How memorising the Bible empowers us for discipleship and mission

Take the Bible Memory Challenge

In 2018, Baeble Music released its list of the top karaoke songs of all time. You don’t have to particularly like any of these songs or even have been born in the era when they were hits to have some of the lyrics of every one of these songs buried in your brain somewhere. Here’s the list:

1. Mr Brightside – The Killers

2. You Oughta Know – Alanis Morissette

3. I Will Always Love You – Whitney Houston

4. Don’t Stop Believin’ –  Journey

5. Cheerleader – OMI

6. Wonderwall – Oasis

7. Ain’t No Mountain High Enough – Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell

8. (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman – Aretha Franklin

9. Under Pressure – Queen and David Bowie

10. Time After Time – Cyndi Lauper

Go on, admit it. You heard a strain of “Just a small town girl, livin’ in a lonely world,” didn’t you? What about “If you fall I will catch you, I will be waiting”? We might not know the whole song, and we might have even misheard or misremembered the lyrics, but a couple of lines like “Maybe, you’re gonna be the one that saves me. And after all, you’re my wonderwall” – well, they really stick, don’t they? They’re not called earworms for nothing.

Memorisation used to be a central part of learning.

What about lines from movies? We have friends who can quote whole scenes from The Big Lebowski. And everyone knows “I’ll have what she’s having,” from When Harry Met Sally; or “You complete me,” from Jerry Maguire; or “I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse,” from The Godfather.

It never ceases to amaze people what bits of useless dialogue they have rattling around in their brains. Jack Nicholson’s courtroom testimony in A Few Good Men or Al Pacino’s speech to the school board hearing in Scent of a Woman. Stupid gags from Ron Burgundy or Michael Scott. The esoteric musings of Dale Cooper. What’s the use of knowing all that stuff? Is our memory just a repository for random bits of pointless data?

And yet memorisation used to be a central part of learning. I (Michael) am just old enough to remember when I was a young student in Australia, being made to recite long swathes of poetry or learn multiplication tables by rote. We were forced to memorise the periodic table of elements, and (for some reason) we had to be able to recount every river that flows into the eastern seaboard of Australia from north to south, and the major towns on its banks! I hated it – mostly because we got hit with a ruler if we got it wrong; things have changed a lot since then, thank goodness.

Memorisation has a bad rap these days. Mainly because we know that information learned by rote in school is soon forgotten when we have no other use for it, but also because we live in an age when impromptu expression is more highly valued than memorised screeds.

Note how today people think public prayer is more meaningful if it’s made up right there on the spot. We’re suspicious of memorised liturgies because we assume they don’t come from the heart. We prefer preachers who appear to be presenting extemporaneously to those who are either reading their notes or reciting them by rote. We don’t trust politicians who are woodenly following a teleprompter. Our love of unrehearsed speech and our scepticism about memorised information have meant that no one commits anything to memory much anymore, except maybe PIN numbers.

Rote learning is like burpees for the brain.

And yet, in his treatise On the Education of Children, Plutarch claimed memory was a key component in the development of students:

Above all, the memory of children should be trained and exercised; for this is, as it were, a storehouse of learning; and it is for this reason that the mythologists have made Memory the mother of the Muses, thereby intimating by an allegory that there is nothing in the world like memory for creating and fostering.[1]

In other words, the brain is a muscle, and if you want it to be strong enough to be creative and intelligent, you have to exercise it. According to Plutarch, rote learning is like burpees for the brain. We might forget useless information we memorised, but the process of learning it was good for us.

Bible memory expands our vision of God’s kingdom

More than 50 years ago, The Navigators released the Topical Memory System (TMS). It offered a simple system for memorising Bible verses that help you live a new life, proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ, rely on God’s resources, be a disciple and grow in Christlikeness. A sibling edition would focus on life issues: anger, dealing with sin, sex, money, suffering and more. The verses chosen for memorisation encouraged Christians to experience victory over sin, overcome fear and worry, enjoy boldness in witness, discover fresh depths of discipleship, and move from egotism to humility.

