You don’t need a Bible-in-a-year plan, but you need a plan

oneyearYou’re setting some goals for 2014 right now, aren’t you? Maybe you’re too good for New Year’s resolutions. You laugh at the new people at the gym in January and wonder how many weeks they’ll make it. But still, you’ve probably given some thought to 2014, and you’re probably making some plans.

A lot of people start planning their Bible-in-a-year plan around now. This is the year that they’ll make it all the way through. Three or four chapters a day are all it takes.

Three points:

1 – If you’re planning to do this, I commend you. It’s a great goal. If you want to know about the God of Christianity, you must read (or hear) the Bible. There is no substitute.

2 – You should know that you’re headed for the same dangers as those new people at the gym. Unless you already do this regularly, you’re not likely to make it past February.

If you’re doing any of the most common plans, somewhere around the end of January, you’ll hit the end of Exodus and get thirteen chapters about tabernacle design, followed by a priests’ manual for animal sacrifices in the book of Leviticus. Don’t get me wrong––these are important passages. Leviticus is one of my favorite books of the Bible. But I know it’s also the book where a lot of Bible-in-a-year plans go to die.

3 – Reading the Bible this way isn’t necessarily the best, in my opinion. If you’re reading three or four chapters per day, you’re reading too much to devote a lot of attention to a small passage. You probably won’t stop and reflect on a particular phrase for ten minutes.

Similarly, you’re not reading enough at a time to really see the big picture. Several years ago, I began trying to read certain books of the Bible all the way through in one sitting. When I read Matthew or Leviticus in a single sitting (or even two or three, if necessary), I got a different picture of those books than when I broke them up in even chunks.

As you look toward 2014, you don’t need a Bible-in-a-year plan. It’s commendable if you believe you can truly do it, but it’s not your only option.

You do need a plan, though.

At least for me, the important things in life don’t all come automatically. When I don’t have a plan to exercise, I don’t exercise. When I don’t have a plan to eat healthy, I don’t eat healthy. When I don’t have a plan for reading the Bible, I read it haphazardly or not much at all.

Can I suggest you do three things for the coming year?

1 – Pick a plan. I just told you it doesn’t need to be a Bible-in-a-year plan. Here are some options:

  • First, you might consider choosing a plan to get you to Holy Week (beginning April 14). That’s not nearly as daunting as thinking about a plan for the rest of the year. If you do something daily, it’s just over 100 days.
  • Browse through the plans offered by YouVersion and choose one that suits you best. If you’re choosing to just plan for the first 100 days right now, you could consider The Essential 100, The Essential Jesus, or 100 Days of Discipline.
  • Practice Lectio Divina (click the link for an explanation). You could choose a book of the Bible to slowly work your way through, or you might use the passages from the Revised Common Lectionary for your readings each week.
  • Choose to go more intense. I have a few friends who have read through the whole Bible in 90 days several times now. They say that kind of immersion in Scripture and rapid reading has helped them see and understand the Bible differently. Do this, and you’ll have read the whole Bible before Holy Week. You could even take a day off each week. Here’s a link.
  • If reading Scripture is brand new to you and anything daily sounds too intense, think about naming something weekly. It would be better for you to choose something realistic and do it than to choose something too intense and quit.

2 – Pick a time and place. If you don’t name these, it’s probably not going to happen. Is there any time in your day that’s rarely interrupted? Or a place you can go to be left alone for 10-30 minutes?

3 – Get some accountability. That’s built-in on YouVersion. You can send updates to friends about your progress. Or you might find someone to follow the same plan as you and get together to discuss your reading each week. At the least, you could tell others what you’re doing. Just telling people makes you more likely to follow-through.

So here’s my plan. It’s actually a plan I’m continuing from the past few months. I’m reading 1-2 chapters of the New Testament and 1-2 chapters of the Old Testament each day, working my way all the way through. I’m reading slowly because I’m reading the New Testament in Spanish, which has helped me slow down and pay more attention to what’s happening.

I do my Bible reading (and a few other set things) from 3-4:30 pm. My three oldest kids are in school during that time while my youngest naps. This is also the typical siesta time in Spain, so I’m rarely interrupted.

Now it’s your turn. What are you going to do? If you want some extra accountability and also want to encourage some other friends to join you, share this article and tell them what you’re doing.

Finding a Church for My Kids

Last week I wrote about why, as a father, I’m not looking for the exciting children’s ministries I keep hearing advertised. And as a pastor, they’re not what I want to promise. Here’s more about what I’m looking for.

I’ve talked to several people who say their kids are their first priority in choosing a local church. It’s hard to disagree. I want to see my kids grow up to be zealous followers of Christ. There are few things I want more. What role does the church play in that? Here’s a list of the things I’m looking for, in priority order. Some may come as no surprise, but others may not be what you expect…

The state of Kentucky's minimum adult-child ratios and maximum group sizes for childcare services.
The state of Kentucky’s minimum adult-child ratios and maximum group sizes for childcare services.

