The problem with Bible reading plans (and what to do about it)
Many Bible reading plans split up the text and flow of most of the books of the Bible. Yes, one still reads the Bible, but it is a very unnatural reading.
Why a blog post about Bible reading in May? Because more than a few people reading this blog post may have started a Bible reading plan back in January and got so far behind by April that they have given up hope. Why May? For many readers, especially students (and teachers), May marks a transition between the rush of the spring semester and the relatively slower pace of June and July. Many readers will find themselves away from home and away from their normal routines for the next eight to twelve weeks. I want to encourage us to use some of that time to re-engage our Bible reading.
The Problem with Most Reading Plans
This July will mark a quarter-century for me as a Christian and a reader of the Bible. During that time I have tried many different strategies for reading Scripture and have grown through each. One of the earliest was the weekly checklists in Discipleship Journal. Another was a one-year Bible given to me by Ben, an older bi-vocational African-American pastor who I worked with on a third shift job back in the mid-90s. These resources follow the pattern Robert Murray M’Cheyene (1813-43) devised in his pamphlet, Daily Bread.
M’Cheyne encouraged his congregation to read four chapters of the Bible daily (two in private and two within the family) starting in Genesis, Ezra, Matthew, and Acts. Following this pattern, readers will finish the Old Testament once and the New Testament and Psalms twice each year. While this pattern has been helpful to me and countless other Bible readers it does have one drawback, namely splitting up the text and flow of most of the books of the Bible. Yes, one still reads the Bible, but it is a very unnatural reading. I also found that this approach created a big perception barrier for me; it trained me to expect Bible reading to take a really long time.
A New Strategy
Nearly twenty years ago, a college literature professor gave me a tip on reading the Bible that has stuck with me: as you read, keep track of how much time you spend in each book and write that down (in the table of contents or start of each book), that way if you find yourself waiting for an appointment, an Uber (Okay, 20 years ago I’m sure he said “taxi”), or an airplane, you can quickly find one or more books of the Bible to read in one sitting to redeem the time. I’m sure that little tidbit wasn’t a main part of the day’s lecture, but it left a major impact on my daily Bible reading habits. I began to revisit my strategy for reading, prioritizing larger units such as whole Psalms and whole books each day.
A few years ago I found a really helpful chart that Andy Naselli created showing the time it takes to read each book of the Bible. Andy is also a strong advocate for blending macro-reading (reading entire books in one sitting) with micro-reading (intensive study of smaller sections). I show this chart to my seminary students each semester and try to help contextualize the time it takes to read various books with movie and sporting references for comparison.
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (Extended Edition) – 4 hours and 23 minutes
- Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, or Deuteronomy (Genesis is 3.5 hours; Leviticus is 2 hours)
- 1-2 Kings or 1-2 Samuel (Kings will take 4 hours and 15 minutes; Samuel will take 4 hours)
- Job (1 hour and 45 minutes)
- Jeremiah (4 hours; the longest prophet to read)
- Matthew or Luke (each take about 2.5 hours)
- Acts (2 hours and 15 minutes)
- Revelation (1 hour and 15 minutes)
- Only 1-2 Chronicles and Psalms would take longer than this movie (4.5 hours or 5 hours, respectively)
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2 hours and 32 minutes)
- Deuteronomy (2 hours and 30 minutes)
- Proverbs (1 hour and 45 minutes)
- Ezra-Nehemiah (1 hour 40 minutes combined)
- Mark or John (1.5 hours or 2 hours, respectively)
- 1-2 Corinthians (1 hour 40 minutes)
Typical Televised Sporting Events
NFL or MLB Game (around 3 hours)
- Exodus or Numbers (3 hours each)
- Any book in the New Testament
NCAA Basketball Game (around 2 hours and 30 minutes)
- Joshua or Judges (1 hour 45 minutes each)
- Any book in the New Testament
Premier League Match (90-96 minutes)
- Mark (1.5 hours)
- Romans (1 hour)
- Hebrews (45 minutes)
My point in sharing these comparisons is not a “do this, not that” approach, but rather to show that reading entire books of the Bible, even big books is well within our grasp. I still remember the first time I finished reading Mark’s Gospel in one afternoon, or the Saturday morning where I read all of 1-2 Corinthians before 8 am, or realizing that I could read Genesis in a few hours rather than a month and half (I actually took three days on that occasion).
Those larger reading sessions helped me overcome the misperception that reading the Bible must or should take a long time. I had just trained myself to make it take an artificially long time and had to re-train myself to break that habit. I won’t repeat every benefit to reading entire books of the Bible in one sitting, but reading them as they were written, observing context, and seeing the flow and development of ideas are three quick reasons to take this approach. Apart from these cognitive benefits, there is also the growth that comes from trusting the Holy Spirit to work the fruit of self-control in your life when you are distracted and would rather go back to bed (reading in the morning), go to bed (reading at night), check email, check social media, etc.
In the next few posts I will share some specific ways you might approach some sections of the Bible over the summer (and all year, actually). It’s May; how will you read your Bible this summer?