Our Lost Love

By Charles A. Lee

The American Christian community is rapidly losing its love for the Bible. Studies by Barna, Gallup, and other pollsters repeatedly uncover a diminishing knowledge of the Bible among Christian adults and a consequent weakening of Bible-focused dialogue in the marketplace.

In spite of the clear evidence, many churches are more interested in creating programs, developing relationships, and listening to “heartwarming stories” than in helping adult members develop a pragmatic mastery of God’s Word.

Jesus told the religious leaders of his day, “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God” (Matthew 22:29). He could very well say the same thing to many of our elders, deacons, and, perhaps, a few preachers, today. He would certainly encounter an embarrassing amount of Bible ignorance among the members of our churches. There are several reasons this has happened, and continues to grow worse daily.

Why Is This Happening?

We have so focused on the children and youth of our congregations that we have overlooked the fact that the church is an adult institution. We will expend money, energy, and physical resources to attract and keep children and young people, but are perfectly willing to hand a Sunday school quarterly to anyone who claims to be available to lead an adult Bible study.

Obviously it is prudent to have programming for children, but the New Testament never calls for the church to engage in educating the youth. In spite of this, we have often made it our top priority.

• Although we repeatedly have been warned that Bible knowledge among America’s Christian adult population is slipping, apparently we refuse to believe it might be happening in our congregations. A frustration Barna encounters is preachers who will not agree to a simple quiz for their church. “It may be happening to others, but we don’t have that problem,” is the response Barna frequently hears.

We have fallen into the “heart” trap. If we can show a video, sing a song, present a drama, or tell a story that “touches the heart,” we actually believe we are engaged in “Bible study.”

But Romans 10:17 does not say faith comes by touching the heart, but by hearing the Word of God. It is substance, not emotion, that God has ordained for leading people to believe and embrace the truth. It may be argued that these methodologies are indeed presenting the Word of God through other means, but when virtually all of them appeal to the heart and not the mind, they are falling prey to the contemporary notion that you reach people through their feelings first. This is patently false. Any educator will tell you change in human behavior starts in the mind, not the heart.

In a recent leadership training program, I taught from Hosea 4:6 (“My people are destroyed from lack of knowledge”) and offered a take-home Bible test to a group of elders and elder candidates. I was making the point they could not be “pastors and teachers” if they did not know the Word of God. I was told later that the test was ignored and treated as a joke. Of more than 20 in attendance, only one person took the test. If this kind of attitude prevails in our churches, as Hosea says, the people will perish.

Is It Our Problem Too?

To what extent does this problem touch the churches of the Restoration Movement? Three questions need to be answered: (1) Is there an awareness of adult biblical illiteracy in America? (2) Are we willing to assess the level of biblical literacy in our local church family? (3) Far more important, is there enough acceptance of this reality to warrant some specific effort to remedy it in our own congregation?

Three students at Louisville Bible College were recruited to conduct a small telephone survey of 150 churches in Kentucky, Indiana, and Ohio. These churches ranged in size from fewer than 100 members to congregations of several thousand. The callers simply asked, “Are you familiar with some of the statistical information developed by the Barna Group and others in reference to the lack of Bible knowledge among adult Christians in America?” If the responder was aware of this, the caller then asked, “Is your congregation targeting this problem in any specific way?”

The outcome of the survey was mixed. Of the 127 churches successfully contacted, most expressed a commitment to adult Bible study, and about 65 percent said they were aware of the Barna research. The majority (83 percent) of those reached were interested in accessing Barna’s work, so our callers provided them with the online links (see below).

Most of the churches (77 percent) offered traditional programming that was not specifically targeting biblical illiteracy. No church was formally measuring the level of Bible knowledge among its members. Answers ranged from “we are offering adult Sunday school classes” to “we provide a program of small groups.” A few (13 percent) were depending mainly on the pulpit to provide Bible knowledge and encourage personal study of the Scriptures.

One of the more disappointing statistics showed that only 2 percent of churches were formally measuring the level of Bible knowledge among their adult members. Of the 127 contacted, just one church said it was currently engaged in meetings to study adult Biblical illiteracy in its ranks.

Understandably, the smaller churches were faced with lack of resources and personnel shortages. But among those who did have the resources, our callers did not find a strong commitment to take aggressive measures, even though the problem was acknowledged. Of the churches contacted, none had plans to assess the level of biblical literacy among adult members.

