By Kent E. Fillinger
A year or so ago, one of my teenage daughters had several of her friends over for a sleepover. During the night, the girls decided to play a game. My daughter pulled Scattergories, which was new to her, out of the closet, and in the girls’ rush to play, they decided to forego reading the directions. Instead, they came up with a way to play based on what they thought made sense.
Not reading the directions first resulted in a hodgepodge game with no winner. There were a few arguments along the way, due to the confusion and lack of clarity on how to play. They eventually grew frustrated, put the game away, and moved on to the next activity.
A few weeks later, my three daughters and I decided to play Scattergories together. This time I explained the rules and taught them how it was supposed to be played. The results were much different, and my daughter who had played the game with her friends was surprised to learn how mistaken their approach had been.
An Increase in Biblical Illiteracy
We live in an era of people throwing around terms like “fake news” and “alternative facts.” We also live in an era of increasing biblical illiteracy. We are part of a culture that devalues regular reading of the Bible.
The Pew Research Center asked self-identified American Christians about the essential aspects of being a Christian. Most (86 percent) said “believing in God” was essential to being a Christian. Another large grouping (71 percent) said being grateful for what you have was essential. More than two-thirds (69 percent) said “forgiving those who have wronged you” was key to the Christian life. But less than half—only 42 percent—said reading the Bible was essential to being a Christian. Bible reading ranked No. 8 on the list of essentials for being a Christian (from the article, “Bible Not Seen as Essential by American Christians,” Facts & Trends, Summer 2017).
Trying to be a Christian or to live the Christian life without reading the Bible is like my daughters and her friends trying to play Scattergories without first reading the directions. They had no idea what they were doing wrong. How can Christians believe in a God whom they don’t know much about? And how can anyone live a Christian life if they don’t know the directions found in the Bible that God gave us to follow?
A Slip in Bible-Mindedness
This sad reality may help explain why more people self-identify as evangelicals today than who believe basic evangelical truths. That finding was made by LifeWay, which asked survey participants four questions (developed in partnership with the National Association of Evangelicals) about the Bible, Jesus, salvation, and evangelism. Those who strongly agreed with all four questions/statements were considered to be evangelicals by belief.
The widest gap in the LifeWay survey was found in the Midwest, with 29 percent of the people self-identifying as evangelicals, but only 15 percent qualifying as evangelicals based on their beliefs. In the South, 31 percent self-identified as evangelicals but only 23 percent qualified as such based on belief. In the West it was 18 percent and 10 percent, respectively; In the Northeast, it was 13 percent and 5 percent (from “Evangelicals Across America” in Facts & Trends, Winter 2018).
But if reading and knowing what the instruction manual says isn’t important, it’s no wonder so many people call themselves Christians without understanding or believing the essentials of the faith.
A study based on interviews with 76,505 adults over a 10-year period, conducted by the Barna Group in partnership with the American Bible Society, shows how people in the nation’s 100-largest media markets view and use the Bible.
“Individuals considered to be Bible-minded are those who report reading the Bible in the past week and who strongly assert the Bible is accurate in the principles it teaches,” Barna reported. “Nationally, only 25 percent of the population is considered Bible-minded.”
Since 2013, Barna has determined Chattanooga, Tennessee, to be the most Bible-minded city in the country every year but one (Chattanooga was runner-up in 2015). But even so, only 50 percent of the people in Chattanooga qualify as being Bible-minded. The Indianapolis area, where I live, has more Restoration Movement megachurches and emerging megachurches clustered together than any part of the country, but it ranks 31st on the list with only 34 percent of its residents being Bible-minded. (See “2017 Bible-Minded Cities,” The Barna Group, June 22, 2017, www.barna.com.).
A Mushy Bowl of Stew
Since the early days of the Restoration Movement, our church leaders have used mantras such as these to reinforce our principles:
- “In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty; in all things, love.”
- “Where the Bible speaks, we speak. Where the Bible is silent, we are silent.”
- “No book but the Bible and no creed but Christ.”
My concern is that in an era of declining Bible study, fewer people will grasp the “essentials” of the faith, we’ll accept unbiblical teachings, and popular psychology books, instead of the Bible, will become our guidebooks.
We need to regain the attitude and approach of the Bereans: “And the people of Berea were more open-minded than those in Thessalonica, and they listened eagerly to Paul’s message. They searched the Scriptures day after day to see if Paul and Silas were teaching the truth” (Acts 17:11, New Living Translation).
“Berean Christians” today won’t be led astray by well-meaning but misguided preachers who have lost their way and have started introducing ideas that run counter to Bible teachings.
Paul warned Timothy that “a time is coming when people will no longer listen to sound and wholesome teaching. They will follow their own desires and will look for teachers who will tell them whatever their itching ears want to hear. They will reject the truth and chase after myths” (2 Timothy 4:3, 4, NLT).
If we don’t know what the Bible says (and we can’t know unless, like the Bereans, we read and study it), we become much more likely to listen only to what our itching ears want to hear, much more likely to reject the truth and chase after myths.
And then we fall prey to believing and following “fake biblical news” and “alternative biblical truths” that don’t line up with God’s Word.
When this biblical drift happens at the higher levels of church leadership, worship services become feel-good experiences devoid of biblical teaching and truth. The outcome might be worship services without a single prayer; a service where Communion is not served due to a lack of time or a fear of alienating guests. How ironic that Jesus had time to serve Communion and the New Testament church wasn’t afraid to devote themselves to taking the Lord’s Supper each time they gathered together (Acts 2:42).
When we strip away clear, biblical principles and practices for the sake of pragmatism or under the guise of trying to relate better to the unchurched, we forfeit the key differentiator that only the church possesses.
It’s akin to Esau selling his birthright to Jacob for a bowl of stew. Too many churches and church leaders are trading their “spiritual birthright” for a mushy bowl of “cultural, pop-psychology stew.” It may taste good, look good, and draw a crowd. But it isn’t good for you, and, in the end, it won’t satisfy you, fill you up, or provide what you need to live a devoted Christian life based on God’s instructions in the Bible.
As Christ followers and as churches, it’s essential we incorporate both orthodoxy (believing the right things) and orthopraxy (doing the right things). If we don’t read and study the Bible, we won’t know or believe the right things (orthodoxy). And if we don’t know what’s right, we won’t do what’s right (orthopraxy). As a result, we’ll make up what the Christian life is supposed to look like based on our own misguided beliefs, and we’ll miss out on the opportunity to experience the joyful Christian life as God designed it, based on his directions in the Bible.
This Easter, as people show up at your church looking for the hope that can be found only in a resurrected Lord and the message of truth that we serve a risen Savior, I hope you will share the essentials of the faith and point people to the Bible to encounter the living Word of God (Hebrews 4:12, 13).
Kent E. Fillinger serves as president of 3:STRANDS Consulting, Indianapolis, Indiana, and regional vice president (Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan) with Christian Financial Resources.