I used to have a buddy named Dave Hoskins. He was a Baptist pastor here in the area. We used to run into each other at Markle’s Music store, because he played guitar, too. Dave was a funny guy, outgoing and full of life. He was about ten years younger than me. I still can’t believe that he died several years ago. He was diagnosed with brain cancer, and it all went south for him really fast. Life is short, folks, and there’s no dress rehearsal.
Anyway, Dave was always telling me things to make me laugh. (I love people like that. Kinda makes up for the other ones.) One day he told me somebody called his church and asked, “Does your church sing off the wall?” He said he was initially confused, and wondered if the guy had heard some of their church members sing. Then he realized the man was asking if they used hymnals or sung the words off of a screen. Apparently, this man didn’t like “off the wall” singing.
Well, time has passed, and even in churches with more traditional-style services, most of the time the congregation will sing from words on a screen of some kind. One lady in a church near Indianapolis asked her pastor if they could have the words to the hymns projected on the screen like their contemporary service did. She told him, “A lot of us have trouble reading the print in the hymnals. But we can read the words on the screen.” Turns out, singing “off the wall” is helpful to some people.
When we started projecting the words to our songs on screens, I made it a point to always include the page number in the hymnal for those who wanted to use one. What surprised me, though, is that I have never noticed anyone using a hymnal when we have the words on the screens. (Except my wife. She’s a music teacher, and she loves to see the music.) They usually already know the tune, so the majority of people just sing the words on the screen. The times, they are a-changin’.
I used to have the Scripture text I was going to preach from printed in the bulletins. Then one day someone pointed out to me that some people weren’t bringing their Bibles, they were just reading the Scripture from the bulletins. Pastors want people to read their Bibles, bring their Bibles to church, and follow along in their Bibles as the pastor preaches. It was an example of the law of unintended consequences that people started using the bulletin instead of bringing their Bibles. All I really wanted to do was compensate for the fact that people use a variety of different translations of the Scriptures. If we had the text of Scripture printed in the bulletin, we could all be reading from the same translation. But it kind of backfired.
So instead, I began choosing a portion of Scripture to supplement the passage I was going to preach on that morning. That way we could all read the same Scripture together from the same translation, sometimes in unison, and people could still use their preferred Bible translation when they followed along with the sermon. When we began projecting the words of the songs on screens, I started including the supplemental Scripture Reading, too. So it has been for quite some time.
Last May when my good friend Larry Spear and I went to the Basics Conference for Pastors held at Alistair Begg’s Parkside Church near Cleveland, we were thrilled with not only the preaching and teaching, but with the music as well. The words to the songs were shown on giant curved television screens. The slides were simple, with white letters against a black background, just like we do at our church. (The idea is that, not only is that extremely easy to read, but the focus then is on the words we’re singing, not on the babbling brook or whatever in the background.)
At one point, as one of the speakers was reading the Scripture in preparation for his message, my friend Larry leaned over to me and whispered, “I’m glad they don’t put the Scriptures on the screen. Make people open their Bibles!” I actually hadn’t noticed it, but I paid attention after that. And always, the words to the songs were on the screens, but when it came time to read the Scriptures, the preacher would say, “Take your Bible and open to…”
Recently in our own worship services I’ve had to skip over the supplemental Scripture Reading in the interests of time. Knowing that I was going to read a fair amount of Scripture in my sermon, and always (believe it or not) thinking of the radio broadcast and attempting to get the message finished before the top of the hour, I felt it necessary to skip the supplementary Scripture Reading, and on one occasion even to skip a song.
(By the way: I wish everyone who sings or speaks from the platform during the morning worship service would also keep the radio broadcast in mind. I have to be honest and confess that most often it’s my fault if my message goes past 11’o’clock. But sometimes it’s almost twenty minutes till the top of the hour before I begin to preach, because of extra announcements or whatever. It matters because that means that people listening on the radio don’t get to hear the end of the message. I’m grateful that often the radio station gives us grace and lets the message finish before they cut the broadcast off. But they don’t always do that, and they are well within their rights not to give us extra minutes we didn’t pay for.)
Anyway, the thought keeps occurring to me to simplify the service. Things have a way of becoming more complicated and cumbersome with the passing of time. You never set out to make things complicated and cumbersome. It’s just the law of unintended consequences at work again. Sometimes you have to stop, assess what you’re doing, and get back to basics.
So that’s what I want to do. I’m going to start leaving out the supplemental Scripture Reading from our services, and simply read from my own Bible the text I’m going to preach on, having people follow along in their own Bibles. This is simple, uncomplicated…and, frankly, scriptural.
In Nehemiah 8, Ezra the priest is attempting to move the people back to God. Here’s what happened:
And all the people gathered as one man into the square before the Water Gate. And they told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses that the Lord had commanded Israel. …
And Ezra the scribe stood on a wooden platform that they had made for the purpose. …
And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was above all the people, and as he opened it all the people stood. And Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands. And they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground. …
They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading. (Ezra 8:1, 4a, 5-6, 8)Ezra 8:1, 4a, 5-6, 8
There is a beautiful, scriptural simplicity on display there. You can do that in the town square like they did, or out in the woods or down in the catacombs. Or in a big auditorium with cushioned pews and air conditioning. This is the way people in Jesus’ time heard the words of God. It’s the way people heard the Word of God for many centuries after that. And it’s the way we’re going to read and hear the Word again today.
One of my teachers in college used to tell us, “Keep your nose in the Book!” That’s still good advice. We want to encourage people to follow along in their own Bibles as God’s Word is read and preached and taught. If someone doesn’t have a Bible, we’ll give ‘em one. That’s why we have Bibles available on our Welcome Center.
It’s not that we’ll never project the words of Scripture on screens. We will still have our call to worship from the Psalms at the beginning of the service up on the screen. And there’s still the Scripture we will read together from the New City Catechism. But for the most part, I think we ought to encourage people to read the Scripture from their own Bibles.
That way we won’t be “off the wall”.
Soli Deo Gloria!