“a passage that should be very familiar to all of you…”

I hear that phrase a lot from pulpits in Churches of Christ. I heard it just yesterday, as a matter of fact. I've never thought much about it, however, until the last couple of years.

What drives a preacher to use this phrase? (Full disclosure: I've used it myself in sermons and extempore discourses delivered from the pulpit.) Is it just filler? Is it a way for a preacher to pay his audience a compliment? I suppose that I used to think in those ways. But, increasingly, I have a problem with it. It has begun to sound strange in my ears.

In our day, Biblical illiteracy is extremely widespread. Worship in many Churches of Christ, however, doesn't yet reflect this reality. We tend to assume that a) people will bring Bibles with them to church and b) that they are at least basically familiar with the contents of the Bible and will thus know exactly what the preacher is talking about. Much of this probably has to do with the people that we have traditionally seen as our intended audience — other Christians in denominational churches that we were trying to convince to switch to our church. These people — lifelong Baptists, Methodists, etc. — had been raised on Scripture and taught it from an early age. There was no need to start from scratch when speaking with them — they already knew the basics. Our task was not to convince them of the truth claims of Christianity but rather to show them that their interpretation of particular Biblical texts was erroneous.

hat situation, in which one could assume widespread Biblical literacy, no longer holds true in post-Christian America. One cannot assume, in our day, any Biblical knowledge when talking to someone who is new to your church. Yet, at least 95% of the sermons that I have heard in my lifetime work off of those two faulty assumptions.

These assumptions affect more than our evangelistic efforts, though. The public reading of scripture, which Paul exhorted Timothy to "give attention to," is neglected. We assume, wrongly it seems, that everyone who enters our services (believer or not) has a command of the biblical narrative as well as the main "characters." Thus, the reading of scripture plays only a miniscule part in our services (1 or 2 verses read right before the sermon). When it is read, it is assumed that everyone can immediately find the passage to be read and follow along, all the while being aware of the larger context of what is being read. Further, it betrays a certain understanding of the power of Scripture and its role in the Church: of course it's "very familiar," we've all mastered that passage! There's no need to go back over that ground again! At that point, it really doesn't have anything else to say to us. Been there, done that.

This is sheer poverty. When we feel that we have mastered Scripture — instead of it mastering us — we then feel free to minimize Scripture, boxing it in and making it "safe," often without even realizing it.

This is what I love about the Lectionary.  It forces us to consider and confess a wide variety of Scripture from both Old and New Testaments.  It gives Scripture just as prominent a place in worship as the sermons or the hymns.  It doesn't allow us that "familiarity" that has been so damaging heretofore.

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17 responses to ““a passage that should be very familiar to all of you…”

  1. Some very telling comments in many ways.

    Very scary, but very true. The main drive of the restoration movement from the beginning appears to have been to steal members from other churches.

    I attribute A. Campbell’s anticreedal stance to the fact that, for the most part, everyone already knew and agreed on the Creed.

    Not to mention that, if Scriptures are truly “God-breathed”, then what is more important to “hear” God’s voice or some preacher’s exposition.

  2. not sure what happened to my comments, here they are after each block quote:

    Very scary, but very true. The main drive of the restoration movement from the beginning appears to have been to steal members from other churches.

    I attribute A. Campbell’s anticreedal stance to the fact that, for the most part, everyone already knew and agreed on the Creed.

    Not to mention that, if Scriptures are truly “God-breathed”, then what is more important to “hear” God’s voice or some preacher’s exposition.

  3. Chris,

    I haven’t been able to read every post you’ve written, so forgive me if I’m asking about a topic you’ve already discussed or explained, but I know you’ve mentioned the Lectionary before. I’m not clear as to exactly what that is. Have you explained that in a previous post or is there a resource you (or anyone) can refer me to as to what it is?

    Also, regarding your thought on this phrase, I believe it can also depend on the audience and how well the speaker knows them. For example, it would or could hold true for a small group with which the speaker is quit familiar. In my opinion, saying, “a passage that should be familiar to all of you”, can also simply be saying that it ought to be, not that it necessarily is. I think this is akin to what Paul told those in Corinth when he wrote, “For I do not want you to be unaware… (NASB)”, or “I want you to know…(ESV)”. (1 Cor. 10:1) In other words, he’s telling something they should know, not necessarily saying that they did.

    It isn’t quite an easy balancing act when one is speaking or teaching such a diverse crowd of those who are familiar with the text in question and yet have those who are not.

