Scribing (Part 3 of 3)


By Joel Shenk

Editor's note: read the first two parts of this series here and here

We don’t know where we get our ideas. What we do know is that we don’t get them from our laptops.
— Austin Kleon in Steal Like An Artist

Scribing isn’t a panacea for all spiritual or discipleship challenges, but neither is anything else. Just like prayer, fasting, or attending worship services, sometimes we jive with it and sometimes we don’t. We may even go through seasons when the practice is more meaningful than others.

Nevertheless, I have seen three primary areas where fruit has been born through scribing. Two are personal, and the other is in my congregation.

First, personal: Building up one’s mental concordance is invaluable, and scribing is helping me do that. When you read a passage of scripture it might take you a two or three minutes. But when you scribe that passage, it might take you 20 minutes. That’s 20 minutes spent in the text thinking about it, examining it, and working your way through it. That’s a lot more time to allow the text to sink it.

Scribing is a way to take in, ingest, and consume the text so that it feeds and nourishes your soul. As I have done this, I’ve become more familiar with the text, and I remember it better. One could even take it up a notch and try to memorize the order of the passages in a book as you go. I haven’t done this, but I know people who have.

Over time, your mental concordance grows. You may come across an image or word in the text and remember another way that it was used; even in ways that don’t make it into the cross-references. Google can help you find any passage you want, but it can’t help you see the connections between them. That can only be done through building your own mental concordance. This doesn’t happen overnight, but scribing does help you to develop your own mental concordance.

Second, personal: Noticing small details can make a big difference. Scribing forces you to pay attention to even the minutia of punctuation, and this can help you see things you might not see otherwise.

For example, Matthew 4:13 says “(Jesus) left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum.” Pretty bland statement of fact in one aspect. But it also says that Jesus had a home. Jesus had a home. I never thought of that before. It’s one thing to know that Jesus was from somewhere, it’s another thing to think that Jesus actually moved out of mom and dad’s house to get a home of his own with a door to walk through, some kind of stove to cook on, and all kinds of other possessions.

This detail becomes even more striking when you get to Matthew 4:19-20 or 8:18-22 when Jesus calls would-be followers to give up their stuff to follow him. By the time Jesus called his disciples to give up their stuff and follow him, he had already left his own home behind. He knew what he was asking them to do. He knew what he was asking them to give up.

Is this detail super significant? Is this something to build a sermon or an entire theology around? Maybe not. But it’s an example of a new connection that occurred to me while scribing. In that moment, it was like the scripture went from 2D to 3D or black-and-white to color. It seemed more alive, and no matter how many times I read that passage before that thought never occurred to me.


Finally, my congregation: Scribing isn’t something I kept to myself but that I shared with my congregation. (Again, this idea came from my friend Don; none of my ideas are original).

Twice a month we do intergenerational Christian formation. During one of these sessions, I introduced the concept of scribing. I shared some of my own scribing, and I invited participants to scribe the first chapter of Mark.

In addition, another woman in the church purchased a TUL notebook system, and we set up a scribing station using an old pulpit and a stool. I set before the congregation the goal of scribing the entire gospel of Mark together. That first Sunday, we had each person write one or two verses so that everyone’s handwriting would be a part of it. We have since kept the scribing station set up permanently so that anyone who comes in-and-out of the church building can pick up where the previous person left off.

This has been a community-building endeavor. Children and youth have been some of the most engaged. I particularly notice two youth and a few adults who are committed regulars at scribing each Sunday. We invite visitors to scribe. We also have an after-school tutoring program in our building, and several of the students who come to that program have been interested in scribing as well. Some people write a single verse at a time, others write longer passages in one sitting.

No matter how saturated we are with digital entertainment, it’s been amazing to see how people have latched on to the invitation to scribe - especially youth.

As of this writing, our congregation has scribed up to Mark chapter 10. Once we are finished, anytime we have a reading from Mark during worship we will read from that notebook composed of the word of God in the handwriting of the entire community.

After we finish Mark, if there is still energy for this, we’ll move on to another book, and I look forward to what additional fruit will be born in the life of the congregations and in the lives of the individuals who participate.

Joel Shenk has been serving as pastor at Toledo Mennonite Church since October 2010. He lives with his wife and two daughters in Toledo. You will often find them as regulars at the Toledo Farmer’s Market, SIP Coffee, and any number of our wonderful local library branches. 

Pastor Joel graduated from Fuller Theological Seminary. He loves reading and talking about the church and mission (both local and global) and is inspired by the good news of the Kingdom of God that Jesus preached. Lately, he also has been exploring the practice of contemplative prayer.