Is devotional reading killing the church?

Every once in a while, questions will pop into my head that I find intriguing.  This is one of them; Is devotional reading killing the church?

By “devotional reading” I mean the kind of reading you find in books like “Chicken Soup for the Christian Soul”, The Daily Bread, or Rejoice.   This kind of reading usually has a scripture verse followed by an inspirational story (that may or may not be connected to the verse) or poem.  Often time there is a lesson to the story like “Never give up” or “God is with you in the tough times” and so on.  There is usually a prayer at the end to wrap the whole thing up with a pretty bow.

If you know me at all, you know that I don’t own any “Chicken soup for the…”  books ( I don’t even like most soups).  Nor do I read devotional materials of any kind.  But many, many people do.  So I might not be the best guy to ask and answer the question, but I have a hunch…

My hunch is that devotional reading, as well as things like “quite time”, reframe the Christian life in a way that blunts the sharp edge of everything that Jesus said and did.  In doing so, it turns what Jesus intended to be a movement of grace and love, driven by the power of suffering love (ours as well as His), into good advice, comforting words, and an “everything will work out fine in the end” message.

When was the last time  you opened up a devotional book and it said, “Unless you are willing to die like Jesus the world will remain as it is.  So, what’s it going to be?”  [And when I say “die like Jesus” I mean die confronting the evil and violence of a world that has gone off the rails.]  I bet you’ve never read that in a devotional book, but Jesus said stuff like that all the time.  If we read the gospels – not 1 isolated verse at a time with a clever story and a moral lesson, but the gospels – we would be different people.  We would know that we are called to something that is firmly within our grasp and radically world shaping.  It’s within our grasp, not because of who we are, but because of who Jesus is, and who his Father is and because of who the Holy Spirit is.

And this thing that we are called to – this small, seed shaped, leaven-in-the-bread, candle on a stand thing that we are called to – doesn’t involve us being something that we aren’t, but being fully what we are.

Devotional reading, in my view, doesn’t help with that.  It helps people cope.  But we weren’t created and called to cope!  We were created for so much more.   The more the Bible is used as 365 promises for a better tomorrow the more we lose sight of that “so much more”.   We also come to live as if my comfort is God’s goal.  Too often the message is “Thank you Jesus, for suffering for me…so that I don’t have to”.   Only Jesus message is, “Come die with me and we’ll change the world.”

Something to think about!  What say ye?

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10 thoughts on “Is devotional reading killing the church?

  1. I pray that stuff like this continues to ‘pop into your head’…it means that I am not alone.
    I wonder though – if the kind of reading you are speaking of can “kill the church”, perhaps that church needs to die…

  2. Good point. A good question is what are we referring to when we refer to the church dying. In one sense, we couldn’t kill The Church if we tried. At another level, however, there are “churches” which are particular local gatherings that exist in varying degrees of faithfulness to the gospel.

    I should’ve also said that devotional reading, as I’ve defined it, is not dangerous or unnecessary if it exists along side other forms of reading and engagement with the gospel and real life.

  3. I have a view of “the Church” as the Church Universal…all believers for all time…that Church will never die” I do believe there is complacency in “The Church”…that puts out the Spirit’s fire. Anyone who has been involved in leadership in a local church has dealt with it…complacency, power plays, cliches, the “feed me” thing…the “my gift is better than your gift” thing…”The health and wealth doctrines” the denomiational arrrogance and one upmanship.”The Church Universal” contains it all…unfortunately that’s the version of the church many of us see on any given Sunday morning. I had a professional minister say to me once…”it’s too bad that you have to use all your spiritual weapons, just to exist in the local church…and it’s true…the times I’ve spent in the heaviest spiritual warfare has been when trying to raise my children in a church that was involved in a power struggle. I don’t think some Christians see the big picture…that we can do so much spiritual damage and loose precious souls over preferences and traditions and personal opinions. I have had a specific call in several churches and it involved a lot more than typing a bulletin, or organzing the VBS supply cabinet, or ordering lilies at Easter. ..or even teaching Sunday school or leading a ladies Bible study. Those devotional readings have a place, it is true, in helping us cope with the dark side of the Church as well as the effects of living in a fallen world. All that stuff slows the Church down, but won’t stop Her. Think of those devotionals as spiritual salve to those who are indeed hurting…some are called to rise above like Mother Theresa or Billy Graham…some are called to treat the scraped knees and kiss the boo boos of infant Christians…some are “undercover” washing dishes, mopping floors, making coffee while going into spiritual battle. At the end of time, we’ll let God be the judge. It takes every part of the Church to function…from those who lay their physical lives on the line to those who write the articles in “The Daily Bread”. Christianity 101 –we are all part of the body…all gifts are needed…and the greatest of these is LOVE.

