By Shelley Leith
Christian church leaders share what happened when they committed to this plan for showing readers how the Bible fits together.
What is the most biblically illiterate city in America? For one of the largest churches in the country, Christ’s Church of the Valley in Peoria, Arizona, the answer was a wake-up call.
Executive pastor Ashley Wooldridge explains: “Here at CCV, we have a very keen and sobering understanding that we live in a completely biblically illiterate age. This especially came home to us when a recent Barna study ranked Phoenix as almost the most biblically illiterate city in the country, with only San Francisco ranking worse than us. Las Vegas was even more biblically literate than we were! We desperately wanted to change that.”
Senior minister Robin Sigars can empathize. “We are a messy crowd,” Sigars says of Carterville Christian Church in Joplin, Missouri. “When we ask new people about their church background, the majority haven’t been to church in years, if at all. They are putting one foot in the door to see if the roof falls in on them. As you can imagine, this means we have many, many biblically illiterate people at Carterville. We preach as if the whole congregation is biblically illiterate—we don’t assume anything.”
The Bible Is Part of the Problem!
And trying to solve biblical illiteracy by encouraging people to read the Bible doesn’t seem to work. Sacrilegious as it may sound, the Bible itself can contribute to the problem. “Over the years, we have done several campaigns designed to get the whole church reading through the Bible,” says Wooldridge. “Yet, despite our best efforts, people remained unbelievably intimidated to open their Bibles. We could succeed at getting them started, but discouragement would set in and only 10 to 20 percent of our congregation would stick with a Bible reading plan to the end of the year.”
Pastors Are Turning to The Story
So, how are more and more Christian church ministers addressing the problem of biblical illiteracy? “When we found The Story, we felt we had finally landed on a tool that would help our people successfully engage with the Bible,” says Wooldridge. Sigars agrees: “Biblical literacy is a big need in our church, and I believe The Story is the best tool out there to help us meet this need.”
Many Christian churches agree. Randy Frazee, senior minister at Oak Hills Church in San Antonio, Texas, recently wrote, “I was just at a retreat with 15 megachurch pastors from the Christian church tradition. The number one topic everyone wanted to talk about was ‘How to build on The Story.’ Their common experience was, ‘We have never done anything that created this level of numerical growth, outreach, buzz, unity, and discipleship in our church.’ Twelve of the churches had done or are currently doing The Story. The remaining three indicated they are planning to do it very soon!”
The Story Behind The Story
Frazee deserves to be excited, because he invented the idea! The Story is an abridged chronology of Scriptures, and Frazee was the first person to preach through its 31 chapters, one chapter per week, to give people a better understanding of the Bible. That idea expanded when he moved to Oak Hills Church. While he preached through the Old Testament and Max Lucado preached through the New Testament, Oak Hills’s ministry leaders taught the same Scriptures to all age groups in the church. Their pioneering work was turned into The Story church kit that offers an extensive Bible survey experience, including 31 weeks of sermons and weekend programming, 31 weeks of curriculum for all ages from preschool to adults, and 31-chapter Scripture books at five reading levels for every member of the family.
The Story’s approach to biblical literacy is not a theme-driven or author-driven program, but a Scripture-centric experience. As Dale Borgen, executive pastor at Crossroads Christian Church in Corona, California, explains, “Not only did The Story fit with our goals of increasing Bible literacy and teaching everyone on one theme, it fit with our ministry philosophy. Here at Crossroads, as at most Christian churches, our priority is the Word of God. We are Bible-centered, Word-focused, and the Bible is at the core of everything we do. The Story couldn’t have been a more natural fit for our church because it is the Word of God—nothing more, nothing less.”
“The Story Is Hard to Put Down!”
As a Bible engagement tool, The Story solves the problem of intimidation and gets people reading Scripture.
“As I was reading the book for myself, I found that the removal of chapter divisions and verse breaks and the chronological arrangement of the text allowed me to catch themes in a new way,” Borgen says. “I discovered things I had never seen before!”
In Chino, California, Mike Spradlin, lead pastor at Valley Christian Church, says, “I saw a huge elevation in our people’s perception of the Bible, because The Story conveys the whole story of the Bible and ties it all together. I loved seeing someone’s eyes light up when they learned a truth about the Scripture. The coolest thing in the world for me to hear was, ‘I never read that before!’ One man said: ‘The Bible has always been hard to pick up and read. The Story is hard to put down.’”
Biblical Literacy Changes Churches
“A dynamic occurs in a church when people gain confidence in their understanding of the Bible,” Wooldridge explains. “They connect with the church at a whole different level. We can get so much deeper as a church now that we have this collective understanding.”
At Journey Christian Church in Wayne, Nebraska, pastor Troy Reynolds noticed “The Story made the Sunday morning experience more meaningful. There is a difference when people read the Scripture text ahead of the sermon. They came into Sunday mornings with questions, thoughts, ideas, and a curiosity about how this would all fit together.”
Valley Christian Church of Chino, California, finished The Story a year ago, and people there are still feeling the effects.
“Because The Story took us through the better part of last year,” says Spradlin, “it gave a prolonged period of time for people in the groups to build real community. Since The Story, we have seen our small groups continue strong and people’s hunger for God’s Word sustained. Our theme this year is outreach and service, and our people have done more projects, gotten more involved in the community—it’s awesome! We are seeing a new level of investment because of the strong community we built last year through The Story.”
Another Valley Christian Church, this one in North Platte, Nebraska, demonstrates that The Story can have a solidifying effect on attendance.
“Our church attendance was wavering between 60 and 80 people on a weekend, and now we have a solid 80 to 100,” says pastor Brent Montgomery. “The Story has firmed up people’s commitment and made the casual attenders more consistent, those on the fringes more connected.”
Pastors Reflect on Their Experience
“Our ministries had all the curriculum they needed,” Montgomery said, “and our leaders liked that there were several ready-made options on the website that we could use with our ladies’ study and our men’s study. I downloaded all the sermon helps, which facilitated my sermon development and gave me more bang and polish than I’m typically able to do. Our worship team even used the set of weekly media clips from the teen curriculum DVD, something that would have normally been beyond our means as a small church.”
Jerry Sygney, preaching minister at Liberty Christian Church in Salem, Oregon, reflected on the experience at his church of 100: “We were learning from each other. People would discuss the chapters on their own during the week, and give me feedback. I can’t emphasize enough how important it was that we were all on the same page, from children to adults. Our people loved the Word of God already, but now they are not so intimidated by it. I am thinking of repeating The Story next year, because it gives us such a message of hope when there is so much confusion in the world today.”
How to Push a Pastor’s Hot Button
Biblical illiteracy turned out to be a hot button for Dudley Rutherford, senior pastor at Shepherd of the Hills Church in Porter Ranch, California. When asked what he wanted to convey to other pastors about his experience with The Story, he started preaching!
“I am burdened for our country because we are so far off the path, drifting further and further away morally, turning our backs on God. That’s the reason all our churches need to go through The Story. What your people learn and experience from The Story will stick with them the rest of their lives.”
Shelley Leith is national church growth coach with Zondervan, based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She lives in Southern California and trains church leadership teams on implementing The Story.