Can I Tread on Some Special Toes?

It is coming up to the time of year when people are making resolutions.  One of the big ones in churches is to read the Bible through in a year.  So perhaps you are thinking of encouraging people to do this by suggesting a reading plan.  Here’s where I am going to tread on some special toes.

 “I don’t think the Robert Murray M’Cheyne reading plan

is a good idea.”

There, I said it.

His plan, which is still widely promoted by various big names, essentially involves reading four chapters per day.  This takes people through the whole Bible plus a bit of repeating (NT & Psalms, I think) in a year.  I think it is great to help people get into the Bible, and I know many have been helped by it, but I don’t think this is the best way to go.

Essentially the problem with the plan, and others like it, is that the reading is segregated.  So readers start in Genesis, Ezra, Matthew and Acts all on day one.  I don’t want to stir up a sanctified riot, but I don’t think this is a good idea.  Why not?

1. It treats the Bible chapters as vitamin pills rather than the feast that they are.  That is, it creates a sense of “balance” without encouraging readers to really savour the taste of the text as it flows.

2. It hinders the reader from reading the text in context.  In a busy life it is hard enough to keep track of one flow of thought, let alone four.

3. It doesn’t encourage the reader to get “in the zone.”  I don’t know anyone that would advocate reading four novels at a time, a page from each, each day.  How much better to invite people beyond the first few minutes of distracted reading and into the zone where they get gripped by the narrative and don’t want to put it down?

4. It promotes a tick-box approach to Bible reading as a discipline, rather than an overt opportunity to engage with God’s heart as revealed in the epic revelation.  So many people view Bible reading as a laborious discipline that they must force themselves to do.  But the people I know who delight in the Bible tend to be people who devour it, rather than dipping into it.

Suggestion?  Why not encourage and invite people to read the Bible aggressively and relationally, as if God has a personality and is personal.  That is, by reading His Word with a passion to know Him, readers/listeners might get to know His personality and grow in their personal relationship with Him.

Perhaps it is worth pondering how to encourage people by enthusiastic invitation, rather than by affirming the “difficulty” and “trudgery” of “getting through the Bible” in a year or three.  Here is a link to my friend Ron’s article on Bible reading – as “Bible presenters” lets be sure to be genuine Bible enthusiasts that do more than try to fire up the so-called disciplined wills of our listeners!

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32 thoughts on “Can I Tread on Some Special Toes?

  1. Love this! Totally agree, I think hearing Ron Frost on how to read the bible has totally changed how I enjoy my bible reading. I find it so helpful to read meaty chunks and get the full story then just a chapter here and there. What really helped me was someone telling me that I could read the bible like a novel and enjoy it!

  2. After we talked about this, I have already abandoned the remainder of this years plan and moved to reading each of the books in one go. Some times repeating the exercise. Therefore I agree with all of your comments. It has taken my understanding and hence my awe to new levels.

  3. Totally agreed on the “reading 4 novels at a time” comment – when i used the McCheyne plan I ended up changing it to just reading 4 chapters/day of 1 book, and then alternating between OT & NT books – so I guess that’s not McCheyne at all

  4. Good thoughts! Several years ago, I also was encouraged to read the Bible through. A Chronological Bible (NIV) was suggested.

    Looking back, I would make these observations: 1) The NIV is not my preferred translation, but its differences kept me from skimming familiar and memorized texts. 2) While it was well-communicated that the “chronology” was a best-guess, it was very helpful in restoring the sense that the scriptures are a real, historical story where chronology really does explain some things. 3) I frequently became so absorbed in my daily reading that I read far more than the daily “dose”. I ended up finishing the whole Bible about 2 months early. Certainly, some days were not as productive as others, but overall it was a wonderful experience!

  5. I’m so encouraged by this posting & remarks here: thank you Peter (& all)! Never mind that you’ve noted the article on Bible reading (an approach I owe to a Scot, Sam Cassells); I’m mainly encouraged by your underscoring the potential for readers to find the Bible captivating and transformative.