1. Safety. If I’m not confident my children are reasonably safe in a local church, it’s a deal breaker. Reasonable safety means I know two adults are always in the room and both have been screened and trained. It also means they abide by the state’s minimum adult-to-child ratios and maximum classroom sizes (see at right). These are the minimum requirements. I’d like to see better ratios and rooms that aren’t at maximum capacity, but I wouldn’t accept any worse than meeting these standards.

2. A church where my wife and I will be challenged and strengthened in faith. Note that I’ve put this before anything about my children’s faith. I’ve had several conversations with parents who tell me they’re “suffering through” somewhere they don’t believe they’re growing, but they’re sticking it out because of the great children’s ministry. This is a noble thing to do. I also think it’s a terrible decision. Not just for the parents, but for the children.

Parents, please hear this, your own spiritual condition and growth are more important to your children’s faith than any church programs. Take a look at the diagram below if you don’t believe me. That diagram comes from a huge national survey of youth and religion. It shows the six most likely paths teenagers took to become faithful Christian adults. I’ll reference it several times below. The diagram is for youth, not children, but what’s invested in the childhood years continues into adolescence. You’ll see that four of the six paths include “high parental religious service attendance and importance of faith.”

Stop bearing through in a community that does nothing to strengthen your faith, just for your children’s sake. Your kids see you seven days a week. They’re in the church once or twice a week. You are their primary influence; the church’s programs are a complement. Sadly, since the inception of big youth and children’s ministries, the church has taught parents the reverse. The best children’s ministry in town… is in your living room.

teens who remain adult christians
Found in *Souls in Transition* by Christian Smith. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

3. A church where other godly adults will develop relationships with my kids. I put this next because we can do all the things below at home. We want the church’s help with them, but we expect to lead the way. However, we absolutely need the congregation for this piece. In fact, without this larger sense of a “church family,” I think our kids will miss much about what it means to be the church.

In the United Methodist Church, when a child is baptized, the congregation pledges to surround that child with a community of love and forgiveness. In my experience, First UMC of Lexington took that pledge seriously. There were people like Dulaney Wood and Dale Muse and T. O. Harrison, and later Hope Harvener and Paul Shafer and Aaron Mansfield, who took the time to get to know me and encourage me. I believe that made a big difference. I’m looking for the people who will be the same for my kids. You’ll see that having “many adults in the religious congregation to turn to for help and support” is listed as important twice in the diagram above. (more on this in “Exciting is Fickle“)

Where are we leading our kids? There's little more important.
Where are we leading our kids? There’s little more important.

4. A church that helps and encourages my children to pray and read Scripture. Do you notice from that diagram how important these are? It was interesting to see from the study that “frequency of youth group participation” or “satisfaction with youth group” were much less important than Scripture reading and prayer. Christian practices are important for forming people in the faith. I’m looking for a church that will help me teach my kids to pray and read Scripture.

I have fond memories of my parents praying with me and reading Scripture with me at a very young age. And then I had a youth minister, Jerry Ernst, who taught me to love and rely on the Bible and prayer. My parents started it; Jerry complemented it. Their teaching and example have influenced the rest of my life.

5. A church that is committed to teaching Christian doctrine and giving my kids an opportunity to ask questions and express doubts. You’ll also see in the diagram that most of the youth who continued in the faith had “no doubts about religious beliefs.” I’d be interested to know more about this. I don’t think it’s healthy or helpful to raise my kids in an atmosphere where they’re not allowed to question or express doubts. On the contrary, I think the best way to help them have “no doubts about their religious beliefs” is to (a) actually teach them what the Church believes, and (b) give them opportunities to ask lots of questions.

I think a lot of people who walk away from the Christian faith never understood what it was to begin with. In many places, the Church’s focus on teaching doctrine has been cast aside and replaced by social clubs that teach good morals or Bible lessons. I plan to teach my kids Christian doctrine at home, but I would appreciate my church’s help. (See “Why we’re teaching our kids a catechism“)

6. Opportunities for my children to have “religious experiences.” Finally, you’ll see from the diagram that “many personal religious experiences” shows up in four of the six paths. Those are defined as (1) committing one’s life to God, (2) having prayers answered, (3) having experienced a miracle, and (4) having a moving spiritual experience.

That’s an interesting, broadly defined set of experiences. No church can assure these. They can help, though, by putting my kids in a good position for these things to happen. That would involve (a) presenting the gospel and asking them about committing their lives to God, (b) teaching them to pray and spending time in prayer, and (c) expecting that God will be present in their midst and can work miracles.

In my own experience, when I think of things like this, I think back to camps and retreats. I’ll always remember some profound and life-altering experiences I had at Aldersgate Camp during summer camps and youth retreats. These aren’t the only times and places to have profound religious experiences, but I also don’t discount the power of a group of people gathered to worship in a special place and expecting the presence of God. That was routinely the atmosphere at the camps and retreats I participated in. We had lots of fun, to be sure, but we always had serious time devoted to worship. I hope my kids might have similar opportunities. I’d love to find a church that values these things.

How does all this look in simple practice? If I were put in charge of a church’s children’s ministry (something I hope never actually happens!) – I would probably do something very similar to our own “Family Worship,” adapted for a larger setting.

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