    1. The appropriate “Wow!” might be that you read my post and that’s what you got out of it. My question, which I stated quite clearly, is whether or not most devotional reading, by its very nature, blunts the sharp edge of what Jesus actually said and did. If it does, its function will be to spur on/support/encourage a version of “faith” that isn’t what Jesus calls people to. So the question is whether the most common forms of devotional reading spur on self-centered faith (and thus serve as a coping mechanism) or Jesus focused living.

      There is a secondary question which is equally important: Is the type of scripture engagement modeled by most devotional materials consistent with good methods of Bible study? Most (not all-but most) devotionals engage in proof-texting. They pull a verse out of context and make a semi-connected point that generally has nothing to do with the original point of the text within its context. This isn’t that helpful. If the primary way people engage the scriptures is through devotional reading, I’ll go out on a limb and say that their understanding of what the Bible actually teaches (or how you even get at what the Bible actually teaches) will be limited. I wouldn’t define that as “positive” and I certainly wouldn’t define that as “too positive”.

      So, to respond to your sarcastic comment as if it were genuine, I would say NO, I don’t ask the question because I think devotionals are so positive that when people read them it is harmful. That’s silly and you know it. I ask the question because sometimes I wonder if the material that many Christian people engage the most is inconsistent with what Jesus actually said and did. If it is, no matter how much a particular devotional may share one’s view of the world and faith and so on, it’s not positive.

      I’d love for you to engage more fully the points I just made by going a little beyond snark and “wow”!

      Grace and peace!

      1. I apologize for the brief comment which I confess(looking back) was a product of my long day and lack of time to properly respond with some depth. I actually wasn’t feeling as snarky as I “sounded” but absolutely no excuse … I should simply not have responded and I can sense by your reply that I upset you. Like you who does not read devotionals, I do not do much blog reading so my rookie status is apparent. Your writing style and thoughts are not the easiest to process (for me) since I do not encounter many people who speak in those terms (i.e.,”And this thing that we are called to – this small, seed shaped, leaven-in-the-bread, candle on a stand thing that we are called to – doesn’t involve us being something that we aren’t, but being fully what we are.” hmmmm ) — and in my haste I did not get past my simple, initial reaction of just….wow.

        Again, please accept my apology. And blessings to you.

      2. No need to apologize. Thanks for your comments (I hope I can tease out more) Reading folks emotional state via blog comments is difficult. Case in point, I was not upset (as in angered) by your comment at all. Puzzled, perhaps. Left wanting more, perhaps. But upset, nope.

        The sentence you mention may be a bit obscure, but at the same time, I wonder why you choose not to engage the more cogent (and clear) points in the original post and in my reply?

        I’m truly curious about what effect certain types of Bible reading have on discipleship. My question wasn’t a pretext for my hunch, it’s a real question. When I go to the local Christian bookstore (which I’m heading to in a few minutes) I’m shocked by how large the Christian fiction section is relative to the Bible/theology section. There are more devotional books than Bible/theology books. Then there is this nebulous region called Christian Living which is non-fiction but not theology?

        I appreciate that there are books like “Web Design for Dummies” I just think that if that is all a person doing web design ever reads, they aren’t going to get too far. It’s the same for following Jesus. What do you think about that?

        As for the sentence you quoted, it’s kind of like a joke, if I have to explain it, it probably wasn’t very good. I’ll take that criticism. I would also say, however, that the sentence actually says a lot if you think through the various illusions and ask questions of the sentence itself. I’d start with Genesis 1 and 2 and ask: What are we and why are we here? I’d ask what gets in the way of that? I’d ask what Jesus had to say about that? I’d listen to what the stories Jesus told about seeds and lost coins and lost sheep and candles had to say?

        I could unpack of that and turn a short post into a long post. Or, I can write one sentence that eludes to all of that, hoping that people know their Bibles well enough to catch the illusions and put the pieces together themselves.

        It’s quite similar to the way that the gospel writers quote the Old Testament. They quote the most popular piece of a larger teaching in order to transport a person to the whole of that teaching without rehashing the entire thing. That’s also what Jesus did on the cross when he said, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me.” It’s the first part of a well known psalm (psalm 22). He, and the gospel writers, intended to take people to Psalm 22 without rewriting the entire passage. If you read the entire psalm you will get a more full, and quite different, take on what Jesus was saying as he died. It’s a low-tech, Hebrew way, of creating a hyper-link in the text. Although with less skill, that is what I was doing.

