The decline in biblical literacy
It was Saturday night and my youngest daughter’s cry of anguish had me dashing downstairs from my study to see what disaster had befallen her. I found Elizabeth, who was about nine at the time, remonstrating with the television. She was watching Who Wants to be a Millionaire and the £64,000 question was this: ‘In the Bible, which one of these was a king of Israel – Samuel, Solomon, Simeon or Samson?’ She was horrified that what she considered to be such an easy question could have earned the contestant so much money, and she was even more horrified that he did not know the answer. He had a guess, because he was guaranteed £32,000 no matter what, and he guessed incorrectly. Hence all her shouting. If, like me, you are a quiz programme watcher, you know that this is par for the course. The big surprise comes when contestants on quiz shows get the Bible questions right. I know that this is not a very scientific basis for a theory, but that seems to me to indicate that, in the wider community, knowledge of even the most basic Bible facts has fallen off a cliff. What is even more disturbing is that this trend is mirrored in the wider church. As in so many matters, the church is copying the culture rather than being different from it.
Why the decline?
There are a number of reasons why, in the church as in our culture, there is a rapidly declining level of biblical literacy. Not all of them are bad. I am encountering more and more people who have come to faith in Jesus from a totally secular background. They have little knowledge of the Bible apart from the basic truths necessary for becoming a Christian. It is fantastic to see them being converted, but their lack of biblical literacy poses problems for them. When they are encouraged to read the Bible for themselves, they do not know where to begin or how to go about reading this important, but new-to-them, book. They also have massive problems with preaching because most of the sermons they listen to assume a knowledge of basic Bible facts that they do not have. The conversion of these people from a non-Bible background is bound to pull down the level of biblical literacy in the church.
However, there are much more sinister reasons behind the drop in Bible knowledge in the church. One of them is the decline in the habit of daily Bible reading among Christians. When I was converted, I was taught the discipline of thoughtfully and prayerfully reading a section of the Bible each day. And it took discipline because there was homework, rugby training and chores to be done and finding the time was always a struggle. But among many Christians today, discipline is a dirty word. Many only read the Bible when they ‘feel moved to do so’ and Satan makes sure that this happens only intermittently. Coupled with this is the manner in which many Christians actually read the Bible. They use devotionals that jump from place to place all over the Bible and do not take them systematically through every part of God’s word. Often these devotionals consist of only a verse or a phrase from the Bible and then a comment – usually in the form of a story – on that phrase. What people tend to do is to read the comment and not the Bible. Often these devotionals concentrate on a very narrow range of Bible passages, and as a result people are not exposed to the whole of scripture.
Another reason why biblical literacy is in decline in the church is due to the ‘cut-out-the-middleman’ theology which dominates much of the evangelical world. We are told that we can go straight to God without the need for any mediator, so the Bible is sidelined. After all, who needs the Bible, which is so old school, so old-fashioned and boring, when we can have the excitement of being spoken to directly through so-called prophetic words, or in visions, or by hearing voices in our thoughts? The situation is compounded by what goes on in our Sunday services. A colleague had just attended a service in a church whose website described them as being ‘a Bible-believing congregation’. He told me that the sum total of the Bible input into the services was four verses – the four verses the minister read before his sermon and on which it was based. Sometimes there is little Bible content in the regular Sunday services of congregations that claim to have a high view of scripture.
Impact of the decline
This decline in biblical literacy has had a massive negative impact on the church. Our ability to communicate the gospel to unbelievers has been affected. How can we tell them the good news that God has stepped into history in the person of Jesus to save sinners if we do not know the gospel story? The prayer life of the church has been weakened. In the Bible God has not only told us how to pray and what to pray for, but He has even given us words to use in our prayers. If we do not know the Bible, how can we pray effectively? Our worship has been dumbed down. If our aim in worship is to sing the Bible, pray the Bible, read the Bible and preach the Bible, our lack of knowledge of the Bible is bound to have a damaging effect on our worship.
The situation is serious, but it is not beyond repair. What can you do to try to stop the decline? Here are some suggestions. Like every teenage boy, my son had a voracious appetite. He was so skinny that I reckoned he must have had hollow legs: where else did he put all the food he ate? Pray that you will have a teenage-boy-like appetite for the Bible. Pray that you will not be able to get enough of it. And pray that for others too. Start reading the Bible in large chunks. What about reading through a Bible book at one sitting? Try Mark for starters, but do not forget the Old Testament. You will discover that many parts of the Bible are a great read, full of vivid stories and larger than life characters. If you think that that might be a bit daunting, download the Bible on to your MP3 player and listen to it as you read it. Read books that explain the big sweep of the Bible. They will give you an overview of what its main storyline is so that you can read God’s word more thoughtfully. When you are reading stories to your children or grandchildren, read them Bible stories as well as all the old classics. If you take school assembly or the children’s talk in church, cut out the gimmicks. Instead tell a Bible story. Ministers, put plenty of Bible content into your services. Cut out some of the unnecessary stuff to make space for the Bible. Above all else, do not give up on reading the Bible yourself and, if you need a bit of encouragement, read it with other Christians.
Rodger Crooks is minister of Belvoir Presbyterian Church in Belfast and author of ‘One Lord One Plan One People’