The Daily Devotional – Help Or Hindrance?

Photo Credit: Ozyman via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: Ozyman via Compfight cc

It is a well known and oft-repeated mantra that Christians should read the bible on their own to further develop a relationship with God. But I find a worrying trend among Ghanaian Christians that will rather retard that relationship, if not kill it, and that trend is the rise of the “daily devotional”.

Growing up, I remember there were only a few devotionals that were recommended for Christians to read as a means of “doing their quiet time”. Typically the focus on 1 verse of scripture with a other proof-texts to support the main one, and an explanation, story, illustration etc and some praying points. These were mostly written from a typical evangelical Christian perspective by a wide range of respected Christians sometimes from different church backgrounds, and as much as possible kept the focus on one’s salvation and daily walk with God. Back then, we were encouraged to read the bible for ourselves and then add on these devotionals, but overtime many people who actually desired the ability to have “quiet time” simply substituted reading the bible with reading the devotionals only. After all, the devotionals were also quoting the bible, not so?

The trend however began to shift when every pastor worth their salt decided that their church members needed to not only hear their voices on Sundays, but carry them along all through the week as well. Matters have now deteriorated to the point where everyone who feels they have some level of understanding of the bible wants to write one, and with the advent of social media and chat platforms, easily spread their devotional to friends and family.

In my opinion this trend is however leading us down a very dangerous path – it is blinding us from discovering the bible ourselves in it’s fullness and complexity, and has become a sure means of spreading bad theology amongst Christians, to their own detriment. And here are the reasons why.

  1. It encourages proof-texting. Devotionals pick a verse or 2 out of their contexts, and then try to make sense of the verses on their own. Sometimes the authors try to draw in from the surrounding context, but since these devotionals are meant to be short, they woefully fail at doing this and focus on their interpretations of the the quoted verses. This is a sure formula for distorting scripture, as any single verse in the bible can be quoted to support any interpretation one desires, even including killing people.

  2. It props up individualistic readings of the bible. Most devotionals focus on giving their readers some snippet of encouragement, advice etc on how to live their personal lives. This means that every quoted verse is plumbed for its application to the individual, without realizing and emphasizing the corporate nature of the biblical texts themselves from which these verses are lifted. Where for example Paul is speaking of the church, devotionals teach their adherents to read them as speaking of themselves as individuals. I was amazed when someone was quoting Eph 3:10 from a devotional and feeling abuzz, letting us all know that the rulers and principalities will know God’s wisdom through him, a total distortion of the whole bible’s teaching on the critical nature of the nation of God – the church.

  3. It fails to situate Christians in their place as participants in God’s mission. Because of the explicit focus on giving Christians a personal boost for their daily lives, devotionals fail woefully at bringing to the fore God’s mission of care for one another and care for creation that can only be acted out by communities of dedicated Christians, not by individuals. The bible is meant to guide the life of a community of people who are working to make the kingdom of God felt on the earth today. That’s why Jesus taught his disciples to pray “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as in heaven”. Individualistic reading of scripture promoted by devotionals prevent one from seeing this point.

  4. It hides the complexity of the bible from it’s audience. Devotionals by their nature are very selective of scripture. This means that its readers will get the sense of a bible which is very simple to read and understand, where every verse of scripture is self-explanatory. It propagates the well-cherished Protestant teaching that with a plain reading of scripture and the holy spirit’s help, everyone can come to the same conclusions on bible passages as the writers of these devotionals have. Given the millions of different denominations all stating that their interpretation of scripture is the right one, its amazing the irony of such teaching hasn’t dawned on us yet.

  5. It keeps it’s readers ignorant of the history and background of the biblical texts. By their nature, there’s very little understanding of the history and background of the bible that one can get from devotionals, which actually have a huge impact on how to actually interpret a particular verse of the bible. Some devotionals try to give themselves a sense of going deeper by doing “the greek word means …”, but really, if it was a simple as quoting words from the original languages, we will all still be reading the KJV as the only English translation.

I could go on with more reasons to be wary of devotionals, but I think the point is made. By its very nature, there is no real way that devotionals can make one a better student of the bible. The best it can do is to give you a boost for the day. And frankly that won’t cut it if we are going to produce Christians who actually know what the bible has to say and who will not fall for deception. As they say, “give a man fish and you feed him for a day, teach a man to fish, and you’ll feed him for a lifetime.” Devotionals are the equivalent of giving a man a fish – Christians who rely on them will never learn to discern scripture themselves. Our churches need to be equipping Christians with the right methods to enable study the bible for all it’s worth, and in addition realize the value of community in the interpretation of scripture. In addition, the false pressure that one must read the bible EVERY DAY is one that needs to be countered – so we don’t fall into the temptation to fill up the “quiet time” slot with rather unhelpful material. Jesus’s didn’t say we need to read the bible daily – he said we need to carry our cross and follow him daily (Lk 9:23). That cross was a cross of self-denial for the other, just as he denied himself for us. What are we denying ourselves for our fellow Christian and even non-Christian on a daily basis?

