In September 2016, something unusual and amazing began to happen in hundreds of Covenant Churches across North America. Thousands of people of all ages and ethnicities started gathering in churches, homes, coffee shops, and retirement communities to do something simple yet profound: they began to read the Bible together and discuss it.
The initiative was called Covenant Community Bible Experience and involved the delivery of 18,700 The Books of the Bible New Testaments to 225 Covenant churches so congregations could read the Bible together.
“We are reading the Bible, listening to the Bible, and talking about the Bible,” says Michelle Sanchez, Executive Minister of Make and Deepen Disciples for Covenant. “We are preaching the awesome narrative of the New Testament each Sunday. We are inviting our unchurched friends to read with us and meet Jesus for the first time.”
At Hope Church in Grand Forks, ND, getting folks to gather involved the use of billboards, newspaper ads, and radio ads. As a result, on September 25, the program was kicked off with 1,400 participants.
“I’ve been in casual conversations and asked, ‘Have you read the New Testament?’” says Pastor Paul Knight. “I’m seeing shame and embarrassment that people who have been lifelong Christians have never actually read the Bible. I want to help fix that so they can say, ‘Yes, I’ve read the Scripture.’”
The Evangelical Covenant Church was founded in 1885 by Swedish immigrants. Today, there are more than 800 congregations. Many of those that did not launch Community Bible Experience in the fall will be starting in the spring of 2017.
“The beautiful thing,” says Sanchez, “is that we are in it together. In all the precious diversity of the Covenant, we are also celebrating the perfect unity that we can find in the Word of God.”
According to the Willow Creek REVEAL study, “…Of all the personal spiritual practices—prayer, confession, tithing, journaling, solitude, serving or worship, we find that one stands out… Scripture reflection—more than any other practice—moves people forward in their love for God and love for others… Scripture reflection is twice as catalytic as any other factor. This means it has twice the power of any spiritual practice to accelerate growth in spiritually mature people.”
An understanding of how essential Bible reading is to the Christian faith is what motivated Biblica to develop Community Bible Experience. It’s also what is motivating churches and entire denominations to participate in this innovative program in the United States, and throughout the world.
Covenant’s initiative has moved beyond the four walls of the church. It’s also taking place in Covenant-supported retirement communities across the country. At one particular community – Covenant Village of the Great Lakes – nearly 100 people signed up for multiple small groups to read through the New Testament together.
“Staff and residents alike are intrigued with the unique format of The Books of the Bible text,” says Brian Kyle, chaplain at the facility. “With chapter and verse removed [it reads] more like a book. It will be a unifying experience as many residents and staff are reading the New Testament passages at the same time weekly.”
One of the many benefits of reading the Bible in a setting like this is the diversity of small groups.
“I anticipate a new level of mutual respect and understanding,” says Greg Asimakoupoulos, chaplain at Covenant Shores, “as people from different denominational backgrounds come together to reflect on what they have read each week.”
Not all of the participants were comfortable with the “book club” model and newly formatted Bible. At least, not initially.
At Oakdale Covenant Church, some members weren’t happy with The Books of the Bible. They found the lack of verses and chapter breaks unfamiliar and a little confusing at first.
“Reading select verses and passages is one thing,” says Pastor Darrell Griffin. “Reading it as a story is totally different.” But by the end of the experience, he explains, participants were excited about the “fresh ways in which they encountered the text.”
Longtime members benefited from this new way of engaging with the Word and new members found that it made the Bible more accessible. “I think this version would be great to give new believers,” Griffin says, “because you get the better context for what is happening.”
Thousands of churches of all denominations have participated in Community Bible Experience since it was launched about seven years ago. And the response is always the same – a renewed hunger for the Word of God and a deeper understanding of the Bible.
“There are a variety of creative and life-giving spiritual practices that can take us deeper in discipleship,” notes Michelle Sanchez. “I have experienced many of these myself. However, the longer I walk the Christian journey, the more I find myself drawn back to the basics. The best place to begin is at our foundation – the Word of God.”
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