        Another wrinkle in all of this is the question of what happens to people when they become used to being spoon fed meanings, interpretation and application without having to think for themselves. In my line of work, I have to wrestle with the text AND I have to let others know what I think. But Pastors aren’t the only ones who should do that. That is the responsibility of all disciples within the church. Preachers deliver the first word, not the last word. The congregation will state the next word and the word after that. Hopefully, it will be an informed word. This may sound rude, but there are simply too many people who can’t figure out what the Bible says if the author or pastor doesn’t tell them exactly what they’re supposed to “take away”.

        In that spirit, take a risk and engage my primary points. Do you think that what a person reads with great frequency shapes them in profound ways, for good or for ill? Do you believe that fidelity to Jesus’ teaching and model is the primary criteria for determining what is positive or negative for materials meant to spur on discipleship? Do you believe that people should study the Bible at least as much as they are inspired by devotional readings from the Bible? What is your take on proof-texting?

        These are questions that come to mind as I re-read my post and my last reply. I’d love to know your thoughts about those things!

  4. “The sentence you mention may be a bit obscure, but at the same time, I wonder why you choose not to engage the more cogent (and clear) points in the original post and in my reply?”

    Thanks for your return note. It’s tough for me to engage some of your “cogent (and clear)” points because honestly, I find it difficult to comprehend all of what you are saying. No fault to assign here, maybe it’s just a difference in thinking and understanding things of faith – I may just see things with much less complexity (and introspection), am more used to using language I hear/read day-to-day, and you may be operating at a different plane of understanding when it comes to these things. But you incorporate true passion and curiosity, and I applaud you for pursuing that, but for me, it’s tough to follow you on some points. I have recently read some articles in your denomination’s on-line magazine The Mennonite and I see the same thing there, so I readily recognize that there are those out there who think and write like you, so you will always have a forum! : )

    “I’m truly curious about what effect certain types of Bible reading have on discipleship. My question wasn’t a pretext for my hunch, it’s a real question. When I go to the local Christian bookstore (which I’m heading to in a few minutes) I’m shocked by how large the Christian fiction section is relative to the Bible/theology section. There are more devotional books than Bible/theology books. Then there is this nebulous region called Christian Living which is non-fiction but not theology?”

    Christian fiction is popular for the same reason that non-Christian fiction is popular … it’s entertainment and escapism, and people like that. Seems like it would be easier for myriads of authors to create fiction stories than provide analysis of spiritual doctrine.

    “I appreciate that there are books like “Web Design for Dummies” I just think that if that is all a person doing web design ever reads, they aren’t going to get too far. It’s the same for following Jesus. What do you think about that?”

    Without question, I believe that a Christian needs to make the scriptures the primary source for insights and guidance. But the world of “devotionals” is a pretty wide band. Some good stuff out there – almost like mini-Bible studies? I certainly don’t know about many of them. Makes me think, if a seeker (or even believer) was only spending time in a bible based devotional guide which included some scripture references and then an author’s interpretation or related story, I would find that preferable to no reading, or the reading of inappropriate secular materials or watching HBO. I’m not convinced that people don’t migrate from devotional guides to Bible study itself. I think we may be on the same page – people need to read and allow the holy spirit to help them absorb and understand the Word.”

    “As for the sentence you quoted, it’s kind of like a joke, if I have to explain it, it probably wasn’t very good. I’ll take that criticism. I would also say, however, that the sentence actually says a lot if you think through the various illusions and ask questions of the sentence itself. I’d start with Genesis 1 and 2 and ask: What are we and why are we here? I’d ask what gets in the way of that? I’d ask what Jesus had to say about that? I’d listen to what the stories Jesus told about seeds and lost coins and lost sheep and candles had to say? I could unpack of that and turn a short post into a long post. Or, I can write one sentence that alludes to all of that, hoping that people know their Bibles well enough to catch the illusions and put the pieces together themselves.”

    Well …. I would offer that the vast majority of people in the U.S. would not “catch the illusions” and put those things together. I would forever defend your right to use the words you desire (and hey, it’s your blog), but I think (as with The Mennonite magazine) that some of the message gets overlooked. Perhaps you are truly one deep dude who thinks in these terms?

    “It’s quite similar to the way that the gospel writers quote the Old Testament. They quote the most popular piece of a larger teaching in order to transport a person to the whole of that teaching without rehashing the entire thing. That’s also what Jesus did on the cross when he said, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me. It’s the first part of a well known psalm (psalm 22). He, and the gospel writers, intended to take people to Psalm 22 without rewriting the entire passage. If you read the entire psalm you will get a more full, and quite different, take on what Jesus was saying as he died. It’s a low-tech, Hebrew way, of creating a hyper-link in the text. Although with less skill, that is what I was doing.”

    Thank-you …. I learned something there. Perhaps that is a glimpse of what a seminary class sounds like? Interesting.

    “Another wrinkle in all of this is the question of what happens to people when they become used to being spoon fed meanings, interpretation and application without having to think for themselves.”

    Not sure of the distinction between being “spoon fed meanings” and being taught by someone with the gift of teaching? I love hearing a pastor teach from the Word .. and I think that can include application of that teaching to our lives. If I do not crack the Bible all week and then hear a pastor teach from the Word— I still have to think for myself: does it line up with what I am reading while he is teaching? How can I apply the truth to my life? What am I being convicted of? What is the lord saying to me through the teaching? I have no way of knowing how many people are unwilling or incapable of thinking for themselves, but knowing people’s innate stubbornness and willfulness, I can’t imagine the percentage is excessive.

    “In my line of work, I have to wrestle with the text AND I have to let others know what I think. But Pastors aren’t the only ones who should do that. That is the responsibility of all disciples within the church.”

    Written word won’t provide enough nuance here but … why would your congregation want to know what –you- think on matters of the Word? I would see your role as letting others know what God thinks – thru His word and out of your mouth. The Lord is all-knowing, loving, present, etc …. How hard is it for such a Being to speak through a pastor he has called? Also not sure why you are ‘wrestling’ …same concept … God can make it clear what the Word says, and what to share. If He hasn’t made it clear, I would argue, don’t teach anything.
    Should all disciples teach? I don’t see that in the Word – -maybe I am missing that. Should all believers share their faith and encourage and love and serve and ….? Yep. But gifts are provided differently to different people.

    “Preachers deliver the first word, not the last word. The congregation will state the next word and the word after that. Hopefully, it will be an informed word. This may sound rude, but there are simply too many people who can’t figure out what the Bible says if the author or pastor doesn’t tell them exactly what they’re supposed to “take away”.

    If the preacher delivers God’s word, seems like that IS the last word. In many churches, I’m guessing that the congregation likes to add all kinds of words, and hedges, and myths and things that ease their consciences. But it’s because we’re sinners and struggle with things at times. I don’t think your comment is rude, it is your honest observation, and I think many people are lazy or uncommitted, or simply unsaved because they won’t commit to someone other than themselves. (But I see a contradiction in there – on one hand you comment that people hear pastors and then add their own “words (truths)”. But then you comment that people can’t figure out the Bible until the pastor tells them exactly what it means.)

    “In that spirit, take a risk and engage my primary points. Do you think that what a person reads with great frequency shapes them in profound ways, for good or for ill?”

    Sure, I think that what a person reads with great frequency can shape them in profound ways. Every morning, I receive an email “devotional” from the ministry of Dr.Charles Stanley. It incorporates a scripture reference and commentary. It is encouraging to me, and instructional. Does it mean that I do not think for myself? No. Does it mean that I should replace my bible study with Dr. Stanley? No. I also think that there have been mornings that the Lord provides the message (somehow) to me .. to meet a need and provide me with the peace He promises. Perhaps there are devotionals and commentaries that are damaging to a believer. Can’t point to one, but I would think it is likely.

    “Do you believe that fidelity to Jesus’ teaching and model is the primary criteria for determining what is positive or negative for materials meant to spur on discipleship?”

    Not sure I’m fully understanding “fidelity to Jesus’ teaching and model” but on its face, it’s sound right.

    “Do you believe that people should study the Bible at least as much as they are inspired by devotional readings from the Bible?”

    Not sure what the right balance is – -but certainly the Word should be prominent. I do enjoy reading Bible commentaries as well, because they help me to understand the meaning and context. Not sure if you consider those “devotional readings” – we did not define that.

    “What is your take on proof-texting?”

    Sorry, I don’t know what that is.

    “My hunch is that devotional reading, as well as things like “quiet time”, reframe the Christian life in a way that blunts the sharp edge of everything that Jesus said and did. In doing so, it turns what Jesus intended to be a movement of grace and love, driven by the power of suffering love (ours as well as His), into good advice, comforting words, and an “everything will work out fine in the end” message.”

    Can’t provide much response here, not sure what the “blunting” means and what is the sharp edge of everything Jesus did? Really? A sharp edge? Is that another way of saying “truth”? Dunno.

