|You may have heard people say, “I don’t want to get all bogged down in doctrine. I just want to preach Jesus!” No doubt these folks are well meaning. They are excited about the Lord Jesus and want to preach and teach about salvation. What they may not realize is that is doctrine also.
The Greek word translated “doctrine” in our English Bibles is didache. We get our English word “didactic” which means “instruction” from a transliteration of the Greek word. When a person says they do not want doctrine, they are saying they do not want teaching. Unfortunately, that is exactly what happens in some settings. Instead of Bible doctrine being preached there is a fulfillment of 2 Timothy 4:3, 4.
Biblical literacy is dependant on the pastor and other teachers declaring the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27). How else will a person know that Jesus is mighty to save? Just taking the person of Jesus in Scripture will answer questions raised by the DaVinci Code and the Gospel of Judas.
Jesus was born of a virgin. This was a miraculous event. Every person with a human father is born with a nature inclined toward sin. Jesus did not have an earthly father. He circumvented the Adamic nature and came into this world as the “second Adam.”
Jesus lived a sinless life. Barna Research recently stated that 42 percent of Americans believe that Jesus sinned. If Jesus sinned, we have no savior. Only a spotless sinless person can be my savior.
Two years ago when the movie “The Passion of The Christ” was released, a Presbyterian pastor in the Dallas/Fort Worth area was quoted in the Fort Worth Star Telegram saying, “Gibson’s movie focuses strictly on vicarious atonement?that Jesus suffers in our place because of human sin. That is one of several understandings of the meaning of Jesus’ death, and I know for many Christians that would be a meaningful approach to the cross. But it isn’t the primary one for me.” Jesus’ bloody, substitutionary death on the cross for my sin is doctrine.
The bodily resurrection is also doctrine. Jesus literally rose from the dead. Jesus is coming again. Everything we believe about Jesus is found in the Bible. Preaching Jesus is important and it is doctrine.
On and on I could go about the doctrines of the Bible. Knowing who God is and his characteristics shapes our outlook on all things. This forms our worldview. Pastors and teachers must eradicate biblical illiteracy in the churches. It can only be done by continual proclaiming of the Word of God.
MAY 8 TEXAN – SPECIAL REPORT: BIBLICAL LITERACY
While a congregation’s biblical literacy is clearly affected by teaching, other church ministries can also contribute to theological understanding. Historically, biblical literacy has often been achieved through worship music, and the same can be true today.
In speaking with the TEXAN, Don Wyrtzen, professor of music at The College at Southwestern Seminary, stated that hymns by writers such as Isaac Watts, Charles Wesley, and John Newton had a deep impact on the early Americans who heard and sang them. And it was the education of these hymn writers that allowed them to write songs that “were very biblical, very theologically rich,” he noted.
“These men were eminently trained in orthodox Christianity,” Wyrtzen said. Therefore, “people in colonial America were singing profound, deep, theological songs.” In turn, he added, these “theologically meaty” songs educated the congregation about the great truths of the Bible. “So when people were singing, [theology] was ‘caught’ rather than taught,” he said.
David Nelson, senior associate dean and associate professor of theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, believes that worship songs of all types can have the same element of teaching today. But he feels that many church leaders undervalue this “didactic element of worship.” Nelson, who teaches both theology and worship leadership classes at the seminary, stresses that doctrine and worship should go together?and do go together in the Bible.
Nelson noted that children quickly learn important truths from the Scriptures by singing songs about them. But, he added, adults often forget that the same is true for themselves. Worship music, he said, “can actually teach them, and, yes, admonish them, because it speaks the truth of God in a form that can be easy to remember.”
Both Wyrtzen and Nelson argue that today’s worship music is often produced without the theological underpinnings of past times. Wyrtzen contrasts the deep education of many early hymn writers to the modern worship leader who may have little or no formal education. Now, he stated, it seems that anyone with basic guitar skills can be found producing worship songs. As a result, Wyrtzen continued, “praise music [of today] is more like fireworks, while [hymns] are like stars that shine in the firmament forever.”
Nelson, likewise, believes that “we have a lot of what I would consider ‘disposable’ music being written.” While some music can serve a purpose for a time, he said, much of the impact of today’s worship music does not last as long as that of centuries-old hymns.
Charlie Hall, prominent worship leader and modern songwriter with Passion Conferences, has recognized the value of older works, as well. In an interview with the TEXAN in 2004, Hall recalled “dumping” all traditional music in his worship leadership for a time, believing such tradition to be a hindrance to seeking the Lord. But later he realized that “the songs that have come down the pike–including some of the things I’ve written–haven’t had much theology.”
