Taking the First Bite Out of Biblical Illiteracy

The original Training for Service (far right), with progressively newer revisions of Standard Publishing’s Bible knowledge training book.

By Jim Eichenberger

An old joke asks, “How do you eat an elephant?” The response, of course, is “One bite at a time.”

The church of the early 21st century seems to agree that biblical illiteracy is the elephant on our plate. Anecdotes abound of believers who confuse Abraham of Ur with Abraham Lincoln and who can name all four Beatles but not all four Gospels.

How can we call others to the message given to us by God if many of our own brothers and sisters in the faith do not have a good working knowledge of our treasured book? When we speak to a culture that measures truth existentially and experientially, can we truly know what Jesus would do without knowing what the Bible says?


Enduring Problem, Changing World

Christian education programs are widely cited as our answer to the problem. But are they enough? If elders or other volunteer leaders choose teaching materials for such programs, do they have the biblical knowledge to pick good ones? Even if the best curriculum is in place, what happens when a volunteer teacher or leader is forced “off script?” And how does a church ensure that peer-led home groups do not deteriorate into mere sharing of opinion—or worse, sharing of biblical ignorance? How does the church take the first bite of the elephant?

A century ago the problem was the same, even though the players were different. Today the challenge to biblical authority comes as a nearly mystical radical individualism—what the Bible says to me. How God speaks to my heart. Back then the challenge came from an academic elite that questioned not only the Bible but also anything supernatural. Today the Bible can mean anything depending upon the reader. Then the Bible meant nothing because it was seen merely as legends from primitive intellects. But both result in a lack of serious study of Scripture, which in turn results in biblical illiteracy.


A Practical Solution

In the first decade of the 20th century, Herbert Moninger offered a solution that was growing in popularity in the world of manufacturing, medicine, law, and education—certification. If an attorney, physician, or engineer must demonstrate a baseline of understanding in his or her field, should anything less be expected of those who handle the Word of God? An accreditation plan would be the first bite of the elephant of biblically illiteracy.

Moninger created a course of study that would give Christian workers a basic understanding of the unfolding of God’s plan as revealed in the pages of Scripture. More than 150 eager learners gathered for the better part of a year for the Northside Union Teacher-training Class in Cincinnati, Ohio. At the conclusion of the course, a certification examination was given. As a result, 122 members of that group received diplomas from the Ohio Sunday School Association. In the years that followed, Moninger would offer the course again and again, training more than 500 students representing 102 different churches in the Cincinnati area.

In 1907, Standard Publishing put Moninger’s study into book form. In the preface of the first edition of this book, Training for Service, Moninger referred to his first graduates. “If this book has any value, it will largely be because these lessons were tested before being printed.” In the decades that followed, the value of the book was even more dramatically demonstrated. More than 1 million Bible students have joined the original 122 by being trained using this book!


Meeting Continuing Demand

As years passed, it was clear that the timeless content of Moninger’s work needed to be updated for the generations to come. Cecil James “C. J.” Sharp, a minister, church planter, and high school principal, was the author of numerous books and articles on Christian education and evangelism. Sharp wrote New Training for Service in 1934, retaining Moninger’s basic outlines and content.

The popularity of New Training for Service did not wane as years passed. Generation after generation of Christian workers continued to seek certification to effectively handle the Word of God as Moninger envisioned. Orrin Root, an editor, writer, and Christian educator, authored the second major revision, Training for Service—A Survey of the Bible. He responded to requests for a shorter, more specialized study. Root explained: “Moninger’s original plan of Bible study has been retained, but has been distilled to 26 lessons filled with factual and illustrative materials, Scripture readings, and questions for discussion and review” (from the preface to the 1964 edition).

Yet another generation passed, and the elephant of biblical illiteracy was still on the table. Another prominent Christian educator was called upon to further update the course. Eleanor Daniel revised the book once more in 1983. Daniel is recognized for her extensive publishing ministry on the subject of Christian education, focusing on teaching and curriculum for Sunday school and Vacation Bible School, and her seminary teaching on those subjects.


A New Century of Challenges and Hopes

Although the need for trained teachers has not changed since the time of Moninger, much is different now. New challenges to the authenticity and uniqueness of Scripture have arisen. The Bible has been all but exiled from the public school classroom and is often treated with downright derision in higher education, entertainment, and the press. Eastern religions, barely heard of by the average Christian in the West a century ago, have changed the religious landscape and found their way into discussions of God and faith. Church leaders must be trained to present the Bible as ever relevant. With boldness, authenticity, and intellect, they must be prepared to lift up the truth of the Bible to a skeptical, multicultural audience.

On the positive side, resources for Bible study have nearly exploded since the early 20th century. Modern translations of Scripture abound, making the words of the text understandable to all. Furthermore, archeological discoveries, including a plethora of ancient manuscripts of the Bible, have been discovered during the past 100 years, and have all demonstrated the credibility of biblical accounts. Furthermore, computer technology has opened the vast library of Bible helps to people worldwide. Church leaders must be trained to use all of these tools effectively in bringing Scripture to their world.


A Classic Revised

In response, Standard Publishing has once more revised Training for Service. Some things have not changed in this beloved work. This new revision retains the structure of the versions before it. Content is still clearly arranged in five units—The Bible, Old Testament Geography and History, Old Testament Institutions, The Christ, and The Church. Old Testament history is still woven around 16 leading characters arranged in chronological order. The life of Christ is still presented in 7 periods that can be easily memorized and used as a structure for understanding the work of our Savior. Map studies continue to be used to root the Bible story firmly in time and space. And those successfully completing the final exam can still receive a certificate testifying to that accomplishment.

But while retaining a classic look, the revised Training for Service is anything but dated. The book reflects the best current understanding of the Bible, education, and the questions being asked in the 21st century. There remains a focus on basic facts, but probing questions have been added to provoke deep discussion and practical application. Furthermore, computer technology has allowed us to provide even more features at www.trainingforservice.com.

Biblical literacy may be hard to define, but it certainly consists of the following:

• The ability to tell the Bible story from creation to completion using the words of Scripture.

• Competence in navigating through the different types of literature that comprises Scripture to tell that story.

• An understanding of the core doctrines held by the church of Jesus Christ from the days of the apostles to today.

Training for Service addresses all three of these goals!

Yes. Bible illiteracy is a problem. Admittedly, the dilemma does not have a quick fix. But impotent hand-wringing, longing for days gone by is not necessary. Training for Service provides the church a way to take the first bite of the elephant. By helping Christian workers achieve a baseline of Bible understanding, this long-respected book can be the beginning of lifelong spiritual vitality for them and all whom they serve.


Teaching Bible Teachers

This 26-lesson Bible survey elective provides well-rounded Bible knowledge and motivates students to commit to Christian service.

Training for Service Leader’s Guide includes step-by-step lesson plans; class activities; and reproducible worksheets, final exam, and completion certificate.

Training for Service Student Book gives every member of your class helps to take home with them: questions to answer, a pronunciation guide, maps, charts, and diagrams.

Training for Service Leader’s Guide — Item 025473611, $15.99

Training for Service Student Book — Item 025473711, $10.99

Go to StandardPub.com




Jim Eichenberger is a senior editor on the adult/teen product development team at Standard Publishing. He is the author of books and articles about understanding the Bible and culture, including Discovering God’s Story (Standard Publishing, 2010) and the current revision of Training for Service (2011).

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