In "open" circles, the Bible Reading has been all but forgotten: replaced by a "family Bible hour" or something similar. This is certainly a loss: it undermines the concept of the priesthood of all believers, puts yet another control on the leading of the Holy Spirit in the assembly, and allows us to gather with less individual exercise. That's not to say "Family Bible Hour" is evil or anything like it: it's just to say that assemblies appear to have been compensating for lack of teaching, study, and exercise by scheduling more and more of their meetings, and displacing many of the "distinctive" meetings.
So what is a Bible Reading? Well, in simple terms it's a round-table discussion of a Bible passage. Much like the home Bible studies I grew up with, the Bible Reading is more or less open for all the participants to comment or pose questions. Frequently there will be some sort of leader: either a moderator or someone who is clearly the expert on the passage under study; but this person shouldn't monopolize the meeting. Occasionally a question will be posed: sometimes to the whole assembly, more rarely to a specific brother. I've also seen corrections given in the meetings. That's a good thing, of course.
I frequently hear that churches ought to focus on expository teaching. The idea is, expository teaching starting in Genesis and going through to Revelation allows us to open up the whole counsel of God and ensures we have at least some grasp of the whole Bible. I don't have a problem with that in principle, although I think there are some bad assumptions, and some bad conclusions, that result from such a statement.
First, I see nothing in Scripture to indicate that the Church's focus ought to be teaching. I see the Church is to gather for edification, and to remember the Lord. Is teaching part of that? Certainly! But to place it as the prominent function is really a mistake.
Second, there is the unspoken assumption that the indivduals in an assembly will not go through their whole Bibles unless those passages are covered in meetings. Let's be crystal clear here: there is no excuse---none---for a believer in America (or indeed anywhere else Bibles are readily available) not to have read through their Bibles: completely and frequently. It is quite irrelevant whether one's church or assembly ever teaches on a passage or not: the serious Christian takes reponsibility and reads them herself or himself. Churches that plan out teaching over every verse in order to ensure believers have been through the whole Bible would be infinitely better off teaching the believer's individual responsibility to the Lord and His Word.
Third, there is the unspoken assumption that the indivduals in an assembly will not learn unless taught in the meetings. This is just clerisy: there is no reason any believer who is indwellt by the Holy Spirit can't pick up their Bible and learn from it.
But in principle, the desire for complete, verse-by-verse teaching through the Scripture is a good one. And---all the above problems aside---the assembly that chooses to work through the whole Bible has made a good choice. And this is where the Bible Reading comes in. The Bible Reading is the perfect setting for verse-by-verse exposition. In my experience, Bible Readings are typically a verse-by-verse through a book of the Bible selected in advance.
Along with the frequent calls for expositional teaching, I hear statements that topical teaching is inferior. While I appreciate the thinking behind such a statement, I find no evidence for it in Scripture. In fact, the vast majority (arguably all) of the Lord's teaching in the Gospels is topical. I understand the concern that topical teaching easily becomes a law unto itself, leaving Scripture behind, but the Scripture clearly gives us many more examples of topical teaching than expository.
But again, the Bible Reading is a great tool here. While assembly public teaching is often topical: the Bible Reading provides a solid foundation of expository teaching on which to build the topical. Here is how it works where I fellowship: there are two Bible Readings in a week: one Sunday morning, one Wednesday evening. There is typically "ministry", or preaching Sunday nights. Thus, both topical and expository teaching are covered.
There is no mention in Scripture of the Bible Reading per se, but I'm satisfied it fits in with the Scriptural model of meeting:
- 1 Corinthians 14 tells us meetings were unscripted, and everyone came with something: "How is it then, brethren? when ye come together, every one of you hath a psalm, hath a doctrine, hath a tongue, hath a revelation, hath an interpretation. Let all things be done unto edifying." (1 Corinthians 14:26 , KJV)
- We find the Lord's pedagogical technique with the disciples was to ask questions, answer their questions, and challenge them. It was an interactive approach.
That's not to say there are no examples of preaching in the New Testament---nor even in the Old. But the fact is, preaching is by far the exception, rather than the rule. In fact, preaching is specifically connected with the Gospel in Scripture. Of course, we tend to get that backwards: rather than preach the Gospel to the lost and teach believers interactively; we try and tell the Gospel interactively to the lost, and teach believers by preaching.
So what are the benefits of the Bible Reading? I think there are at least four:
1. It allows all the believers to participate vocally, regardless of gift. I suppose I'll end up writing an essay on this point alone in the near future; but I'll try and articulate this briefly now: where meetings are exclusively preaching-oriented, speakers are basically chosen based on ability to speak. This is, of course, a reasonable criterion from man's point of view. But what about God's? Moses wasn't a good speaker (Ex. 4:10), neither was Paul (2 Cor. 10:10). Of course, the theory is that we are looking for someone with spiritual gift, but how can we tell? The fact is, we tend to choose eloquent speakers, and that can be natural talent as much as spiritual gift. Further, the question of gift avoids the real question: does the speaker have something to say? Moses and Paul both came with a word from God in contrast to good speaking skills.
Does that mean good speakers can't have a real word from God? Of course not! But the ability to speak is secondary to actually having something to say. Finally, the problem with trying to select gifted speakers is, it presupposes that one gift is more appropriate---or even more important---than another. Who gets selected to speak? Teachers. What about exhorters or encouragers? There is need in the Body of Christ for much more than we can choose in all our [lack of] wisdom.
2. It allows interactions: questions, challenges, etc. Preaching is not enough to teach the Word of God. There are questions to be answered, and they can't all be thought out by the speaker in advance. Bible Readings allow a listener to pose a question.
3. It allows correction. Whether an overt correction, like pointing out someone is in error; or gentler correction like someone saying "I think we're missing the point here": Bible Readings allow for the course of the teaching to be changed when it takes a misdirection. This is invaluable.
4. It requires preparation. What's the best way to keep meetings from becoming spectator sport? Get people involved! What's the best way to get people involved? Take away the safety net of a program. Face it, with preaching services, there is nothing to motivate people to actually open their Bibles, or even pay attention. But put those same people in a position where they can actually participate, and you see some wonderful things.
There is a multitude of people talking about how "you should be prepared for church!", but experience tells us it doesn't work. Take those same people, and let them know there isn't any church without preparation, and the results are interesting. To be sure, someone can slack off in the Bible Reading too: and too often people make comments who are clearly unprepared... but when that happens, it's obvious: a rebuke that's not hidden and softened by blaming the guy on the stage.
Finally, there are some dangers too. The Bible Reading is an extension of each person's individual walk with the Lord: when the individual is lax on Bible reading and study in his own life, the quality of the Reading meeting follows this decline. Too often comments are made that are a result of trying to fill silence, rather than having a point. And of course, "leading brethren" are the most likely culprits: they are most likely to make an inane comment unchallenged.
And there is the ever-present danger of thinking a better format means a healthier assembly: it's quite possible---probable, even---for a very unhealthy assembly to cling to a right format, in order to salvage an outward appearance.
But despite the dangers, I am convinced that the Bible Reading is one of the most valuable meetings: an invaluable teaching tool in the assembly.