I learned to read when I was 25—at least that’s when I learned to read communally. I began participating in a weekly reading group where we discussed Augustine, Calvin, Edwards, Lewis, and others in an interactive, discussion-driven environment. I could’ve read these works alone, but I wouldn’t have understood them as deeply, nor would they have shaped me so dramatically.
I heard authors differently when I heard them speak to our group, when 20 saints brought their shared insights, experiences, and studies to bear on a text. It was then I realized how important it is to read in community.
Only later did I realize I was participating in a tradition God’s people have been engaged in since the first century and before.
What Is Communal Reading?
Paul instructed Timothy, “Devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture” (1 Tim. 4:13). He told his disciple to read Scripture aloud to his church so God’s people would hear God’s Word together—as a community rather than as individuals. He was prioritizing communal reading versus individualistic reading, whether public or private. Communal reading is when two or more people gather together to read, hear, and discuss a written text.
Reading with others wasn’t a new phenomenon in the first century. It’s first mentioned in the Old Testament when God commanded Moses to write down recent events and then read it to and with Joshua (Exod. 17:14). Other examples of reading in community abound and often appear at key moments in the history of God’s covenant people, such as the conclusion of the Torah (Deut. 31:11–12), the revival during the reign of Josiah (2 Chron. 34:30), and the return of the exilic community in Nehemiah (Neh. 8:7–8). Important things happen when God’s people gather to hear and respond to his Word together.
During the time of Jesus, communal-reading events were pervasive in Greco-Roman, Jewish, and Christian contexts. Indeed, every book in the New Testament was written to be read in community, even Philemon and 3 John. The apostle Paul put a whole church “under oath before the Lord” to read his letter together (1 Thess. 5:27). He instructed and expected Christian communities to circulate his letters and read them aloud (Col. 4:16). John opens Revelation with these words: “Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of the prophecy, and blessed are those who hear and who keep what is written in it” (1:3).
According to the New Testament, community reading involved a broad range of venues, participants, and cultures—widespread socially as well as geographically. They could be as small and unexpected as a chariot (Acts 8:26–40) or as large and routine as a synagogue service (Luke 4:16–30). The setting could be formal like the Hall of Tyrannus (Acts 19:9), or informal like a home (Luke 1:63) or apartment (Acts 28:23). Communal readings involved both interaction and feedback (Acts 13:15–16; 18:26). Jude and 1 Peter even seem to be addressed to bookish communities familiar with apocryphal Jewish literature such as 1 Enoch, the Testament of Abraham, and the Testament of Moses.
Evangelism, discipleship, and deep study all centered on reading together. By reading in community believers were able to
- settle debates (Acts 15:16–30)
- rejoice together (Acts 15:31)
- maintain unity in diversity (Acts 15:33)
- bring the light of Christ to an unbelieving world (Acts 17:2)
- commend people (Rom. 16:1–2)
- understand Paul’s insights into the mystery of Christ (Eph. 3:4)
Reading together was often more fruitful than reading alone. It aided understanding (Acts 8:31; cf. Luke 24:32), fostered community connections (Col 4:16), and allowed Christians to discuss their common confession (Heb. 3:1) and hear the Spirit speak (Rev. 2:29). In fact, believers’ lives were meant to be walking communal-reading events for everyone to examine and read (2 Cor. 3:2–3).
Believers’ lives were meant to be walking communal-reading events for everyone to examine and read.
An important fact obscured in English Bible translations is that almost all the second-person pronouns and commands in the epistles are plural. Paul was writing to you all or y’all, not to you individualistically, which is how we tend to interpret them when we read individually.
Let’s Read Together
Communal reading has a prestigious pedigree running from Moses through Jesus (Luke 4), Paul (Acts 17), the early church (Col. 4), and beyond. Yet many Christians today read little and gather infrequently. How can we retrieve this great tradition and reinstitute this important spiritual practice?
First, instead of challenging believers to simply “take up and read,” encourage them to “take up and read together.” Pastors can promote this practice by providing reading lists for their congregations, Sunday schools, and ministries to work through as a body. Individuals can begin reading groups that meet to discuss not only Scripture and Christian literature but also classic novels, poetry, and other genres. It’s no sin to read outside the Bible, for sola scriptura means the primacy of Scripture, not exclusivity of Scripture.
Parents also need to realize that a suitable education includes, if not emphasizes, communal reading. The classical Christian school my daughter attends accomplishes this goal in several ways. They set aside time each week for communal reading in the classroom, with outside readers filling in occasionally. They also encourage parents to read with their children at least 600 minutes per month (about 20 minutes a day), and they give us a handy template to track our progress.
Reading communally should take place in churches, schools, and homes—not just for edification but for fun. For many first-century Jews and Christians (4 Macc. 18:10–18; 2 Tim. 3:15), reading in community was recreational as well as sacred or scholarly. They would read, discuss, and sing the Scriptures together at home. Perhaps your family could read (or reread) the Chronicles of Narnia, or you could learn the The New City Catechism, which includes music.
However you implement it, read together. Read aloud. Read in communities and as communities for the sake of God’s redeemed community and the good of your community at large.
Take up and read—together!