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.”