What’s it like to read through a biblical book out loud in a group?

 

Q.  I’m trying to get my small group to study the gospel of John using your guide, but they’re hesitant to begin with a read-through out loud of half the gospel (the “book of signs”), with a read-through of the other half coming up several weeks later.  They think these sessions will be long and tedious.  What can I tell them to encourage them otherwise?

Maybe the best thing I can do for you is to quote from the place in my book After Chapters and Verses where I discuss reading through biblical books, or large sections of them, out loud in groups. This part of the book relates several positive experiences that groups I’ve been in, or have heard about, have had with such read-throughs:

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A campus staff worker in California was going to be leading a semester-long study from the first part of Mark. She recounted what happened when she asked the group to read this whole portion aloud at their first meeting:  “I could tell that the students were not excited about it when we started, and doubtful of how helpful it would be.  But reading it out loud together was engaging.  As we read, people could jot notes and thoughts on their manuscripts.  We took 30 minutes to read the section, much faster than anyone imagined.  Then I gave them time to look for big themes.  They did a great job seeing big themes and putting things together.  I was impressed, and they enjoyed it.  That set us up well for our semester of studying the book.  They knew what was coming in the book and were able to read in depth more in context.”

I had a similar experience in a Bible study I participated in.  This group began its consideration of Romans by reading the entire epistle out loud.  We took turns reading sections of the epistle.  This took just about an hour, so it fit very well within the usual hour-and-a-half time we devote to reading and discussion.  People were surprised that it didn’t take any longer.  After we finished reading the epistle, the leader asked what our impressions were.  Many members spoke about key themes in the epistle:  the resurrection life; the relationship of Jew and Gentile; law and Spirit.  An international student who was reading the Bible for the first time asked, “What is ’righteousness’?”  She very perceptively zeroed in on this term, which is truly a key one in Romans, as essential to understanding everything she’d just heard.  And this was in a first-time encounter, in a second language!

The leader himself admitted that in the past he’d always stopped reading Romans “after the first 3 chapters.” He would get to the declaration that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus,” get himself saved (as he put it), and not read the rest of the book.  Now he saw that this opening part of the epistle flows into an extended discussion of how we can be not just “saved,” but transformed by the Spirit.  In fact, he noted, all of creation eventually gets in on God’s salvation.  When he saw how everything in the epistle flowed together, his understanding of salvation was greatly expanded.  At the end of the evening one of the participants said, “This was the best Bible study I’ve ever been in.”  So a valuable new practice we can adopt in our group Bible studies is to read entire books, or major sections of longer books, aloud together before studying their parts in detail.

This is very close, in fact, to how the New Testament letters were received by the churches they were originally sent to.  They were read aloud in their entirety to gatherings of those communities.  The Bible itself records other times when the people of Israel assembled for an extended reading or proclamation of God’s word.  The book of Deuteronomy, for example, tells us that its contents were originally delivered orally by Moses to a great assembly of the Israelites “in the wilderness east of the Jordan.”  And after the return from exile, Ezra read “the Book of the Law of Moses” to a special assembly in Jerusalem “aloud from daybreak till noon.”  So the extended public reading of Scripture is part of the heritage of our historic community of faith.

Readers of The Books of The Bible have called this to mind as they’ve seen the literary forms of the biblical writings recaptured in that edition.  One pastor told me he could “picture what it would have been like in Colossae when the letter from Paul first arrived and everyone was very excited and gathered around to hear the letter read.  How cool would that have been?”  Another reader told me that while he could “remember being astonished the first time I learned that the early church read whole epistles at church services,” he now thought it would be very appropriate to use the Scriptures in a format like The Books of The Bible for “corporate reading at a small group or congregational level.”  Yet another reader noted, “The Bible is an oral document to be read in community and not just to be studied individually. Paul’s letters often were addressed to churches (literally, gatherings) and were read aloud to those congregations. I think this Bible would lend itself to that activity.  This is something to which maybe we need to pay more attention.” 

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Beyond these thoughts from After Chapters and Verses, let me share that since writing that book, I’ve been in several more small groups that have read through biblical books out loud together before studying their parts in detail, and in every case the read-through was a real highlight for all the participants.  In fact, in one group where we were using one of my guides that covers multiple books, I suggested that perhaps we wouldn’t need to read through one of them out loud, and they wouldn’t hear of it!  They told me how much they’d been looking forward to it.

So in my experience, and from everything I’ve heard from others, reading through a biblical book, or a large portion of one, out loud in a group is not a long, tedious exercise.  The time goes faster than anyone expects, and the experience is a fresh and invigorating way to set up the study of the book in its individual parts.  I trust that your group will discover the same thing!

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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