On the other hand, Hall said, “The majority of [hymnody is] rich in theology. It’s a great way to teach people. It [gives] people legs to walk.” This belief–shared by others involved with Passion–led them to release a CD of several well-known hymns, set to “updated” music, two years ago.
Though older hymns have recently captured the imagination of a new generation of worshippers, both Wyrtzen and Nelson also recognized that not every “old” song is theologically rich, while many newer works do have deep biblical connections. Ultimately, they believe, each song and each writer should be judged on his own merits. Wyrtzen noted both African-American spirituals and Southern Gospel songs as examples of older works with little actual theological “weight.” “Basically, both Southern Gospel and black spirituals were more like ‘heart music,’ rather than instruments of theological training.”
When looking at worship songs of the past, Nelson explained, “It’s a mixed bag, just like music is today.”
“Early on,” he said, “the church recognized the connection between doctrine and worship. Through the ages, there have been those in the church who have recognized this connection.” But, he added, “there have been many who haven’t. Everyone can manage to write some bad stuff.”
While many today many not realize it, there were many other, less valuable hymns written at the same time as those well-known songs of the faith still sung in churches today. For example, Nelson said, not all the songs written during the time of the Reformation continued to be used by the church. “There’s a reason for that,” he added. “When somebody talks about the superiority of 18th century music, well, maybe [it was superior], but maybe not.”
And today’s music can be quite biblical, Wyrtzen noted. Particularly, he said, a great resurgence in “Scripture songs” in modern songwriting has taken place. “The biggest ‘plus’ to ‘Praise-and-Worship’ music is that the content is almost all Scripture,” Wyrtzen said. And, he explained, singing words straight from the Bible “adds a lot; instead of just saying it, you’re actually singing it.”
Ken Lasater, church ministry associate with SBTC, recognizes another challenge facing worship leaders. Before even worrying about whether songs are “meaty” or “light” in their presentation of doctrine, he said, “the bigger issue is, ‘Is it theologically sound?’” He noted even recent examples of long-used hymns that needed to be removed from Southern Baptist usage because of basic doctrinal errors represented in their lyrics.
“There will be songs all over the map as far as depth of study, depth of teaching, and depth of maturity,” Lasater said. “But as far as doctrinal soundness, we would want to hold a pretty hard line.”
So what steps can be taken to encourage songwriters’ theological soundness and, then, their works’ biblical depth? For his part, Lasater has worked to urge students of music to view their craft through the lens of Scripture—and in reference to the local church—by organizing Sumer Worship University. SWU trains high school and college students to better use their musical talents in ministry, and the training places a high emphasis on making sure all parts of a worship service reflect solid theology.
Nelson, meanwhile, feels that worship leaders and those writing songs today do not always attend to the needs of listeners as much as they could. He encouraged them to “Think of the audience here. Not only are you speaking to God, but while you’re speaking to God, you’re speaking to others.”
“I just think we underestimate the significance of our worship music connecting people to doctrine,” Nelson added. “And by doctrine, I just mean the truth of the Scriptures. It’s just another way of discipling the congregation. This is a matter of discipleship.”
Secondly, Nelson believe that songwriters must more deeply concern themselves with the Word of God. “Know the Scriptures,” he admonished. “Meditate on them day and night, and I think you’ll be off to a good start.” That way, he said, a writer can “learn the grammar of faith that comes out of the Scriptures. God has given us a way of speaking to him and about hi” that can be used in producing songs, whether or not those works specifically quote Bible verses.
Wyrtzen agrees that “there’s no substitute for soaking yourself in Scripture” and has even produced a book to facilitate this development, “A Musician Looks at the Psalms: 365 Daily Meditations.” He recalls a conversation with modern recording artist and songwriter Twila Paris that illustrates this kind of attention to the Bible when composing. “She told me herself that she had devotionals right at her piano,” he remembered.
Wrytzen also noted powerful resources for helping to ground songwriters biblically. Particularly, he lauded Worship Leader magazine and Passion Conferences, led by Louie Giglio and incorporating powerful biblical preachers such as John Piper of Minneapolis. He encourages worship leaders to make use of the teaching provided by these means.
“We need to remember that the Scripture is our ultimate authority,” Wyrtzen said, “and we need to evaluate our songs…by does it measure up to the ‘gold standard’ of the Word of God? I think that’s something that John Piper does. I think that’s something that Louie Giglio does. I think that’s something that [professor of church music and worship] Bruce Leafblad and my other colleagues at seminary do.”
“I think kids today are really passionately interested in worshipping the Lord, and I think they’re doing it in really new, creative ways,” Wyrtzen said. “I hope this next generation produces some substance, alongside all the ‘fluffy’ stuff that’s out there.”