    The approach is critical: as we’re drawn into the narrative flow of a whole book or the linear thrust of an argument in an epistle it begins to come alive. The Spirit is happy to be present in that, of course! I can say this from my partnerships in Bible-reading: the likelihood of our taking up Bible-reading as a sustained and satisfying lifestyle increases dramatically as we read the Bible in flow in, boldly, and at length. Like most other forms of literature it was meant to be read that way. And when we add some partners with whom we share that delight it becomes even more likely. Yes, yes, yes!

  6. Sorry but I strongly disagree! Most people need a plan. When you go to cut your lawn you have a plan. A plan keeps you on task and gives you direction. My experience in the ministry is that many never read the Bible completely through. There are several plans out there to pick from but pick one or make up your own..

    • Jim, I strongly agree with your strong disagreement. How? Because my post was not a critique of the notion of planning, but with the idea of reading four diverse biblical passages simultaneously, rather than reading through with the flow of the text. I would encourage folks to have a plan that incorporates the flow of the text in its context, and also encourage folks not to get into the habit of ticking a box, but instead read beyond that and enjoy the text (and enjoy the relationship with the Lord!)

      My experience in ministry is that many of the people who start with a plan, fail with a plan. Many more who partner up with someone enthusiastic about the Word and really go for it aggressively and relationally (with God as well as sharing periodically with a human partner), a far higher percentage not only follow through and finish, but are actually transformed in the process. So yes, let’s encourage plans, but let’s encourage ones that help people feast on the Word that is good, not hindering people with supposedly clever strategies to make an apparently difficult read palatable, but at the same time bitty and more incomprehensible.

      Incidentally, for many people cutting the lawn is a duty. For some it is a delight. Both types will have a plan, but only one type will typically be invigorated by the experience. A plan alone is not a solution, but a plan may well be part of the solution.

      • Thanks for your good point, Peter. A Bible reading ambition doesn’t discard planning but the planning should be relational: to treat the Bible as the resource God gives us to know himself and his loving kindness. That care is best expressed by the intact literature of the Scriptures rather than in snippets of reading that are often splintered and confusing.
        I can testify to the transformative impact in a normal reading-in-flow that you celebrated here as I’ve had many dozens of reading partners use this approach since I first tried it with a friend in 1976. Since then most of my fellow readers find the Bible to be compelling and captivating, especially if the pace is like that of reading a favorite book (e.g. 30 to 60 minutes a day). Anything from 6 weeks to 6 months works well in providing a sense of dynamic continuity.

  7. We read through the NIV Chronological Bible (in a Year) as Rudy did. I completed the first time with my then, 11 year old daughter, who totally enjoyed the experience and learned so much about God and His Word….

    Now nearly completed again with our 18 year old son, slightly behind due to his university studies, but still, again, enjoying God’s Word, learning and retaining so much, but best of all, understanding more…The stories within stories, the links throughout and the fulfillment…Amazing..

    (btw, both children (young people), are dyslexic, so reading together has ‘shared the burden’ that heavy reading would normally be to them…
    Reading aloud together has also allowed the other child to ‘remember and participate’ when discussions have been raised on topics/issues….and the obvious pleasure they feel and show at their own retention and understanding – not in a prideful way…Pretty cool for a parent to witness.

  8. Thanks so much, Peter, for these on-target comments! We (both Pat & me) agree whole-heartedly. Since we are not able to do a lot of “reading”, per se, we plan on spending time daily listening to the dramatized NIV Bible on CD.

  9. Can I poss recommend The Visual Bible DVD’s we enjoyed watching together as a family.
    The Books of Matthew (brilliant for families – a very smily Jesus in this),
    Acts (a little wooden in acting at times but still good), and
    John (quite graphic due to the crucifixion scene so don’t recommend for under 12’s).
    All stayed true to text I believe.. We enjoyed them all and could be quite engaging for the more visual or auditory learner, for a change from text/audio.