    I do agree though that we need to be careful. As you mentioned, one cannot assume, in our day any Biblical knowledge when talking to someone who is new to the church. This phrase can be tossed out carelessly without regard to the audience or simply overused.

    Joel

  4. (I’m going to attempt to use the block quote code, but it doesn’t work, then read past the script.)

    Ken,

    Really? So, as a person who you’d probably consider to be a part of the restoration movement, my job is to steal members from other churches? Wow, I didn’t realize my motives were so malevolent.

    You lost me on that one. What do you mean by “everyone already knew and agreed on the Creed”?

    Well, regardless of whether you’re reading (hearing) God’s voice or some preacher’s exposition, there’s still interpretation that takes place, whether that’s on your part or his.

    Joel

  5. Ken,

    As I feared, it looked like I did it wrong. I ended up writing my replies to each of your remarks in block quote by accident.

    Joel

  6. Hi Joel,

    Thanks for your thoughts. Good points about 1 Cor. 10.1.

    The Lectionary that I am referring to is simply a prescribed set of scripture readings often based upon the so-called liturgical calender (or “church year”).

    The most common ones in use are the Revised Common Lectionary, the Roman Catholic Lectionary, and the Lectionary contained in the Book of Common Prayer (BCP, for short). At South Newnan, I’ve been planning worship using the BCP Lectionary. To me, making use of a system such as this has several advantages. It provides more structure and discipline to the worship service, gives scripture a more prominent role in the service and exposes worshippers to parts of Scripture that they might not otherwise encounter on a regular basis. For each week there are 4 readings: an OT reading, a Psalm, a reading from one of the Gospels and from an Epistle. Often these are built around a specific theme or set of themes.

    Hope this helps.

  7. Woah, nice new look to the blog.
    The Lectionary is definitely a helpful tool in paying attention to the entire corpus of scripture.
    There is a sense a church needs to be seeker sensitive. I cringe saying that phrase.
    But what I mean is that things that are not commonly understood to the outsider, and many times even many church members, must be articulated and explained over and over.
    Hope all is well in Georgia.
    shalom
    daniel

  8. Let’s see if I can redo the first comment (the parts from Chris’ post will be in quotation marks):

    “Much of this probably has to do with the people that we have traditionally seen as our intended audience — other Christians in denominational churches that we were trying to convince to switch to our church. These people — lifelong Baptists, Methodists, etc. — had been raised on Scripture and taught it from an early age. There was no need to start from scratch when speaking with them — they already knew the basics. Our task was not to convince them of the truth claims of Christianity but rather to show them that their interpretation of particular Biblical texts was erroneous.”

    Very scary, but very true. The main drive of the restoration movement from the beginning appears to have been to steal members from other churches.

    “hat situation, in which one could assume widespread Biblical literacy, no longer holds true in post-Christian America. One cannot assume, in our day, any Biblical knowledge when talking to someone who is new to your church. Yet, at least 95% of the sermons that I have heard in my lifetime work off of those two faulty assumptions.”

    I attribute A. Campbell’s anticreedal stance to the fact that, for the most part, everyone already knew and agreed on the Creed.

    “This is what I love about the Lectionary. It forces us to consider and confess a wide variety of Scripture from both Old and New Testaments. It gives Scripture just as prominent a place in worship as the sermons or the hymns. It doesn’t allow us that “familiarity” that has been so damaging heretofore. ”

    Not to mention that, if Scriptures are truly “God-breathed”, then what is more important to “hear” God’s voice or some preacher’s exposition.

  9. Joel,

    “Really? So, as a person who you’d probably consider to be a part of the restoration movement, my job is to steal members from other churches? Wow, I didn’t realize my motives were so malevolent.”

    Glad to enlighten you. The main driving force behind the RM was to convince other Christians to “come out from among” the Babylonian harlot (i.e. the Catholic Church) and her daughters (the denominations).

    “You lost me on that one. What do you mean by “everyone already knew and agreed on the Creed”? ”

    You must be familiar with the anti-creedal stance of the RM, “no creed but Christ”. This stance was formulated in the early 1800’s when virtually every person who claimed to be a Christian knew and held the Nicean Creed.

    “Well, regardless of whether you’re reading (hearing) God’s voice or some preacher’s exposition, there’s still interpretation that takes place, whether that’s on your part or his.”

    Well that’s true, might as well eliminate the “middle man”. Ha ha.