MAY 8 TEXAN – SPECIAL REPORT: BIBLICAL LITERACY
It’s still a bestseller throughout the country. Most every home owns a copy. English teachers consider it an essential resource for understanding American literature and culture. And yet, Bible knowledge is declining.
“In many parts of the country, we cannot assume any biblical knowledge on the part of our hearers at all: the most elementary Bible stories are completely unknown,” warned D.A. Carson in his book “The Gagging of God”. It’s a condition Carson thinks is getting worse.
During in-depth interviews with U.S. teens, the National Study of Youth and Religion found few who could articulate their beliefs. “Many teenagers know abundant details about the lives of favorite musicians and televisions stars or about what it takes to get into a good college, but most turn out to be not very clear on who Moses and Jesus were. This seems to reflect that a strong, visible, salient, or intentional faith is not operating in the foreground of most teenagers’ lives.”
Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary professor Malcolm Yarnell paints a frightening image of biblical ignorance in the pulpit and the pew, addressing the responsibilities of preachers, teachers, parents and individual believers.
> “The preacher who refuses to let the Bible preach itself in an expository manner threatens his people with the state of spiritual and moral anemia.
> “The Sunday School teacher who asks what his students feel about the text rather than how the text feels about the student threatens his people with the state of self-induced hypnosis.
> “The father who neglects to open the Word of God in his home and lead his family in prayer and devotional worship condemns his children and grandchildren to ignorance and possible spiritual death.
> “The individual who leaves the pages of his Bible unturned on a daily basis is out of communion with his God.
In his message delivered to a chapel audience of Southern Baptists of Texas Convention staff members, Yarnell asked, “Whatever happened to our emphasis for children to engage in Scripture memorization?”
“Where has our foundational biblical literacy gone? Why do many Baptists no longer bring a Bible to church? The calcified tissues of biblical infidelity and illiteracy are threatening to arrest the Baptist heart,” he warned.
Most Southern Baptist churches are quick to identify their ministries as Bible-based. It only stands to reason that a people known for defending the authority of God’s Word ought to be familiar with the text of Scripture. “Southern Baptists have been referred to as a ‘people of the Book’ because of our historic emphasis on the value of the Bible,” wrote Karen Jones, Christian education professor at Golden Gate Theological Seminary. “While we still affirm that position, our ministry practices don’t always measure up to our ideals, especially in student ministry,” she wrote in “Transforming Student Ministry: Research Calling for Change.”
Jones said, “There are key passages and books that we faithfully teach, but large portions of Scripture that we overlook or only mention in passing. Our teenagers rarely complete an indepth study of the entire Bible, even if they participate in our ministries for a full six years. Whether it is intentional or not, the result is the same; our teenagers often leave our ministries with an incomplete understanding of biblical truth.”
Church leaders interested in knowing whether they’re producing biblically literate members ought to consider investing an hour to administer a test such as the one found online through Probe Ministries (probe.org/content/view/55/91). The survey is appropriate for older children, youth and adults with questions like:
An awareness of the answers to these and other questions testing one’s knowledge of Scripture provides the basis for understanding the message of each Bible story.
Preaching that educates the congregation
“All preaching should be a primary source of biblical education for the congregation,” stated theology dean and preaching professor David Allen of Southwestern.
“Pound for pound, sermon for sermon, year by year, real expositional preaching will have the effect of educating the congregation biblically.”
While many Southern Baptist pastors describe themselves as expositional preachers, people in the pew often remark that very little time is spent teaching from the Bible. A well-intentioned effort to make biblical truth relevant can lead a preacher to rush through careful attention to the text in order to get to the punch line.
“When you analyze many sermons in today’s pulpits, they are about one-tenth exposition—and then sometimes lousy exposition at that—and nine-tenths illustration and application. That, of course, is way out of balance,” Allen told the TEXAN. “You cannot illustrate and apply truth that has not been clearly and substantially presented,” he said, while willing to admit to having heard excellent sermons that gave equal thirds to each aspect.
“For my part, an ideal sermon would be 40 to 50 percent exposition and then 40 to 50 percent illustration and application to drive the exposition home.”
“Preaching must be consumed with the Bible,” added Jason Lee, associate professor of historical theology at Southwestern. Speaking at last fall’s Reformation Day chapel, Lee advised churches to “teach the Bible as the heart of ministry. A steady diet of topical sermons creates an anemic and apathetic church,” he warned.
Baptist Press columnist Douglas Baker put it more bluntly, “Many Southern Baptist churches will not abide theologically thick preaching, because every effort has been made to make the church more seeker-friendly—to modernize the message and soften the sharpness of doctrine so as to make room for people who have never heard of the Apostles let alone the specific books of Galatians and Jude.”
However, “All this sensitivity to the seeker has, in many ways, backfired,” Baker said, noting that the plan has resulted in even less response by today’s teenagers and young adults. “The seriousness of the themes of Scripture have been presented so obliquely by the church that modern young professionals and students find Nietzsche and Hegel much more appealing and thoughtful than Jesus. For many of them, the philosophers and political pundits seem more confident, knowledgeable, intelligent and interesting than the ministers of their local church. While the real world operates on concrete empirical principles, the church hides her message in fantasy code.”
When gathered corporately for worship, church members have additional opportunity to hear and recite the testimony of Scripture through music and Bible reading. “It’s an absolute crime in our public services the way we read one verse or two or four or five at the most, and we take a text and depart there from and people don’t hear or know God’s Word,” lamented Charles Ryrie, editor of the Ryrie Study Bible who taught systematic theology at Dallas Theological Seminary.
Teaching from the text equips believers
Research indicates that church members are best disciple through a systematic study of God’s Word. At the same time churches report that disciple members are more likely to stick around.
In his book “High Expectations: The Remarkable Secret for Keeping People in Your Church,” Thom Rainer found that virtually all of the churches doing a great job of assimilating members into congregational life have a comprehensive plan to teach the Bible to all age groups. “We have known that Sunday School is a vital component for American churches,” Rainer wrote. “Its history is almost as old as our nation itself. But more and more the research indicated that Sunday School is not only our past, it is our future as well,” said Rainer, LifeWay’s newly elected president.
Asked in 1980 to write a bicentennial tribute to the enduring institution of Sunday School, church historian Martin Marty noted the irony of Life magazine calling it “the most wasted hour of the week, since the magazine itself had a much shorter shelf life. Few can re-create the circumstances of Protestantdom when the culture favored the Sunday school,” he wrote in Christian Century. “Not all would want to. But if the culture tilts their way even so briefly as one of the 168 hours each week, it seems foolish not to make the most of that time.”
The SBC leader charged with helping southern Baptists make the most of that time is David Francis, Church Resources director for LifeWay. While recognizing that the Sunday School movement has evolved many times during its 200-plus year history, Francis said, “One thing has not changed—the centrality of Bible study.”
When philanthropist Robert Raikes conceived the idea of educating wayward boys on their free day he paid laypeople to serve as teachers and used the Bible for the curriculum. Within 50 years, Sunday School was attracting a quarter of England’s children. Soon, the practice was adopted in the United States as teachers taught students to read and copy the Bible, helping make literate those who could not afford to educate themselves.
Whether today’s churches call it Sunday School, Bible study or some more creative label, developing Bible literacy in children and adults is commonly agreed upon as making the most of that one hour each week. And yet, today’s teachers find their students have much in common with the illiterate working class Raikes sought to reform during the Industrial Revolution. They lack a basic foundation of Bible knowledge.
In his new book, “3D Sunday School,” David Francis described an effective Sunday School as having a plan for helping members and leaders cover key biblical concepts in a balanced and comprehensive way. While advocating for the use of LifeWay’s resources, he advised, “Whatever curriculum materials your class uses, choose materials that help people discover the whole counsel of God over a period of years.”
A systematic approach to Bible teaching incorporates a plan for covering a variety of Bible books and types of biblical literature, he said. It seeks to balance the studies of biblical books, topics, and characters across a period of time. The adult Explore the Bible series and the new resource for students cover all 66 Bible books over a period of years.
LifeWay’s new Bible Teaching for Kids and Bible Studies for Life series follow a three-year curriculum plan, concluding with a Bible survey. The Sunday School ministry section of LifeWay’s website outlines Levels of Biblical Learning, listing the 67 Bible stories LifeWay considers foundational for children to understand core biblical principles by age 12. The same site charts the concepts taught at each level at www.lifeway.com.
As critical a role as preachers and teachers play in making a congregation biblically literate, many members become enamored with better-known instructors. Instead of regarding such teaching as supplemental, they get comfortable with a classier presentation broadcast to the home or made available on DVD, the Internet or even a podcast.
Students who become comfortable with what one SBC leader called the “sit and soak” syndrome, are less likely to respond when the need arises for teachers. Popular teacher Beth Moore commented on this same concern in her recently released Bible study title “The Patriarchs.” Observing that Joseph’s wisdom and discernment distinguished him from those all around him, she turned to Hebrews 5:11-14 to encourage study of God’s Word as a means of developing maturity.
Moore told students that some of them ought to be teaching, referring to Paul’s expectation that more would have matured to the point of teaching others. “It’s something that God is going to pass on so we can take it and use it. It’s like passing a baton. He is calling some folks. It’s time.” She also advised those who assume a teaching role to stay under the instruction of a mature teacher. “We must stay under our pastor’s teaching. Stay in our Sunday School classes. Stay in our Bible studies because if we don’t we get all out of balance. If we are the only ones we are listening to, oh, good gravy! Help me, Lord!”