    • We recently watched through all of these as a family and I’d agree with your comments. The quality of the John one is a step above the others (although the text used switches from NIV to GNB). All well worth using, especially as they are strict text in terms of wording.

  10. May I chime in on the discussion regarding reading plans? Formal reading plans, I think, have some built-in pitfalls. The most important one is that, if we’re really honest, they often serve the thing we love the most: ourselves. We can pat ourselves on the back about having been consistent with our “daily devotions” and having reached the goal of reading through the Bible in a year. We read, looking for little nuggets that will help us feel better about our lives or some new little rule to follow to help us feel more “godly.” The bottom line is, we make the mistake of thinking that our Bible reading is about us.

    A second pitfall is that reading plans often have you reading sections of the Bible from all over the place. Imagine watching a movie like “Gone With The Wind” and watching the beginning, 2/3 of the way through, 1/3 of the way through, the end, and then back to the middle—-over a period of year! Would you have any idea at all what was going on? In the same way, the Bible has a flow to it, an unfolding of God’s character and love. The Holy Spirit did, after all, have a hand in the way the books ultimately came together!

    On the other hand, if we approach our reading relationally, as in sitting down to listen to the heart of the One who loves us, we are no longer trying to check off boxes on the “good Christian” list. We are simply delighting in the opportunity to be in communion with the Lord. We are opening our Bibles to KNOW God, not just to know ABOUT Him. As we begin to do that, we begin to see our Bible reading as a delight, rather than a duty. In most areas of our lives, we don’t need a plan to direct us spend time with someone or to do something we enjoy! I say all of this as one who spent decades of my Christian life approaching my Bible reading as a self-serving duty.

    As someone I know often says, “Taste and see that the Lord is good!” You’ll find your Bible reading a joy as the Lord shares His heart with you.

  11. Just an observation:
    To quote Peter: “I don’t think the Robert Murray M’Cheyne reading plan is a good idea.”

    Also to quote: “Suggestion? Why not encourage and invite people to read the Bible aggressively and relationally, as if God has a personality and is personal. That is, by reading His Word with a passion to know Him, readers/listeners might get to know His personality and grow in their personal relationship with Him.”

    Am I missing something here where the “Essentially the problem with the plan….” is remedied by “…reading His Word with a passion to know Him..”
    Is the ‘problem plan’ remedied by a focus on motive? Can not the same motive “… to know Him” be the same for any plan the reader utilizes to at least get into the Word of God? It seems to me that if the motive of knowing God is at the heart, it makes little difference in what plan the reader uses.
    By the way, in submitting the idea that there is a better or best plan for a reader to use to read the Word, do the Scriptures themselves suggest one? Just a thought.

    Thanks Peter for the post. It is thought provoking.

    • Thanks Kieth, fair point I suppose. I think the rest of the post makes the connection, perhaps without the overt statement that you are looking for. That is, the plan seems to be designed for the sake of achieving a difficult duty, whereas the “go for it and enjoy it” approach sees it not as a healthy yet hard to take dietary supplement, but as a feast to enjoy. Indeed, if a plan helps, great. I just don’t think the plan is the most helpful approach to getting into the Word, and in fact I think by its very design it communicates some unhelpful suggestions about Bible reading.

      The post has certainly provoked some discussion, not just here, but on various discussion forums where most responses have fallen into one of two categories (either strong resonance with the concern I raise, or strong defense of the value of such plans as aids to discipline). Your response doesn’t, it points to a potential lack of follow through in the logic of argumentation.

      Do the Scriptures suggest a plan? I’d be interested to hear your thought on that.

      Thanks again for engaging with the post, Kieth.

      • I’d say that there may be hints of a plan in Scripture. A king was told to make a copy of the law for daily reading, which suggests it probably wasn’t intended to be a “sit down and read it all the way through” session, but rather to have a systematic plan to work his way through it. So for the Law, a McCheyne-like approach seems consistent with the instructions to a king, though it should be more than one chapter a day.

