One Sunday morning, I picked up this paper from the pew at our church. It is the schedule for a Friday night vigil that had happened just a couple of days before.
We didn't attend this event. The idea of staying up all night to pray, worship, and study Scripture feels like a form of torture to us. But in East African Christian culture, it is an assumption. Some churches do it every month. Some do it every week. Gil has taught at a few of these, where he agreed to come from 10 pm till 1 am. That was his limit.
So I read over this schedule in awe. To most American Christians, this practice may sound crazy. But African Christians will explain that they are simply following the ways of Jesus, who many times spent the whole night in prayer (Luke 6:12). Sure, it takes discipline, but it's a great way to grow in godliness and faithfulness. So, they argue, why shouldn't we follow Jesus' example?
This time of year, North American Christians might not be resolving to spend all night in prayer, but they are buzzing about Bible reading plans. Daily Bible reading has the #1 place on a Good Christian's Resolution List. As any American knows who was raised in Christian culture, daily Bible reading is the epitome of godliness and faithfulness.
But is it?
Now, before you excommunicate me, let me assure you that I absolutely believe in the importance of regular study of the Word of God. I started reading through the Bible at age ten, and I've lost count of how many times I've read it from cover to cover. In our ministries in Tanzania, we emphasize careful, regular Bible study as the foundation for life and holiness. The first class that Reach Tanzania Bible School students take is Bible Study Methods (Hermeneutics).
I am a reader. It's my primary source of learning. I read at least one or two dozen books a year, and I would rather read than listen to a sermon. So Bible reading comes naturally to me.
However. This is one of those examples of how spending large amounts of time with Christians outside my own culture has caused me to re-think some of my assumptions.
If personal Bible study is the most important way that a person grows in their faith, then what about the people in the world who are illiterate, or those who do not primarily communicate through the written word? Or what about those who just don't learn well by reading? Is there hope for them to know God as fully as those of us who are natural readers?
My point is this: I think that all of us would agree that knowing God and growing in faith comes from the regular intake of God's Word. But must the source of that intake mainly be from personal, daily time spent reading the Bible?
Shouldn't the goal be a heart who yearns to know God through his Word?
And in that, can't we be creative? Can we learn something from the disciplines of Christians in other cultures? Why do we put so much emphasis on reading, and often neglect the other spiritual disciplines like fasting, corporate prayer, Scripture memorization, and meditation?
What about listening? The Bible on audio is catching steam, but there are other options. What about two friends getting together for the sole purpose of reading the Bible out loud to each other? In small groups, why do we always jump to discussion and application, when we could spend more time reading long passages together? How about group efforts to memorize verses or passages?
I might never attend an all-night vigil. But I'm learning a lot from the people who do.