We are in an unprecedented time in history where the bible is very easily obtainable due to the invention of the printing press, but sadly we are also in a time when the ignorance of the bible is even higher. This is simply due to the fact that those who actually can read aren’t reading it, and those who are reading it haven’t been trained in proper methods of understanding it.

Tips

Here are some tips for you if you are serious about reading the bible for all its worth,

  1. Stop reading devotionals. Some of them may sound like they have some depth, but if you develop the habit of reading the bible yourself, you’ll realise that there’s nothing special about them, and very soon you’ll be poking holes in them yourself.

  2. Pray to God to give you the strength to read the bible for yourself.

  3. Read whole chapters of the bible at once. Don’t feel pressured to do so everyday, but if you can then read one chapter a day. To be frank with you, I don’t read the bible everyday, so you are in good company (or rather I’m in good company).

  4. Rediscover Jesus by intentionally reading the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke & John) once every year. Just read them in chapters.

  5. There is an amazing magic about the Psalms, which I intend to write about soon. But I’ll encourage you to read them on a regular basis. Come up with your own schedule. Anytime you do your regular reading of the bible, read a Psalm to boot, even the confusing ones. I’ll be sharing very soon the songs that we’ve written at church from the Psalms following this practice.

  6. No matter how you do it, start small. A chapter a day and a Psalm a day. Or a chapter a week and a Psalm a week. It’s about consistency, not about “Read Your Bible, Pray Everyday”.

  7. Find friends in your church who are practicing/want to practice reading the bible this way and plan this together so you can share your thoughts with each other. Remember, the early disciples didn’t have bibles in their homes. They had to have the books of the bible read to them and they interpreted it together.

  8. Commit yourself to reading a book by a theologian at least once a year which discusses a theological concept. By a theologian I don’t mean pastors. I mean a world renowned biblical scholar. This is not to condemn pastors and teachers. The goal of this advice is to open you up to learning from people who are not found in your usual comfort zones, but who have dedicated their lives to explaining the bible for both academic and spiritual purposes, and who are aware of the complexities of the bible.

Conclusion

One of the questions I ask my friends who take themselves seriously when it comes to Christianity is this. Are you in the business of producing believers, or you are in the business of producing disciples? Jesus called us to do one of these, and we should know which one by now.

Advertisements

Why Small Group Gatherings ≠ Bible Studies

Bible Study

One of the issues that one is confronted with when speaking of small church communities like house churches is the tendency for people to immediately relate it to their experience of “Bible Study” groups. This can indeed be a frustrating experience for the one doing the communication, since naturally human beings easier understand a concept by relating it to something that they may already be familiar with. I got the sense of this problem again during our most recent public seminar event “A Different Kind of Christianity”, and I think an attempt to explain what the goal of discipleship via small communities is.

The Assumptions

Many Christians have simply assumed that the purpose of a meeting of Christians is to primarily listen to “the word of God”, which is typically a sermon based on some biblical passages. As a result, even when Christians meet in small group settings, it must be defined by the necessity to “look into the word” – aka read the bible. Hence whenever one speaks of home meetings – the mental picture is people gathering to follow a Bible Study manual.

There are many reasons why this has become the standard expectation

  1. The Protestant Reformation came along with it the abundant availability of the bible, and based on the theology of Sola Scriptura, the expectation that every Tom, Dick and Harry must be able, with the help of the Holy Spirit, to read and interpret it of their own accord. So, a personal ability to read and interpret the bible oneself became the goal. This was of course an overreaction to the Roman Catholic church’s attempt to make the Pope the only person qualified to interpret scripture.

  2. Again, the Reformation now put the bible and in particular the sermon at the center of church life. The great Reformer Martin Luther called the church a “Mundhouse” – a mouth house or speech house due to the prominence of hearing the word preached in church. John Calvin placed much emphasis on “orthodoxy” – correct teaching – and was prepared to go to the extent of having “heresy” – false teaching – punished via death, despite Jesus’ own teaching and example to the contrary on enemy love. In the psyche of the Protestant Christian then, Christians meeting without reading scripture is a misnomer.

As a result then, even when we try to create smaller gatherings, the goal has been typically to see this as an opportunity to make Christians more bible-savvy. Any attempt at discipleship then gets filtered through this lens as well. Any other thing else is seen as a secondary benefit.

What’s Wrong With These Assumptions

There are many things problematic about these assumptions and here I mention a few without going into too much detail.

  1. Early Christianity thrived without everybody having a copy of the bible to read. There were no printing presses to churn out copies of bibles for each one. Social historians state that in the 1st and 2nd centuries, only 20% of the population could read, and only 15% of could write. And that’s not even talking about Christians. So I’m not quite sure that they would have been singing songs like “read your bible, pray everyday”. And yet we have so many historians speaking glowingly of how these communities of Christians defied their the world with their way of life as a community and towards their society.