This study admittedly was very small. At best it can offer only indicators. Obviously, a large-scale survey would provide more accurate statistical insight into what is being done to confront this problem. If only on a tiny scale, this 127-church survey seemed to suggest that churches of the Restoration Movement need to look more seriously at internal assessment. If such an assessment reveals a measurable deficiency in Bible knowledge, these congregations should take serious steps toward providing a remedy.

See for Yourself

To those who might argue that their congregation is an exception, I would offer the following appeal: Take the assessment step. Give your elders, deacons, teachers, and members a Bible quiz. There are several such quizzes available online, or you could develop your own. I would be happy to send a free test consisting of 75 multiple-choice questions (order by e-mail: clee@mylbc.us). You are free to edit this quiz.

There are other attractive and nonthreatening ways to conduct assessments. For example, a church might hold a ministries fair and offer a booth in which members could take short anonymous computerized Bible quizzes that would record only an average for the church.

Whatever approach you take, if you discover you are an exception, I rejoice with you. If you discover your church’s Bible illiteracy matches the unfortunate norm, hopefully you will have taken the first step to recovery.

Remember Hosea 4:6.

Charles A. Lee is professor of ministries at Louisville (Kentucky) Bible College.

_________________

How Others See the Problem

Visit these Web sites for more background on the disturbing trends summarized in this article:

www.theologicalstudies.org/page/page/1573625.htm

www.barna.org/barna-update/article/12-faithspirituality/325-barna-studies-the-research-offers-a-year-in-review-perspective

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5 Comments

  1. David Miller
    May 15, 2011 at 2:25 pm

    This is no surprise. A significant number of churches within the brotherhood see the success of rival “new age” bodies that are all about style and curb appeal and they earnestly feel that if we can just get them in the door and keep them coming eventually they will get around to teaching the Word. Only that day never seems to come.

    Many of our preachers NEVER preach within the context of the passages that they use and many rely on secular books to validate a point that the Lord made 2,000 years ago. There is NOTHING wrong with subjectual preaching, however there is no doubt in my mind that we are better and more effective at teaching the “whole counsel” of God when we expositorily teach God’s Word and let it speak to people.

    Hosea 4:6 is more relevant today than when God first spoke it. Today we have bodies that claim to be of Christ that have somehow determined that God not only no longer counts homosexuality as sin, but is favorable to those of this aversion preaching and leading his church. My friends, this is how that happens. When we allow others to tell us God’s will without even opening God’s Word to verify that what is taught is truth; it won’t be long until his word has totally been replaced by our feelings and the political correctness of a culture that is dying lost. Great article. God forbid that this tragedy continues within our movement.

  2. Tim
    May 15, 2011 at 2:44 pm

    This article is a required read for preachers, elders . . . every serious Christian who wishes to be a Bible student.

    Every point and link in this article is right on. So glad my supposed thoughts and evaluation of our churches and Christians have gone “public.”

  3. Al Forthman
    May 16, 2011 at 8:11 am

    Brother Lee,
    I hear you. Adding to this is a tendency on the part of so many of our ministers against expository preaching. I would imagine that the reason the survey you gave was viewed as a joke is that the folks did not know the Bible and knew they would fail the test. To quote Walt Kelly’s character, Pogo, “we have met the enemy and he is us!”

  4. May 17, 2011 at 6:51 am

    I would add that it is not merely a problem with adults. My sister’s family left a church that they were attending because the teens’ Bible classes were not teaching the Bible. They spent their time “connectling” with the kids by talking about the latest results of their local favorite sports teams. My 13-year old nephew became so frustrated with the program that he went to the adult classes in order to learn the Bible. Eventually, the family decided that it was time to find a church where the Bible was more respected.

  5. May 18, 2011 at 2:17 pm

    In the early 1970’s when I had just returned from several years’ mission work in New Zealand, I visited a church near my parents’ home in Florida. An adult Bible class was slogging its way through the Old Testament, chapter by chapter. The Sunday I was there, the elder-teacher was presenting Leviticus 16, the chapter that describes the rituals of the Day of Atonement. He did a good job of presenting the material – but I kept wondering, “When is he going to make THE POINT?”

    Near the end of the class period, it had become evident to me that he wasn’t going to make it. I raised my hand, was recognized, and preached the gospel of the atonement of Jesus Christ for about 3-5 minutes.

    I was amazed afterward by the number of people who came to me (including the teacher) who said, “That was wonderful. I never heard anything like that!”

    I still shake my head in wonder that adult Christians could be so ignorant of such a basic part of the Old Testament as “types and shadows” of the New Covenant! I do not believe things have improved in the 40 years since then.

    Jerry Starling, M.A.
    Cincinnati Christian Seminary
    Class of 1976

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