Using the Common English Bible in Worship

For the past several months we have been using The Common English Bible in worship at the Old Hickory UMC where I serve and given that the good folks at the  CEB have asked me to write about their translation during National Bible Week, it makes sense to share our experience.

I confess that I have often bounced between translation options in worship. Generally the “official” standard in the United Methodist Church has been the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), and every church that I have served has a large NRSV on display or on the pulpit (they also usually have a large King James lying around, but that’s an issue for another post).  The NRSV is certainly a fine translation, representing excellent scholarship, and is perhaps the most poetic in language of the modern translations, but the reading level tends to be higher and the language choice is more formal (I often say more British in character to my ears) and can easily slip by the modern American reader. My preference has tended toward the New International Version (NIV) which feels more American in the use of language, and seems to be written at a lower reading level that is more accessible. However, the NIV (like all translations) has a theological bias that can sometimes be problematic in word choices, especially in regards to gendered language. As a means of dealing with some of the problems of the “traditional” NIV (1984 era) I have used the Today’s New International Version (TNIV) with good success. I’ve likewise very occasionally used Eugene Peterson’s The Message, but I’ve had enough folks feel like it is the “way out, hippy bible” that I only use that for specific purposes.

When the CEB came out, I decided to give it a shot. Our practice is to print the week’s scripture reading in the bulletin so that we can all gather around the same text in a common translation, and the knowledge that most mainline folks tend to not haul bible’s with them to church. We DO have NRSV pew bibles, but I find that are not often used, and in printing the scripture in the bulletin we ensure that they will have a visual reinforcement of the reading before them.

What we have discovered is that the CEB seems to be integrating into our worship with no problems. The language is easily accessible, but familiar to modern ears. In comparing the translations with the NIV and NRSV I find more accessible language but always in the pursuit of clarity of meaning. The feedback that I am receiving from the congregation is that they are getting more out of the scripture readings, and that there is a clearer connection to the sermon which follows.

There are a few caveats. I find that the CEB sacrifices poetry for clarity, and so in those cases where we are looking for a more poetic rendition (such is in praying the Psalms or other liturgical forms) I may be more likely to draw on the TNIV or the NRSV. It feels to me that the CEB is better for teaching than for liturgics, but that may come from my own familiarity with the language of the Psalms and a dissonance between my past experiences and the new language.

Our experience with using the CEB in worship is positive, and I believe that this translation is opening up the scriptures to our congregation in new ways. They are hearing and experiencing things they have never heard before, and I believe this is bringing them to new places in faith.

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