        For other parts of the Scripture, genre is perhaps indicative.

        The Psalms were songs, so I don’t think they were intended to be read straight through like a book. I don’t think Proverbs was written with that in mind, either. Again, a McCheyne-like approach for these might be good — read something from these parts of the Bible every day.

        The epistles of Paul were letters. They would have been read straight through upon receipt, although the longer ones theoretically could have been read in two sittings. But the Romans wouldn’t have bounced right to I Corinthians after reading their epistle, they would have gone back and read it again multiple times, digesting it, thinking about it, just the way I would read and repeatedly reread and think through a letter from a trusted mentor with thoughts about my ministry. Timothy probably memorised his letters from Paul — I would have, if I got letters like that. I’d read it every day for a month, and then read it again frequently, maybe once a week — wouldn’t you? If we are going to read the way the original readers would have read these letters, we’ll read them straight through, not a chapter or two at a time but usually all the way through, and then read them again the next day, and again, maybe every day for a week before moving on to another letter.

        The historical accounts, I believe, were intended to be read much like we would read a book. The Gospels aren’t strictly biographies, but seem to make sense to read the way we would a biography. These books seem to fit the approach you’ve described here. So do the prophetic books.

      • Thanks Jon. If I might share some thoughts in response?

        First, the king was to make a copy for daily reading, therefore a M’Cheyne-like approach seems consistent? Nobody has suggested reading the Law all the way through in one sitting (about 13 hours of reading, I estimate). We tend to think of the Law as the lists of instructions in certain sections, but probably the majority is written in narrative. Perhaps reading it as narrative helps us to spot the comparison and contrast between Abraham and Moses, as well as the developing nature of the Law in response to sin, etc. The genre suggests reading in flow, rather than reading bite-sized pieces. If I were living in OT Israel, I would want the king to read more than a chapter a day.

        There are increasing numbers of scholars who would encourage us to read Psalms as a book rather than a pick-and-mix hymn anthology. That is, to see the developing themes between Psalms, the subtle plot development of the whole psalter, etc. You suggest reading some every day. Fine. I would suggest reading through the whole Bible at a pace where you will get back to the Psalms before too long.

        You are right that letters would be read through as a whole. Incidentally, I have only written about one half of a daily Bible intake in this post. I encourage people to take half their Bible time and read through the whole Bible at a pace. The other half I would suggest spending in the kind of re-reading you describe in reference to epistles. I suggest folks go to where their motivation takes them, enjoy the book for a while and when their motivation looks over the fence at another book of the Bible, go there. So I agree with what you are saying here. I believe there is massive value in a combination of being washed by the Word as we read through (even allowing God’s personality to come through a sequence of several epistles in one go at times), and the much more diligent focused reading and study you are describing. I believe we lose the benefits of both fast reading and slower study when we pick off one out of context chapter from several locations in the canon.

      • Thanks, Peter, thought-provoking. Much of the Law is narrative, and your point on that is well taken. As I said, one chapter isn’t very much — my point is that when I read the instructions to a king, it sounds like a systematic approach to me.

        I do see value in reading poetry in context, but I’m convinced it is best in small chunks. A significant factor in the choice of genre, I believe, was to stimulate meditation, which points to small sections. It can be read both ways, of course.

        I vary my approach to reading wildly, and I mostly agree with what you are saying. I should add that I have found tremendous value in reading in 2 or more places at once, because often what I read in one passage sheds light on my other reading that I never noticed before. So I vary my schedule so that I’m always reading combinations I’ve not read previously. But I read very quickly, so I can read in 2 or 3 places at a time without limiting myself to 1-2 chapter sections.

      • Thanks Jon – it’s that last line that I think makes such a difference. I have the privilege of being in “full-time” ministry and so there are days when I am in four or five different Bible books for different reasons, but the key is to get the flow rather than just bite size chunks. We have too many people who view the Bible as an assortment of disconnected gems. And we also have the issue of training new believers that the Bible is both difficult and dull, so they will need a bite-sized check box approach or they’ll never be able to tolerate it (unhelpful, but so easily done by well meaning “disciplers”).