  10. Chris,

    Not only does the lectionary force us to hear sections of Scripture frequently ignored, but it groups Scripture in ways we would not normally group it. For instance, you never hear a sermon on John’s baptism that does not reference Acts 2:38 or Romans :1ff. But, what if the lectionary forces one to read not only Luke 3, but also a reading from Isaiah that sheds light on the language used by John?

    The lectionary is not a random grouping of Scripture. It has developed within Church Tradition, so that the selections of text are as the are for a reason. It behooves us to read them in light of each other, and doing so opens windows to new vistas we likely had not before beheld.

    Kevin

  11. You make an excellent point about the connections that the Lectionary forces us to make. It really forces me to think hard when planning worship (how to make all of this make sense in a way that CofCers would understand). Sometimes I end up writing bulletin inserts specifically designed to explain the logic behind a particular week’s readings.

  12. Sir, I am not trying to be rude, but when you say: “Our task was not to convince them of the truth claims of Christianity but rather to show them that their interpretation of particular Biblical texts was erroneous,” what do you mean? Is it that Methodists have the Bible wrong? If this is not what you meant, I’m very sorry for the misunderstanding.

  13. Kevin said:
    “Glad to enlighten you. The main driving force behind the RM was to convince other Christians to “come out from among” the Babylonian harlot (i.e. the Catholic Church) and her daughters (the denominations).”
    Kevin, as far as the Catholic Church is concerned, these people simply did not believe that the Catholic Church was the church that Christ had set up. If the Inquisitions don’t tell you anything, nothing will.
    “You must be familiar with the anti-creedal stance of the RM, “no creed but Christ”. This stance was formulated in the early 1800’s when virtually every person who claimed to be a Christian knew and held the Nicean Creed”
    I’m not sure what your point here is. Could you elaborate?

    ‘Well, regardless of whether you’re reading (hearing) God’s voice or some preacher’s exposition, there’s still interpretation that takes place, whether that’s on your part or his.’
    Well that’s true, might as well eliminate the “middle man”. Ha ha.”
    Okay, but my point is that interpretation itself IS the middleman. You’re still interpreting or verifying someone else’s understanding of it.

  14. Hi Mary,

    Thanks for your comments.

    I write these words as a life-long member of Churches of Christ. During the 20th century, Churches of Christ have been a very exclusivist body of believers. The focus of evangelism (not that I am advocating this) was to convince believers in “the denominations” that they needed to leave their churches and join “the Lord’s church” (i.e. the Churches of Christ). This was done by attempting to convince them that their churches’ (Baptist, Methodist, etc.) doctrines on issues like baptism were wrong. Because those doctrinal understandings were incorrect, these people were advised to join “the One True Church.”

    I think that many in Churches of Christ have moved past this way of thinking.

    So, just to clarify, I am not advocating this line of thinking, simply attempting to explain it.

    Best,

    Chris

  15. Joel,

    I think you mean “Ken.” I’m Kevin, and I don’t think you meant to be responding to me. Just to clarify. It appears your disagreement was with Ken, not with me.

  16. Sorry about that Kevin, you’re right. Not sure how that happened. I meant to direct that toward Ken, not you. I apologize.

    Joel

  17. Certainly if one attempts to convert someone from one church to another church then that is denominational thinking all the way around. It should be my desire to convert someone to Christ from the world. Certainly there has been a great deal of church conversion focus among members of churches of Christ. I believe that there has been progress in moving to a clearer understanding of what the church is and what conversion should be. If one believes that the practices of denominational churches are wrong then one can’t simply shrug his shoulders and say it doesn’t matter, however.

    I agree that the public reading of Scripture has been neglected in the past, and that there needs to be more focus on it. It is also well to approach passages on their own terms, which is something I try to do in my expositional preaching. I am not convinced that the lectionary is the ideal tool for this as the ‘church calendar’ idea seems to me to include a number of assumptions that do not necessarily jibe with Scripture.

    In a study last night with a woman with absolutely no background with the Bible I told her that reading her Bible will be of far greater value than listening to me talking about it. I firmly believe that to be true. It is also the case that the Bible tells us very plainly that there is a place for teachers and preachers, and while I’m certainly not above cracking my own jokes about evangelists one should be careful about seeking to minimize this Biblical role too glibly.

    As far as the “a passage that should be very familiar…” line, I have my own variant that I confess to using at times. It runs something like, “a passage that I know many of you are familiar with…”. It is true, generally, that many in my audience are familiar with it. On reflection, I think it may be in some ways an acknowledgement that while this passage may be at times overused, I need to use it now anyway so please bear with me.

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