God has given us many good ways to read his word. You may have utilized several of them: studiously, devotionally, reflectively, Christologically. But what about communally?
Communal reading is when two or more people gather to read, hear, and discuss a written text. It was a popular practice in the first century, and it is a powerful way to approach God’s word still today. Yet in the age of the printing press, and now the digital revolution, communal reading has become one of the more neglected spiritual practices of our time.
Four Benefits of Communal Reading
Communal reading was not only popular in Jesus’s day; it was essential. With no printing and no smartphones, men and women across the Roman Empire, of all ages, races, and social classes, gathered to hear recitations from many different kinds of literature. Orators would show off their abilities before their admiring fans.
Jesus, Paul, and the earliest Christian communities all read communally (Luke 4:16–30; Acts 17:1–3). Indeed, the New Testament documents were written with the intention of being read in community. Paul explicitly instructed some of his letters to be read aloud (Colossians 4:16; 1 Thessalonians 5:27), along with other Scripture (1 Timothy 4:13).
Contemporary Christians might benefit greatly from resuming this practice. Here are four ways that communal reading can edify individual believers and churches, and even help reach into non-Christian communities today.
1. Reading together shapes our faith.
Early Christians read together in order to grow spiritually. They gathered to hear God’s word read aloud so that they could discuss and apply it together (Acts 13:14–15). Their goal, as was the goal of the biblical authors, was not merely to be informed, but to be conformed to the image of Christ (Galatians 4:19). And Jesus tells us through John, “Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it” (Revelation 1:3).
Reading together counters our individualistic tendencies and fosters humility and gratitude. By reading and discussing Scripture in community, we acknowledge our inability to fully grasp God’s truth on our own, and we learn to appreciate the insights of others. Gifts are shared, weaknesses offset, and personal interpretations exposed to inquiry. When we receive God’s revelation together and interact with one another, our personal biases are exposed, and other opinions are conveyed and considered. This teaches us to listen attentively, think carefully, question kindly, and respond humbly. Our souls are formed when we read together.
2. Reading together aids discipleship and evangelism.
Communal reading can and should occur outside typical worship settings and with non-believers as well as other Christians.
Philip taught from Isaiah in a chariot. Paul read God’s word in synagogues, taught it in lecture halls, and evangelized with it along riverbanks and in marketplaces. Communal reading is a powerful tool for evangelism and discipleship because it aids understanding and promotes interactive discussion of our common confession (Acts 17:2). In fact, believers’ lives were meant to be walking communal-reading events for everyone to examine and read (2 Corinthians 3:2–3), and one way early Christians loved their neighbors was by reading with them.
3. Reading together unites a community.
We are reminded that we are a community when we read communally. Despite our differences, reading with other believers connects us and reminds us that we are one in Christ. Consider the diversity of people hearing Paul’s letter read aloud in Rome (Romans 16:3–16). There are Greek, Latin, and Jewish names listed among the slaves, siblings, and saints, gathered together at multiple house churches.
Reading the Bible alone should certainly be a staple of our devotional life, at least for those of us blessed to live in literate societies. Yet the model of Christ, the missionary efforts of the early church, and the message of the New Testament authors all support including corporate Scripture readings into our spiritual disciplines. As individualistic as we are, and as isolated as we’re becoming, we need to seize upon more occasions and opportunities to come together and grow as communities.
Communal reading can also unite Christians across congregational and denominational lines. It has done so through the centuries and can continue doing so until Christ’s return.
4. Reading together protects the truth.
Communal reading is an effective but neglected safeguard against misquotations, misinterpretations, and misapplications. It’s almost impossible to misquote a movie line or name the wrong player on a sports team without someone noticing and correcting it because so many people are viewing these events. Imagine that same type of thing happening with the Bible in your community.
In the New Testament, there were apostolic endorsements (Colossians 4:16), conciliar decrees (Acts 16:4), textual examinations (Acts 17:11), gospel feedback (Acts 18:26), and public warnings to repeat and receive divine revelation reverently (Revelation 22:18–19). Taken together, there was a sustained focus in the first century on safeguarding the Christian tradition. Communal reading helped preserve the precise passing down of God’s revelation, while also providing additional checks and balances to interpretation (2 Peter 3:16).
Communal reading should still act as a conserving force, protecting an unadulterated gospel, because other so-called testaments of Jesus Christ (like the Book of Mormon) and new translations of the Scriptures (like the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ New World Translation) continue to be produced.
All Together Now
Reading God’s word together reveals a more magnificent God, a more beautiful Christ, a more sublime Spirit, and a greater gospel than we can envision alone. It also reminds us of the church’s literary heritage that can help us know, adore, and serve God as a community united in Christ.
Jesus read communally, as did his apostles and their disciples. Will you?