        I agree with you that the King was given systematic instructions. Maybe we should follow them too? (1) make your own handwritten copy, (2) read in it all the days of your life. The “systematic plan” element beyond the handwriting part is simply to read. That was my suggestion.

      • Peter: True observation. Maybe according to Heb.11:3 ” It is by faith we understand….”.

        Also, let me work on researching what, if anything, the Bible reveals
        as a plan or no plan for reading the Word. What comes to mind immediately is Jesus’ statement “…if you(pl) abide in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine, and you shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.”
        As iron sharpens iron….Thanks again and blessings to you Peter!

    • I find it interesting and egignang. Of course there are sections that are a bit dull or hard to understand, but that’s just because I don’t know enough about it. Reading the Bible is profoundly interesting to me. I study it more than just read it. It’s amazing how a passage I’ve read dozens of times can suddenly take on new meaning and become vital and full of insight for life. I keep a notebook to jot down ideas and insights.I’m the sort of person who reads like i breathe :]

  12. If I could act as a friendly, peaceful contrarion here for a moment…

    Last year, I adopted a plan (advocated at Challies.com) which had me reading one chapter from ten different sections of Scripture each day. After reading this post, I felt convicted to change that and do what is advocated here, the more straightforward reading of whole books in a more natural manner.

    After reading about half the Scripture in that fashion, I have gone back to my previous plan.

    Initially, when I was doing the Challies plan, within the first month, I was mostly convinced that it wasn’t going to work for me, precisely because of what you mention here (lack of flow, loss of context, etc.) But then a strange thing started happening. My memory got better. It quickly got to the point where I got that lost “flow” back, and as I read each chapter, I realized that I was not at all “lost” when it came to context, or to the progression of the story, or argument, or whatever.

    So I am suggesting that all the criticisms listed above that have to do with not “getting into the flow” of the book are not as forceful as they initially sounded to me when I read them. Initially, I’ll grant, you may feel jarred as you move from reading the prophets to reading a chapter from Acts, then one from 2 Timothy, etc. But it doesn’t stay that way, as you train your gray matter to keep track of everything.

    I have done my daily reading today, hours ago, and without notes or anything but memory to appeal to, I am confident I could take you through all ten sections and summarize the contents of the chapters I read, as well as talk intelligently about how they fit in the flow of the books they came from. Again, I think this tends to blunt the force of the whole loss-of-context argument.

    And if I may extend what has already been a shamefully long comment, I would add that my reading plan has a strength that the one advocated here does not. That is, my plan very often allows you to read the Bible as it comments on itself. I mean, I can not recount the number of times I have read in Numbers, for instance, only to have the incident in that book commented on in the same day’s reading, whether in Psalms, or the prophets, or the New Testament. And sometimes more than one of those in a day! This strikes me as a strength that tends to give you not merely a grip on the flow of the book you’re in, but the overall flow and consistency of the entire Bible.

    But at the end of the day, I agree, it’s probably all about actually getting the reading done. So I’ll concede, to reference the sage, “I like your way of doing it, more than most peoples’ way of not doing it.”

  13. Gordan, thanks for your comment. I’m glad that you are finding help in the approach you have settled on. In my post I carefully noted that many have been helped by the M’Cheyne plan. Let me add that I know many people who have not. Part of that is due, I feel, to the whole issue of the bite sized chunk approach, tied into the ethos of “you probably couldn’t manage to read it straight through because it is so hard going, so let’s make it more manageable.”

