nid=155552|title=The Prophets – Brad Sherrill at St. Mary’s Episcopal – January 23, 2001|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=350|height=223]

Despite aggressive promotion of this production in the local church community, very few actually attended these performances. I was given tickets to share with pastors across a wide spectrum of Anchorage churches in hopes, after seeing the performance, they might encourage their congregations to attend. Most pastors approached had “previous engagements” or other things to do (reminiscent of the excuses noted by Jesus in the Parable of the Great Feast). I was shocked I could not give them away. Only two local pastors took me up on the tickets. After the performance one wrote me saying, “I was struck not only by the sheer amount of scripture Mr. Sherrill has memorized, but also by the voice he gave to that scripture. Often the emotion and inflection of God’s Word is “two dimensional” when we read it. In Mr. Sherrill’s performance, I was amazed at the life he brought to those messages. It was refreshing.”

I’ve been wrestling with this and wondering why such lack of interest and support? One explanation I can suggest is, because these performances were sponsored primarily by mainline churches in Anchorage, not the evangelical or non-mainline community, they were not given attention. After reading a statement by well-known theologian, Old Testament scholar/teacher, and commenter on the prophets, Walter Brueggemann, this week, it may be other issues are involved. Two years ago, in an interview before the 2008 elections he observed:

What we have to start with is that the biblical text is more interesting and important than anything else we have to say. But that requires a great deal of reeducation of the pastor and the congregation because so many pastors and so many congregations are looking for simplistic answers that are clever and cute. And there aren’t any clever, cute answers that will now help us in the situation we’re in. It just requires harder work than that.

[W]e’ve done this incredible dumbing-down. We need to work at helping congregations engage in hard intellectual work. But that’s very difficult.

I went to…church yesterday and it was marvelous. But I looked around during the scripture and nobody was listening. In fact, they had a high school girl read it, and they didn’t even have the microphone on. Nobody was even upset or restless that they couldn’t hear the text. Because they don’t expect anything from the text.

Well, I don’t blame those priests. I blame the whole church culture that has communicated to people that nothing important is happening here. And how we get at that requires great intentionality now. And it’s going to be a long-term comeback. I’m not sanguine about doing something between now and the election. We gotta do what we can do.

We are in a sorry state in the church. A couple Sundays of heroic action doesn’t cut any ice, I think.

What we have to help people see is that when the local congregation meets, we are engaged in an act of alternative imagination. People don’t know that.

Annie Dillard says in one of her books [Holy the Firm] that if people understood what was going on in church they would wear crash helmets. But nobody wears crash helmets. Nobody even stays awake. We’re in a very sorry way. To recover from that is huge now.

As I visit local churches I rarely hear scripture used in lengthy recitation. What I tend to hear is a verse or two read and expounded upon, and mostly augmented by interesting stories, experiences and analogies. There are churches who extensively use lengthy passages during their services, especially mainline churches with a strong liturgies coupled with Old and New Testament readings. Brueggemann’s quote noted lack of attention to the readings. Often they’re delivered by someone who is a last-minute fill-in, or one unfamiliar with the readings, stumbling over the wording, and devoid of expression. Nonetheless, if you are a professing Christian, you might well want to be intimately familiar with much scripture, as it contains the basis for your belief.

A recent national poll reveals that, only 25 percent of Evangelical Protestants, 20 percent of other Protestants, and 7 percent of Catholics read the Bible daily. The poll showed that 44 percent of Catholics “rarely or never” read the Bible, while this is true of only 7 percent of Evangelicals, and 13 percent of non-Evangelical Protestants.

In closing, I’m curious if the position of Alaska’s churches, at or near the bottom of national surveys, is being influenced by this marked lack of interest in scripture. Anyway, Brad Sherrill has departed Alaska, but a few of us will long remember his impactful presentations. And…I’ll certainly dig into scripture more than ever.

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