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: firstname.lastname@example.org). 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: