Sunday, May 3, 2020

Free online Bible program encourages virtual communal Bible reading amid lockdown

Tyndale House Publishers has teamed up with the Institute For Bible Reading to offer free resources for communal Bible reading and studying as many churches remain closed. 
“One of the things that we’ve seen recently in the midst of this is that reading the Bible by yourself can be lonely. You're there alone to wrestle with your questions. And so ... we want to bring people together," Paul Caminiti, senior director of mobilization for IFBR, told The Christian Post.
The book publisher and activist think tank have worked together for the last few years to offer the increasingly popular “Immerse Bible Reading Experience.” 
The six-volume Bible was created to provide faith communities with the “best reading experience possible” by laying out the Scripture in a “single-column setting” with each chapter displayed “according to its literary genre” without notations, chapter and verse numbers, section headings, and footnotes.
But in light of the coronavirus pandemic and stay-at-home orders, the two organizations have launched “Immerse From Home,” or 10-day virtual Bible “book clubs,” allowing believers to study Luke-Acts with fellow churchgoers online.
The new initiative provides free copies of its book Immerse Messiah (narrating the books of Luke and Acts in novel form) along with a plethora of digital resources allowing users to hold their own “book club” sessions with members of their churches, friends or family. 
“We really made a hard pivot away from Bible studies to book clubs,” Caminiti said. “So there's no participant guides. There is no filling in the blanks.”
“Immerse From Home” includes a virtual resource kit with a free PDF for Immerse Messiah.  
“This initial engagement with Scripture would be centered around the big stories of the first century: the life of Jesus, and the birth of the early church,” Caminiti said. 
“There's the audio version that goes along with it. So we had created a brand new Immerse Audio. There are several videos that are kind of like trailers of what people are going to read that week.”
While at home, the initiative calls on users to host video conference studies so that they can discuss the text with others in their community. The free resources include prompts for open-ended questions that users can discuss and instructions on how to set up an account for Zoom video conferencing. 
“We're still inviting people to read on their own but then to get together at least once a week,” Caminiti said. “And you know, what we're hearing is that some groups are doing this now in four weeks instead of two weeks. And they're still reading substantial amounts.”
“The way the two-week plan is set up is that people would read about eight or nine pages a day,” he added. “If you listen to the audio version, the average is 29 minutes a day. And it's a five-day-a-week plan.”
Caminiti said the initiative is a great fit for churches looking for ways to keep their small groups active while congregants remain at home. But even for people who are not in church small groups, he said the studies can easily be done with two or three of their closest friends or family members from across the country.
“So we're really urging people not to do this as a solo event,” he said.
Over 13 years ago, many of the big influencers in the Bible publishing movement began to have a “crisis of conscience” about how the Bible is being published and consumed by the modern church culture as many niche Bibles were being published, noted Caminiti. At the time, he was a Bible publisher for Zondervan.
“As we began doing some research about our study Bibles and our devotional Bibles, we discovered to our chagrin that people were reading the notes, and the prayers and the devotionals, but very little reading of the text,” he explained. 
“And so that sent me and several of my colleagues kind of on the tour to Christian thought leaders and scholars to ask the question, ‘How is it that when Bible access is skyrocketing (the average household in North America owns four and a half Bibles), why is Bible reading in freefall?’”
He feared that the modern church had created, in some ways, “a culture of misuse of the Scriptures.”
“In our Western individualism, Bible reading has turned into a solo sport, even amongst the devout,” he said. “We go years at a time, getting up in the morning, go into our private area, and read. It’s us and the Scriptures and the Holy Spirit. That's just far removed from the intent of the Scriptures at the beginning.”
In the early centuries, Caminiti said that “communities of faith” engaged the Scriptures together.
IFBR and Tyndale are now calling on churches across the country to “observe modern-day Ezra Moments.” In other words, “community Bible reading in this time of crisis.”
“When the people of Israel returned from captivity and began rebuilding Jerusalem, they sensed that something was still broken: themselves,” Caminiti said. “They believed that healing would come from reimmersion in their story. Ezra responded immediately by organizing corporate Scripture reading. Shaken from our usual routines and frenetic pace, the coronavirus has given us an opportunity to refocus on our founding story told in the Scriptures; to observe a modern-day Ezra Moment.”
Follow Samuel Smith on Twitter: @IamSamSmith

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