  2. Most modern Christians do not even envisage suffering as being part of their calling, much less have a proper theology that prepares them for it. But early Christianity suffered untold hardship and persecution, but this rather increased and not decreased their numbers. This is because by their theology and way of life, it became expected that persecution would follow.

  3. Western Christianity (as well as Christianity influenced by the West) has elevated the individual to quite unbiblical heights, making the individual and their personal relationship with God the center of Christian life. This then has led to an explosion of material and teaching for individual personal Christianity (even to the point of reading the New Testament, originally written to communities, with individualistic eyes), and very little resources on how to be a community of the Lamb. This is in contrast to early Christianity, which placed the church community at the center of Christian life, and enjoined the individual to work and make sacrifices for unity and love to be manifest in each community. When Paul is asked a simple matter of whether to eat meat sacrificed to idols, he takes 3 chapters to explain the paramount importance of Christian community over individual rights (1 Cor 8-10).

  4. For a long time, the bible has been read as a flat book, where every part has equal importance. As a result, the distinctive nature of the incarnation of God in the person of Jesus and how that should change how Christians view everything has been lost in many Christian traditions. Despite the fact that the word “disciple” appears 22 more times than the word “Christian”, most Christians simply assume that discipleship is for the “uber” Christians, not for them. So even when reading the bible, modern Christians don’t tend to see Jesus as a person in whose footsteps they must follow, but only as the savior of their sins whose only purpose was to die on the cross.

What Should It Be About Then?

If the purpose of small group gatherings is not to create “bible scholars” out of us all, then what exactly is it for, and what should be happening in such gatherings?

Let me first state here (before I’m accused of anything untoward) that I do believe in the importance of the bible and its authoritativeness for Christian life. I read the bible regularly and have a growing library of books from theologians and scholars whom I read often (besides a very long wish-list on Amazon). But I believe that small group gatherings have the enormous potential to form us into disciples of Jesus in ways that large gatherings cannot, and running them with the same mentality as large ones is an exercise in missing the point.

  1. Small gatherings should be used to focus on the activity of applying the lessons learnt from teachings about following Jesus, both in community and as individuals. For example it should be a time to share the challenges of work and living in our neighborhoods, so we may think through them and learn together what is the Jesus way of dealing with such challenges.

  2. Small gatherings should be a place for creating bonds of fellowship through actually eating together regularly. I even recommend having communion at such gatherings instead of/alongside the larger ones. There’s a good reason why the NT, especially the Gospels are littered with stories of eating in people’s homes, whether its Jesus or the early disciples.

  3. In developing countries like ours with high levels of illiteracy, as well as multiple ethnic and language groups, small gatherings should become places where these voices can be heard and teaching further disseminated. In larger settings, there’s the tendency only to focus on the subject matter at hand i.e. worship and sermon. In smaller ones, we learn to focus on people. Some try to overcome these kind of language barriers by having translations of the sermon, but in my experience that tends to be a distraction, is fraught with mis-communication and ultimately buys into the Protestant prioritization of the sermon/bible as the only means by which people encounter Jesus.

  4. Expanding on the point above, if a church truly sees itself as fulfilling the biblical mission of bringing the Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave or free, rich or poor, social elite or social outcast together, then small gatherings serve as an excellent, biblically-inspired tool to practicalise this integration. It enables making room to listen to life from the perspective of the other, be they the richer or poorer person, be they from the other ethnic group or nationality. Let us remember that the church is, as Scott McKnight puts it “a fellowship of differents” – a kingdom community of many shades of people, gathered under the headship of Jesus Christ and showing the world that despite it’s attempts at division and strife, Jesus offers a new hope of a community of unity and love in diversity.

  5. Small gatherings should be seen as a means of moving us beyond our comfort zones and to teach us the value of hospitality that was expected and common amongst early disciples. This should involve sometimes causing small groups to meet in homes of less fortunate members once in a while, learning to cope with situations of unpreparedness to receive guests, encouraging us to actually know where each member lives and seeing what ways we could meet needs when they arise in each other’s lives. Modernity teaches us to put up a nice facade before others, but discipleship is meant to force us to open up, sometimes in uncomfortable ways. That way, we learn to really consider those who are part of our small groups as Jesus regarded his disciples – family.

  6. The bible will definitely be a resource to us in doing things the ways I’ve described above as we seek to discover Jesus in this process of discipleship. But in this way we actually learn to pursue Jesus, not the bible.

Conclusion

For those who have such gatherings alongside large church meetings, it might be time evaluate why exactly we have these kinds of gatherings. Most places which have had such gatherings have ended up abandoning them, or stifling them of all life, making them repetitions of what larger church gatherings do. If we intend them to be places of fulfilling God’s mission of discipleship and community, then we must totally re-orient our mind and attitude towards such groups, and empower them to function properly. If not, then don’t make a pretense at having such small group gatherings, because they become more of a source of confusion and dissatisfaction than they should be.