Yount said, “We find it increasingly difficult to enlist adults to leave their own Bible study classes and teach others on a regular basis.” Some complain that the job is “too demanding” or “they don’t’ want to give up their own self-enriching study to serve by teaching others.”
As a result, Yount said churches take shortcuts by having fewer people teach larger classes, using a rotation of teachers with no one responsible for the growth of learners or “offering short-term elective courses in place of long-term koinonia groups.” Ultimately, attendance declines for the one hour dedicated to Bible instruction, he said.
When Calvary Hill Baptist Church in Mesquite faced the need for more adults to staff a growing Wednesday night ministry to children and youth, Pastor James O’Dell noticed there were plenty of adults on hand for the mid-week service, but most were involved in their own Bible study classes. “Because we were lacking adult leadership we made a decision as a staff and canceled all Bible studies and discipleship groups on Wednesday nights.” Encouraging those groups to meet at different times or days, they appealed for the regular attenders to pick up the slack in existing ministries.
“We saw an increase in adult leadership from our youth being led by a single youth minister and a couple of parents to 10 small group leaders,” O’Dell said, adding that the Wednesday night youth ministry grew from 30 to over 100 in attendance. Eighteen workers were added to the AWANA program for children that 30 to 40 kids attend.
Training is an important ingredient that follows the enlistment of teachers, O’Dell explained. “That’s just something we teach and preach all the time: the way to true satisfaction in spiritual life is through obedience which is going to mean service. If you’re not serving somewhere you’re not going to be fulfilled.”
Sometimes the pressure to make the Bible study hour more entertaining comes from parents giving in to complaints of their children. Southern Baptist Jim Eliff of Christian Communicators Worldwide reminds them of the purpose of ministry to children and youth.
“If you are inclined to be angry at someone in leadership of your church because you child does not have fun in church, then first consider if the source of the problem is in the heart of your child,” he proposed. “Please don’t make the criteria for judging the success of a church’s efforts at reaching children and teens the fun-value of the meetings. God did not command the church to provide entertainment ofr your kids. And if you must speak out about it at all, attempt to increase, rather than to decrease the intensity and effectiveness of prayer and Bible study as a means to reach the hearts of the children.”
Parents as the primary Bible teachers
A Gallup survey showed 51 percent of American teens mention their church as the top source of their Bible knowledge, while 13 percent credit their parents.
In an essay for “Transforming Student Ministry,” Oklahoma Baptist University professor Tom Wilks reminded, “Unfortunately, statistics indicate that an increasing number of parents—mothers and fathers alike—have renounced their responsibilities to be spiritual leaders in the home. While helping parents encourage spiritual transformation at home, youth leaders also can provide a solid source of biblical truth outside the home.”
Wilks recalled Martin Luther’s reminder that parents are “apostles, bishops, and priests to their children, for it is they who make them acquainted with the gospel.” Luther wrote, “In short there is no greater or nobler authority on earth than that of parents over their children, for this authority is both spiritual and temporal.”
“Levels of Bible Skills” is an inexpensive resource offered by LifeWay for parents and other teachers of children, helping them learn about the Bible itself, how it’s organized, as well as key passages and life applications. Bible handbooks designed for a child’s level of understanding supplement regular Bible readings in the home.
SBTC Executive Director Jim Richards recalled in the current issue of Texas Baptist Crossroads that his journey in biblical training began in the lap of his mother as she opened her Bible and read Scripture to him every night of his childhood. He saw his dad read the Bible regularly and live out the principles it taught.
“We must reclaim our won church families and the family altar is a great first step,” Richards recommended. “The need for biblical formations in the home as not changed. This practice will not make you a theologian, but it will instill a love and respect for the Word of God.”
Individuals accountable for guarding biblical heritage
In a lecture on the heritage of the English Bible, theologian Charles Ryrie told a Southwestern Seminary audience if Christians today understood the battles fought by Bible translators who were persecuted and even martyred in order to print the Bible in a common language, they might become more biblically literate.
“We have a great heritage, a great legacy. The only way to spend [our heritage] is to read, study, live, love, learn the scriptures. That is not bibliolatry, because it’s the only sure way you have of knowing Christ, and the one who lives and learns and loves it—the Word—will also learn, love and live Christ.”
Ryrie said there is evidence all around that Christians have strayed from their heritage. He pointed to a lack of knowledge of the Bible and the lack of opportunities to hear the Word of God read directly from the Bible as just two examples. “Don’t be like the prodigal son and spend your heritage foolishly, but wisely and the only way to do that is to delve into it.