    I don’t see the downside of good advice (kinda like wisdom?) and comforting words. I think those are powerful things. And to me, a key aspect of the Word IS that everything will work out fine in the end. Christians have the benefit of a God that engineers lousy circumstances to a “good’, and longer term, we have the benefit of already knowing the ultimate ending. And it’s a great spoiler to know.

  5. Let me try to make the original point of my post in another way…

    My question stems from Paul’s concern in 1 Corinthians 3. There are different kinds of spiritual teaching which Paul equates with solid food and milk. Spiritual milk is good for seekers and new believers, without a doubt. But if people never move beyond milk spiritually the church suffers, as does her mission. The kind of devotional reading I’m referring to I would equate with spiritual milk. It’s not inherently bad or damaging. However, if it is the only spiritual nourishment a person takes in, they will not develop into mature, healthy followers of Jesus.

    The point is made in a much more exasperated way in Hebrews 5:12. Here, the author says, “In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food!” The author is castigating some of the believers because they haven’t progressed beyond spiritual milk. He says that enough time is elapsed that they should be teachers by now.

    (I would consider commentaries spiritual meat or solid food, because they are trying to get at what the text actually means. They are not using the text as a jumping off point to make another point.)

    Biblically, I understand “teaching” as something that functions on three different levels. In Ephesians 4 we see a five-fold pattern of ministry within the body. I agree with Mike Breen and others that these are not spiritual gifts, nor are they only leadership functions. They are 5 general areas of ministry and every believer will function in one of the five ways (pastor, teacher, apostle, evangelist, prophet). You, and every other believer, will gravitate towards one of these five areas. The church needs people functioning in all five areas to be healthy (Alan Hirsh speaks well to this idea). There is also spiritual gift of teaching, which we might equate to pulpit teachers, mentioned in 1 Corinthians which is a Spirit-empowered gift that some are given. AND, there is also the general expectation that ALL followers of Jesus will be involved in disciple making, which involves teaching at a more general level. At this level, everyone should be able to pass on their faith to others or explain to others what they believe. (It doesn’t mean they should stand in a pulpit or lead a class, nor does it mean they shouldn’t)

    I’ve re-read my comments and don’t see where I ever said that pastors should tell people what to believe. I don’t believe that. I believe those who preach owe it to the congregation to do their due diligence in prayer, study and presentation in order to present the clearest word possible. I also believe that every believer in the church also has a responsibility to discern, corporately, what the Bible says. But I suspect if I wrote much more than that, we would find we are in two very different places in regard to the preaching event, the Bible, interpretation, God’s voice and so on.

    I do believe God speaks through preaching. I also think that, often times, God speaks in spite of the preacher. I don’t believe God takes control of the preacher such that the words that come out of the preacher’s mouth are literally God’s words. I don’t believe that because I don’t think the Biblical text says that. I do believe the Spirit can take a word preached in sincerity and in all due diligence, that is not an infallible word from God’s mouth to your ear, and use it in people’s lives. I’d be curious to know your thoughts about that.

    I use the word “wrestle” the way you might use the word study. To wrestle with the text is to start with the text itself as you learn what it means in its original context. Because the Bible can never say what it never said, it’s important to know what the Bible said so we can understand what it says. At the same time, there are texts that don’t yield one clear meaning, so it’s important to make sure that when you say, “This is what the text says and means” that you have done your due diligence as a pastor and teacher. That’s what I would call “wrestling with the text”.

    Proof-texting is a great way to get around “wrestling with the text”. It’s the practice of using a single Bible verse, often taken out of context, to support a particular view. It’s a close cousin to selective literalism, whereby people take one verse literally but not the verse next to it. It’s frowned upon by good Bible teachers – both liberal and conservative – because it fails to take in the whole counsel of God’s word on a given subject.

    The sharp-edge of Jesus teaching refers to the things he taught that are extremely hard to do in real life. We like the part where Jesus dies for our sins so we can go to heaven when we die. We’re often not so crazy about literally putting the sermon on the mount into practice, for example. Not resisting an evildoer would be a sharp-edge. Taking the plank out of your own eye before removing the sawdust from a brother or sisters eye is another one. Seeking first God’s kingdom and trusting God alone for protection and provision is another one. These kinds of things.

    There is no downside for truly good advice, wisdom and comforting words. It’s just that many times good advice, wisdom and comforting words are not true to the teaching of Jesus or the New Testament.

    I must run! Thanks for the engagement

    1. Opps! I meant to write “It’s just that many times what passes for good advice, wisdom and comforting words in our context (even within the church) are not true to the teaching of Jesus or the New Testament.”

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