Sometimes choosing a pew Bible is a kind of afterthought. I grew up in churches that didn’t even have pew Bibles. It was expected that all the church members would have their own and would bring them to church. But for many churches the pew Bible can have a major impact both on worship and on learning.
One church I was associated with decided to get some new pew Bibles. They wanted to get the NIV, because most of the members used that at home, and the pastor also used it in preaching. Then it turned out that they could get NRSV pew Bibles cheaper from their primary source, and so the church now has NRSV Bibles in the pews. Most commonly scripture readings are taken from a different version, and the pastor uses a third version in preaching. The members still own the NIV more than any other version, so the pew Bible is of a version that is rarely used.
How can one choose a good pew Bible, especially considering the inevitable differences in the desires of various church members?
The key to this process is to be very clear first about your mission, and then about your use of scripture in your worship services. Ideally, your use of scripture will reflect your church’s mission, and will help your church carry out your mission.
Most churches will speak of a mission to the community and of outreach when discussing their mission. But often the actions of the church speak of a considerably different mission. For example, if a church claims to be dedicated to reaching modern young people, and yet uses the KJV in preaching and teaching, there is probably a disconnect between the claimed goal and the actual goal.
Assuming your church is trying to reach someone, let’s look at some of the groups you might want to reach:
- Persons who have never been church members and who did not grow up in church
- Persons who grew up in church, but have left
- Churched persons who are dissatisfied with their current congregation
- Needy persons who can be reached with literacy programs
- Young people
- Persons whose primary language is something other than English
- College age adults
- Educated and professional people
- Existing, long-time members
I personally think all of these groups, and many more that I have not mentioned, should be reached by a church, and many of them are not. I would not criticize a church for having an outreach to any of these groups as its goal, or the goal of one of its worship services. But it is important for your church to recognize who they are really reaching. Often we speak of outreach to the unchurched, but we run worship services that are designed for habitual church goers.
Further, we must ask what role scripture plays in the worship service. Do you use scripture readings as a means of worship? Do you use responive readings? Are members of the congregation asked to read scripture out load? Is scripture primarily a part of teaching? How important is easy understanding to the effect of your scripture reading.
It is not sufficient just to choose a Bible with a good “public reading” rating on one of my version charts. That was one of the ratings I was not even sure I should use because it is so subjective. What I like in public reading may well be very different from what you like. The CEV, for example, was translated with oral reading in mind, yet I know many people who abhor hearing it in public scripture reading, even when they appreciate it for private reading. I personally rate the CEV at an ‘8’ (out of 10) for public reading, and the ESV as a ‘5’, but I know many people who would rather hear the ESV.
In addition, I know many people who love the KJV for public reading because they think it just sounds like a Bible. It has a “spiritual ring” to it for many people’s ears. But those same people will admit that they really don’t understand what they hear very easily.
Young people are likely to follow modern versions with little “church language” such as the CEV, the NCV, or the TNIV. Older members, or more educated (or perhaps just more intellectual in attitude) may prefer something that sounds a bit more dignified, like the REB, the NRSV, or the ESV. Those versions, however, contain a good deal of church language, and so may be less effective for teaching.
Consider also what most church members are using at home. If you are going to use a different Bible in the pew than people normally bring to church, be aware of the questions that may occur. If you use responsive readings, check your hymnal as well and find out what version is used in preprinted responsive readings.
If you find the need to compromise between a more “majestic” sounding version for scripture readings as part of worship, and a more readable version for teaching in church, consider putting an “easy to read” version in the pews, and printing scripture readings and responsive readings in your bulletin. Consider also doing some teaching about Bible translations so that your members will understand why versions are different and be able to make intelligent choices about them.