He also noted that the discipline of memorizing Scripture is lost among many Christians today in part because while most people at one time used the King James Version, there is now a question of which text to memorize. Newer translations are not as easy to memorize, he stated. “Memorization is important and it’s harder and harder to do,” he said.
SBTC women’s ministry consultant Shirley Moses wonders if the abundance of resources has diminished the level of maturity among believers. Bible studies recorded on DVDs and videotapes have become one of the most popular women’s ministry tools in the local church, she acknowledged, but fears they could be used as a substitute for cultivating local leaders and equipping women to study the Bible themselves.
“Many women have become accustomed to receiving the meat of their studies from a video instead of digging out truths with daily study in the Word itself.”
Teachers should not be the only ones who prepare for Sunday’s lesson, added LifeWay’s David Francis. “An expectation should be established that learners come to the session with some level of preparation also,” he said, encouraging actual use of a learner guide during the week between classes.
In his introduction to Broadman and Holman’s massive listing of over 40,000 Bible references in “So That’s in the Bible?” editor John Perry wrote of the need for biblical literacy in changing times. “Society has changed immeasurably since the Bible was written, yet sinful nature and God’s holy character have remained the same. Furthermore, God’s redemptive plan has not changed. So the principles God gave his people are as relevant, applicable, and immutable now as when inspired scribes first put pen to papyrus. We’ve traded clay tablets for laptops and donkeys for the Concorde, but our needs, fears and shortcomings are the same as those of the men and women to whom God came and graciously revealed his holy love centuries ago.”
Southern Baptist Theological Seminary professor Donald S. Whitney wrote that while the reasons for taking in the Word of God are obvious, many who “yawn with familiarity and nod in agreement” spend no more time with God’s Word in an average day than do those with no Bible at all.
“No spiritual discipline is more important that the intake of God’s Word. Nothing can substitute for it,” Whitney said in “Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life.” “There simply is no healthy Christian life apart from a diet of the milk and meat of Scripture.”
He quotes a Welsh pastor, Geoffrey Thomas, who spoke of the imperceptible though great changes in a Christian’s attitude, outlook and conduct that occur through a steady diet of God’s Word. “You will probably be the last to recognize these,” Thomas said. “Often you will feel very, very small, because increasingly the God of the Bible will become to you wonderfully great.
“So go on reading it until you can read no longer, and then you will not need the Bible any more, because when your eyes close for the last time in death, and never again read the Word of God in Scripture you will open them to the Word of God in the flesh, that same Jesus of the Bible whom you have known for so long, standing before you to take you forever to his eternal home.”
|It’s our book, after all. Over the past generation we’ve done a lot of finger pointing about the visible slide in the moral integrity of our nation. Some point to the removal of teacher-led prayer in public schools, others blame Hugh Hefner and the mainstreaming of the porn industry, others blame television or the liberal media. I have my own fuss with some of these indicators also, but we church people have egg on our face as well. Hugh Hefner is not to blame for the decline in biblical literacy among our children and church members.
I’d caution against having an internal debate about how bad the problem is. How bad does it need to be? David Jeffrey, former provost at Baylor University commented during a 2004 speech at Wheaton College about his literature students being “abysmally ignorant of the Bible.” This would be a crucial element in understanding biblical allusions in most Western literature. My friend Randy Horton, a history teacher at a Christian high school says that he has noticed the need to start at a more basic level nearly each year so that students can understand the biblical references and connections in the history of Western civilization. My own teaching of young people has revealed some shocking holes in their understanding. Not only can they not find a book of the Bible, some do not know what the little numbers (chapter and verse) in the text indicate. It’s not a matter of doing the Word of God we’re talking about; it’s about knowing the Word in the first place.
Yes, I know our churches are not overly concerned about teaching literature and history. Will these observable trends away from basic biblical understanding help our efforts at evangelism, though? We are rightly concerned that our people avoid being mere hearers of the Word and not doers. Does it follow that we should celebrate a generation that tries to be doers of a Word they have not heard? This shortcoming in our family and church teaching is important enough to warrant some changes.
That’s the tough part, change. Baptists have a reputation for resisting change. Any successful group that’s more than a generation old must live with this stereotype, as well as with the tendency to resist change.
But change is difficult to embrace for some sensible reasons. Anything that we start or drastically alter will change everything around it in unpredictable ways. Biblical literacy has been pushed to the background of local church ministry to make room for some good things. The “seeker movement” in churches tends to go light on doctrine in those meetings aimed at lost people. There’s a fine evangelistic motive behind that. Home groups, meant by some to add a little spiritual maturity to Christians, become less focused in favor of fellowship, another fine thing.
