In our American church context we should not assume that people naturally have a real hunger for God’s Word (often, they don’t), or that offering a sermon series on the importance of the Bible will “jazz” people into reading it more (often, it won’t). So the question is, “How do we lead people to yearn for ‘the vast and endless sea’ of Scripture?” Let me suggest three keys to doing this successfully.
In his classic little book, Power Through Prayer, E. M. Bounds quotes Charles Spurgeon concerning the role of prayer in “anointing” a ministry with spiritual power. Spurgeon notes, “One bright benison which private prayer brings down upon the ministry is an indescribable and inimitable something—an unction from the Holy One … only in prayer can we obtain it.” And if this is true of ministry in general, it certainly is true of the ministry of the Word among people in our churches—and not just their interaction with preaching and teaching but also in their personal reading and study of the Bible. Doesn’t it go without saying that the Word of God constitutes a spiritual force that must be encountered with spiritual eyes and ears (1 Cor. 2:14; Heb. 4:12)? Hard or shallow or weedy heart-ground must be cracked and cultivated by more than mere human reasoning and speaking ability! We need the Spirit’s involvement, His work of moving people to have a deep hunger for God’s Word. We need to pray to that end.
As we feed people from the Word, we must set the table well, unwrapping “dish after dish,” uncovering “glimpses and fragrances” of truth that will make listeners salivate spiritually. Our communication of the Bible may be evaluated in part as to whether it prompts people to run to the Word themselves. The prep work for such communication is not easy. God has given us His Word in words, from particular times and places, and in particular ways, which must be unpacked, first for ourselves and then for others. That unpacking takes time and effort. But it constitutes a vital step in the process of building people up to a place of delight in God’s Word.
Years ago I raised new potatoes in my garden. Although I enjoyed planting the bits of potato and nurturing the plants as they grew, the real fun was digging the potatoes out of the rich, loamy soil. My kids knelt beside me and loved plunging their hands into the earthy raised beds, finding beautiful little treasures laced together in a tangle of roots.
Similarly, it is deeply satisfying to dig deeply into the rich soil of God’s good Word, grappling with the details of the Bible, processing the implications for modern life, and then working through how to communicate such truths to others. But as we communicate well, we call our listeners alongside of us, building in them a joy of discovery, stimulating in them a longing for the rich depths of God’s Word. As we take further steps to teach them how to dig for themselves, we are making real progress in building a Word-hunger that will change them over time. Does your preaching/teaching, your faithful unpacking of biblical truth, make people hungry for their own reading and study of Scripture?
Finally, we need to model hunger for and delight in the Word ourselves. Many of us approach the tasks of preaching and teaching more as a contractor completing a job than a lover. Over the past few years I have had the opportunity to work with many churches across North America who were participating in the Read the Bible for Life initiative, and I noticed a key difference between the churches that had a good experience and those for whom the initiative was transformative. At the heart of the latter, almost always, was a pastor or leadership team being personally impacted by the Word and who led out of the overflow of that experience. We will never build in people a passion, a longing for God’s Word, if we do not have and model that longing ourselves. Someone has said that powerful preaching and teaching is as much about lighting a fire in the heart as it is about filling a bucket in the head. But the process begins with that fire burning in you. Does it at this point in your ministry?
While, as with shipbuilding, “manuals” and “groups” play important roles in training people to be profoundly oriented to Scripture—we desperately need more training to help people engage the Scripture well!—in and of themselves they will never build a heart-filled passion, nor a life-long rhythm, of Bible reading and study in those to whom we minister. But once exposed to the power and beauty and relevance of God’s Word, under the prayer-prompted work of the Spirit and the enthusiasm of good mentors, people can come to long for Scripture as those ready to embark on “a vast and endless sea.”
George H. Guthrie serves as the Benjamin W. Perry Professor of Bible at Union University in Jackson, Tennessee. He holds Ph.D. and M.Div. degrees from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and a Th.M. from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. At Union University he led in the establishment of and serves as senior fellow in the Ryan Center for Biblical Studies, which is committed to promoting sound Bible reading, study, and interpretation in local churches.