The TMS has a great story – decades of Christians whose faith lives have been enriched by its focus on divine love, transformed hearts and foundational texts for an evangelical theology. But every tool has its limits, and we and others have observed that the verses included in the TMS don’t touch on the more communal, social and missional implications of the gospel. It is possible, then, for someone to do the good work of memorising Scripture through a system like the TMS and come out on the other end assuming the gospel to be entirely individualistic, even egocentric.

This is not to say that the verses commended by the TMS are unimportant – they are the word of God, after all – but there are many sections of Scripture also worthy of memorisation that the TMS doesn’t touch, and those sections can expand our kingdom vision to include a life of justice and mercy, peacemaking and reconciliation.

Rick Warren once said he immersed himself in the Bible and found 2000 verses on the poor. “How did I miss that? I went to Bible college, two seminaries and I got a doctorate. How did I miss God’s compassion for the poor? I was not seeing all the purposes of God.”[2]

Memorising Scripture shouldn’t just help us internalise the key themes of our faith or overcome personal difficulties. We need an approach to Bible memorisation that helps us embrace a kingdom and missional theology, that leads us to whole-of-life discipleship, and that aids the Jesus-reflecting and activist Christian life.

Our new book Hide This In Your Heart offers such an approach to Bible memory. It immerses you in many of the great (but often forgotten or neglected) themes of Scripture. These include hospitality, reconciliation, justice, peacemaking, compassion, love of enemies, sentness and more. As you memorise (and visualise) and learn (relationally and through practices) key verses related to these biblical themes, you are empowered to live a surprising, “questionable” life.

Our book offers an approach to Scripture memorisation that helps us develop a radical Christian faith and an activist spirituality. Our approach to Bible memorisation uses the latest science about how the brain works, how relationships form us, and how habits and practices shape us. Our method moves us away from an individualistic and intellectual form of Bible memory to one that aids us to be agents of reconciliation, prophets of justice, people of peace and disciples who join with Jesus in his mission.

Take the Bible Memory Challenge

Welcome to the Bible Memory Challenge. Bible memory can transform our lives. The words of the Bible enable us to live out God’s compassion, justice and mercy. Those who memorise passages from the Bible find greater assurance of God’s love and a deeper understanding of how to follow Jesus.

Here’s how to do the Bible Memory Challenge with your friends/church/group.

Choose one of the memory verses we have listed below. Spend a day or two repeating it over and over, and committing it to memory. Grab a copy of Hide This in Your Heart and your smartphone or computer. Record yourself saying something like this (in your own words, if you like):

“Hi, it’s (YOUR NAME) here and I’m doing the Bible Memory Challenge. I’ve chosen to memorise (NAME THE BIBLE VERSE) which says these words (QUOTE THE VERSE TO CAMERA). The reason I like this verse is (GIVE ONE OR TWO SENTENCES ON WHY YOU LOVE THIS VERSE OR WHY IT CHALLENGES YOU). I’m tagging (NAME TWO PEOPLE) in this Bible Memory Challenge, so that they can also record themselves doing the challenge, and they can tag two more people.”

Post your video on social media, tagging two other people to do the Bible Memory Challenge.

Remember to use these hashtags when you post your video: #BibleMemoryChallenge #HideThisInYourHeart

Here are some verses to get you started:

John 3:17-18

Luke 14:13-14

Zechariah 7:9

Matthew 5:9

Matthew 5:43-44

Romans 1:16

Matthew 28:18-20

Micah 6:8

Go to HideThisInYourHeart.com to watch a webinar on how to do the Bible Memory Challenge.

This post is from the first chapter of Graham Joseph Hill’s and Michael Frost’s new co-authored book, Hide This in Your Heart: Memorizing Scripture for Kingdom Impact (NavPress, 2020). 

[1] Plutarch, Moralia, Volume I: The Education of Children, trans. Frank Cole Babbitt, Loeb Classical Library 197, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1927), 13. “Muses” were goddesses who oversaw poetry, music, singing, dancing, comedy, and the like.
[2] Rick Warren in Timothy C. Morgan, “Purpose Driven in Rwanda,” Christianity Today, October 2005.

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