Ken Boer on Scripture Memorization Methods
Memorizing Bible verses and passages can enrich family, school, and church communities. Internalizing God’s Word, whether by music or another method, helps Christians meditate, pray, and grow closer together with God and each other.
Ken Boer is pastor of worship at First Evangelical Church in Memphis, Tennessee. Known as First Evan, the congregation is an independent, evangelical church with Presbyterian roots and Bible-focused worship. Boer designed the Biblevox website to help Christians memorize the Bible through song. In this edited conversation, he explains why and how to commit scripture to heart.
When and why did memorizing scripture become important to you?
Years ago, a friend gave me a book of New International Version passages set to hymn tunes written by a Christian-school principal. He led the kids in his school in singing them, and they all knew dozens of long passages by heart by the time they graduated. I decided to give it a try on my own. After recording myself singing his songs at the piano, I sang along (with myself) in the car for a summer on my hour-long commute. I was astonished! I had never been much of a memorizer, and by the end of that summer I had memorized a dozen psalms.
This experience took on a corporate dimension a few months later when I joined a church that had a church-wide scripture memory program. I wrote songs for the verses we were working on and was able to record them thanks to someone’s donation of studio time. A few weeks later, a family stood up in church and sang the verse when the pastor asked if anyone could recite it. When I prayed with others in that church, the experience was rich and deep. Many saints knew the Word, prayed it back to God, and were united in heart because they had been meditating on similar themes together.
Do you still memorize scripture?
My memorization pattern has continued, though not always at the same intensity. The verses I memorized early on often show up in my prayers and conversation. Phrases from Psalms 34, 103, and 150 form a part of many of my prayers when I’m praising God. When I’m praying with someone going through difficulty, I’ll trace through Psalm 23, Psalm 40, or passages from Philippians or Ephesians, using them as a lens to bring requests together to the Lord. It ministers both to their soul and mine.
Over the years, I have been struck by how the Spirit uses our memory. Particular phrases will come into my mind, often when I am deciding whether to make a good, spiritual choice or do whatever my natural self would desire. I feel the Spirit’s work applying scripture to me (Ps. 119:105).
Is there a best process for memorizing scripture?
Each of us is wired differently. My wife retains information visually and can remember where passages are on the page in her Bible. I forget most everything I see but remember what I hear, so songs are my primary method for memorization.
I do most of my memorization in the car. I listen a number of times, and when it starts to stick, I work on singing along. My retention is much higher if my mouth is moving. Over time, my mind turns over the meanings of phrases, connections between verses, the structure of the passage, and the songwriter’s interpretation. This may take several weeks, depending on the length of the passage, and I’ll often work on a small handful of songs at once so that I don’t burn out on one.
When you learn Bible verses by singing them, can you still remember the words as spoken text?
Once I’m able to sing a passage from memory, I usually take the additional step of saying it out loud a number of times (not singing). I try to say it naturally, not according to the rhythm of the song but in natural speech. This gets me to the point where I can quote it or pray it aloud, and I know that it’s stuck. I want to make sure that when I remove the scaffolding of the song, the verses are able to stand on their own in my mind. I periodically review, but I’m not systematic about it.
You created the Biblevox website to help Christians find Scripture songs . . .
Yes, I created Biblevox because my life has been changed as I’ve memorized Scripture through song. It is a free website designed to help Christians memorize the Bible through song. It includes over three thousand songs from hundreds of artists, all searchable by verse, topic, and Bible version. Biblevox is a responsive site, formatted to work well in the web browser on your phone, tablet, or computer. If you create a shortcut for it on your phone, it can function like any other app.
What are some methods of singing scripture?
Different methods vary in their strengths and weaknesses. Metrical psalms enable a congregation to sing entire psalms to an understandable melody in parts but require adapting Scripture to meter and rhyme. The Hymnary.org website is a great source for finding metrical psalms.
Even if we could cantillate in Hebrew and could learn the psalms as well as Paul and the apostles likely did in synagogue, we’d still have to translate to English to communicate with others. Chant allows the use of the plain text of scripture but requires a limited melody and a free meter. Scripture songs from the 1970s and 1980s helped many Christians sing in a contemporary idiom but worked best with a small amount of text. The variation in function, I think, is one of the reasons we’re told to sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. Different forms serve different functions and have different emphases.
How else might people explore ways to set scripture to music?
The Calvin Institute of Christian Worship has put out some remarkable resources, including Psalms for All Seasons, Singing the New Testament, and John Witvliet’s The Biblical Psalms in Christian Worship. They demonstrate a beautiful diversity.
What do the scripture memory songs on Biblevox have in common?
Scripture memory songs have their own set of parameters. Because a writer is working with exact language, they have to work harder at making it fit musically. The text does not have a rhyme scheme or consistent meter. Melodies often repeat, but with slight alteration from section to section. There’s an art to writing songs that are memorable melodically and reflect the text well.
The Biblevox project wouldn’t have been possible a decade or two ago. But now, almost everyone can immediately record and publish music and videos through a phone and social media. The cost of professional recording has dropped by many orders of magnitude. The rise of streaming services has made it possible for Christians to have access to all sorts of music instantly. Biblevox is an attempt to promote the spiritual discipline of scripture memorization through recorded audio.
Do you know of effective non-musical methods to memorize the Bible?
Non-musical processes include note cards, mobile apps, recitation events, youth competitions, and memorizing with friends. Andrew Davis’s An Approach to Extended Memorization of Scripture may be helpful for those working on long passages.