Sunday School can become more casual or topical in an effort to keep people coming. Discipleship classes often become 12-step programs or “how to” classes on a selection of perfectly noble causes. And so it goes until all the priority time in our church ministry is taken up with good things thought to be less stodgy than mere Bible study. Knowing the Bible has not been intentionally put in a place of lower priority. Maybe it’s become something we think is important and we think we’re doing, whether or not that’s true. The further difficulty comes with deciding what fine and popular things we must give up to elevate the importance of knowing God’s Word. Setting priorities is always tough.
It’s God’s tough work, though?worthy of our sweat. Let me suggest a few ways churches might adjust their priorities to the benefit of biblical literacy.
In preaching?The use of projection screens and printed outlines (intended to enhance learning) has made it so that a person can leave his Bible at home and follow along just fine. Convenience is great but this small thing lowers rather than elevates the knowledge of Scripture. Make people open their Bibles. Use the projector and the outline to your heart’s content but make them read it for themselves.
As David Allen mentioned in our lead story on the subject, expository preaching will also encourage biblical knowledge. Topical sermons tend to use a versehere and a verse there without putting a passage in context. Some occasions can be well served topically, but when this kind of preaching becomes the primary one, the church’s understandingof Scripture is fragmented and spotty.
* Preaching is worship but the whole event can also lift up the Word as the revelation of God. A simple thing would be to reintroduce Bible reading to worship services. Reading several verses from each testament can be used to undergird the music and preaching portions of the service. I think it could also add some power to the other elements.
Since we believe that God speaks through Scripture, public reading could be the means he uses to break into a person’s life.
In small groups
MAY 8 TEXAN – SPECIAL REPORT: BIBLICAL LITERACY
If Southern Baptist churches are going to make sure all of their members are educated in the Bible, someone must take responsibility for coordinating that massive effort. Typically, this has fallen to the minister of education, a staff member or volunteer whose job description has undergone a lot of change in recent years. Southwestern’s Rick Yount, assistant dean and professor of foundations of education, has seen a shift away from the practices that produced biblically literate members in Southern Baptist churches.
According to a Measures of Religiosity survey of 11,000 mainline Protestant churches conducted by Peter Hill and Ralph Hood 20 years ago, Southern Baptists scored the highest in evaluation of both vertical (God-ward) and horizontal (neighbor) faith maturity in every demographic category, crediting age-graded small group Bible and doctrine study programs. However, Yount believes these dramatic results are being erased as churches move away from static groups organized by age that use dated curriculum and regular teachers.
“About 20 years ago Southern Baptists began to notice that Pentecostal churches in general, and Assemblies of God churches in particular, were growing faster than we were,” Yount recalled in an interview with the TEXAN. In an effort to mimic the celebrative worship these groups offered, “SBC churches have moved from an educational evangelism base for growth to a celebrative worship base.”
Large classes offered anonymity and worship driven by celebration. Drama and energetic presentations replaced the more tedious maintenance and expansion of educational organizations. Fewer teachers are needed when churches turn to “master” teachers or large classes just as small, gifted praise teams replace the larger number of committed choir members.
As the minister of music became the minister of worship, Yount has seen education ministers less valued. “We also began to lose hold of our Southern Baptist distinctive that had fueled unparalleled growth for decades?lay-led, educator trained, small groups of students of the Bible” who provided a seed-bed for future teachers. At one time the Christian education machinery was “well-oiled” through new teacher enlistment, ongoing motivation and training in weekly or monthly workers’ meetings?all of that being a part of the equipping ministry that ministers are called to do, Yount said, citing Ephesians 4:11.
“We need an awakening across our nation and convention for teaching disciples all things as part of the Lord’s imperative of making disciples, he said, quoting Matthew 28:19-20.” Now that the seminary has beefed up its master of arts in Christian education degree to require a third of the coursework in theological studies, Yount is convinced the minister trained in the areas of education and administration contributes an essential role in the church’s equipping ministry. “If this awakening is to happen, it will be the pastors who will lead the way,” Yount said, hoping they will recognize the education minister to be an asset to increased biblical literacy.
Increasingly, according to pollsters and educators, students do not understand terms and phrases rooted in the Bible and common to Western language and literature. If polling is indicative, many high school students could not identify the origin of phrases such as “the patience of Job,” “the wisdom of Solomon” or “Good Samaritan.”
The Bible Literacy Report, released last year by the Virginia-based Bible Literacy Project and conducted by the Gallup Survey with funding from the John Templeton Foundation, found that 90 percent of high school English teachers thought it necessary for students to have some knowledge of the Bible for life success.
