Be hearers of the Word, also

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.


In worship

* 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

Gary Ledbetter
Southern Baptist Texan
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