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.