The report quotes an Illinois teacher as stating: “I think from the standpoint of academic success, it is imperative that college-bound students be [biblically] literate. For the others, I think it’s important for them to understand their own culture, just to be well-grounded citizens of the United States?to know where the institutions and ideas come from.” Other teachers said biblically illiterate students “take more time to teach,” the report noted.
In its conclusion, the report stated: [N]o controversy among adults, however heated, should be considered an excuse for leaving the next generation ignorant about a body of knowledge crucial to understanding American art, literature, history, language, and culture.”
That advice is being increasing heeded.
In March the Georgia legislature, with a nod to public school Bible classes, which are already recognized as constitutionally protected, mandated the Bible be used as the main textbook in suchelective classes.
The Georgia law favors curricula such as “The Bible in History and Literature,” published by the North Carolina-based National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools, which uses the Bible itself as the main text. The National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools released a statement March 27 applauding Georgia for its decision.
In Texas, where school districts are not mandated to choose a particular curriculum or textbook, two large school districts have drawn media attention for plans to introduce elective Bible classes next fall.
In Odessa, the Ector County school board voted last year to offer a Bible class after more than 6,000 public signatures were presented to the board supporting such a class, drawing coverage from the New York Times and other prominent media outlets.
In December, the board chose the National Council’s “The Bible in History and Literature,” drawing criticism and talk of a potential lawsuit from a local college professor who claims the curriculum is sectarian.
Near San Antonio, the New Braunfels Independent School District made a similar move, approving in a 6-1 vote another Bible curriculum called “The Bible and Its Influence,” developed and published by the Bible Literacy Project.
Both curricula have endorsements from evangelical Christian leaders. Southern Baptist Chuck Colson and conservative World magazine columnist Gene Edward Veith have written favorably of the Bible Literacy Project’s textbook?which has also received support from mainline Protestants and some Jewish groups. Others, such as Presbyterian D. James Kennedy and Pentecostal pastor John Hagee, have endorsed the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools curriculum.
The choice of curricula has been controversial and sometimes partisan; Georgia’s bill was supported by Republicans and was pitted against a Democratic bill that pushed for the Bible Literacy Project’s textbook.
In Alabama, a similar bill favorable to the
ARLINGTON?The White House director of Faith-Based Initiatives told Southern Baptist volunteers, “No longer are you considered a group of last resort, but a group of first resort. The government doesn’t take for granted your contributions, but seeks to take advantage of them.”
Jim Towey spoke to Southern Baptist Disaster Relief leaders at their Disaster Relief Roundtable April 25-27 at Fielder Road Baptist Church in Arlington.
Expressing the gratitude of President George W. Bush for Southern Baptists’ response to last summer’s hurricanes, Towey said, “The president knows the efforts taken during the disaster relief phase were extraordinary in scope and compassion because government cant love the way your people did.”
In early conversations with SBC leaders following the hurricanes, Towey said they raised legitimate concerns that government not commandeer the pulpit or contaminate the churchs prophetic work.
“We don’t want to favor one faith or have the government defend religion. That will rob the church of vitality and its purity,” Towey said. “At the same time, we don’t want to show government hostility toward any religious organization.”
While faith-based organizations once were expected to change their names, take crosses down from backdrops and remove the name of Jesus Christ from mission statements when seeking federal grants, Towey said that attitude has changed during his five-year tenure.
“We’re looking for ways to make the system of disaster preparedness and relief more faith-friendly so your groups can get in there,” he said. “The president doesn’t fear faith. When people are devastated and have lost everything, they’re looking for hope.”
In a recent visit to a faith-based homeless shelter in Austin, Texas, Towey said he told the expanding ministry’s leader that the government might be able to help with bricks and mortar without expecting the organization to sacrifice faith activity.
“Some of you may have zero interest in government money,” Towey said, “but you have a right to expect cooperation when you’re out there doing works of good and mercy.”
A few days after Hurricane Katrina, President Bush toured a church where 1,500 people found shelter throughout the facility.
“That played out over and over again all over the Gulf State area,” Towey noted. “It’s very exciting to see those responses because it renews all of us in our faith ? that we’re not just talking about the Gospel, but living it.
“We saw people like you who transformed sanctuaries into shelters overnight,” he said. “Racial divisions that existed in some of these churches went down. It’s beautiful to see.”
With the hurricane season just a month away, Towey said the country faces many additional threats, including a pandemic flu or terrorist attack that could empty a city the size of New Orleans. Through a government website available at www.fbci.gov, information is available on faith-based community efforts to prepare for such disasters. He expressed President Bush’s “great confidence” in the ability of Southern Baptists to welcome with compassion those people who are hungry, thirsty, suffering, rejected and living in flight.
Towey, along with a FEMA representative and an American Red Cross leader, acknowledged mistakes made and lessons learned from the hurricanes.
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