    Another part of the issue is that actually four chapters a day doesn’t get people past the distracted phase. Your approach with ten chapters at least addresses the second issue – you are reading a lot, as if it is worth reading!
    I grew up in Italy and used to enjoy the multi-course meals, often seven, eight, maybe even ten courses. The approach you describe strikes me in two ways (and of course I speak as one who hasn’t tried it). One thing that is clear is that you must be hungry for the Bible to want to read ten chapters a day – so this seems to reduce the whole negative suggestion issue inherent in M’Cheyne and similar plans. You obviously have a hunger for it and I think that is crucial, that was a big part of the argument of my post. The second thing that stands out to me is that it would seem a little creative, perhaps even a little strange, to take a couple of bites out of each course of a meal, rather than enjoying each course as it was intended to be enjoyed by the cook.

    I still hold that God gave us books and those books were written to be read (actually probably heard) straight through, rather than chopped up. While you will see passages referring to each other, I would also point to the fact that reading at a ten chapters plus per day pace will get you to different books quick enough to also see the connections far more clearly than if you only get somewhere once a year or less.

    My goal isn’t to tear down, but to build up. I’ve seen many people struggle with bitty approaches and with slow paced read throughs. I’ve seen many people have their lives transformed by the higher pace, in the flow, reading. Let’s do all we can to offer the Bible to others with infectious enthusiasm – not for how necessary it is for us to grow in knowledge and make ourselves better Christians, but for how good it is because of how wonderful the God who reveals Himself to us is, so that we can grow in our relationship with Him.

  14. Peter, I think I can agree with you in your response here, almost completely, with the remainder not worth making a fuss over. Especially the last paragraph I resonate with completely.

    The itty-bitty approach does seem to coddle to those who are really not all that interested in the Book to begin with. When I was converted, I had no plan, but I did have a hunger, and read through the Bible as you suggest, in large chunks, books at a time.

  15. M’Cheyne’s own comments are here:

    http://www.mcheyne.info/calendar.pdf

    He died within a few months of issuing these notes to his congregation in 1842 when he was in his late 20’s.

    I think he agrees in his notes with the general reservations made here about the plan.

    Sadly, he did not live long enough to assess the effectiveness or otherwise of his plan. It can only be a matter of conjecture as to whether he might have revised it, and whether he would have been surprised to find it used and debated in 2012 – 170 years later. I suspect both.

    plm

  16. Whilst not disagreeing with the need to really get a reading plan which gets you into the Bible with a passion for getting to know God in a deeper and relational way, I’m not sure if you overstate your case against the M’Cheyne plan. I must admit that I found the plan frustrating at one time, because I seemed to be jumping from one section of the Bible to another. However these last two years I have been really blessed in going back to M’Cheyne.
    One of the reasons is that I have often been struck by how the different parts of Scripture hold together and enlighten each other. Another positive aspect of the plan is that the variety helps when reading some of the more tough going books (Have you never felt yourself discouraged at times with the ungodliness and violence of Judges for example?) I have often found myself also taking time to read around one of the chapters, putting it in context. It is easy to be legalistic, and even to use the plan as a tick box exercise. (This can be true of any plan) However it does not have to be so.
    My own feeling is that a variety of plans is good, using one for a couple of years, and then changing it. Probably I would wish to add one word to your provocative sentence above: “I don’t think the Robert Murray M’Cheyne reading plan is always a good idea.”

    • Thanks Dafydd. I really appreciate your comment here and know that others will too. The reason I wrote the post was to provoke people to think about an approach that is assumed to be good, but does have some serious flaws. I agree that mixing up our approach can be helpful. I will often read with the Hebrew order of the Old Testament (which avoids reading Samuel-Kings-Chronicles back to back), and sometimes mix up the New Testament using a Gospel followed by naturally connected epistles. At the same time, moving quickly through the Bible avoids the drag effect of slowly trudging through heavy going sections. All these details aside, surely the best option is to talk to God about it and pursue Him as we read His Word. Thanks again for your comment and engaging with the site!

  17. I’ve thought about this from time to time since. I’m using the Bible in a year plan with my wife now. And here is the reason why a multiple genre plan should be used.

    The beauty of the word seen on a daily basis.

    A balanced diet of the word that connects the broader narrative of God’s story ending in wisdom.

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