Making Disciples in an Age of Biblical Illiteracy

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Google the words “bible” + “illiteracy”and you’ll discover thousands of articles covering one of the biggest problems the church faces in the 21st century. In January 2016, Albert Mohler, the president of Southern Baptist Theological wrote a post entitled “The Scandal of Biblical Illiteracy: It’s Our Problem.” He shared a couple of alarming statistics:

  • Less than half of Americans can name the four Gospels.
  • Many Christians can’t name more than two or three of the disciples.
  • 60 percent of Americans can’t name five of the 10 commandments.
  • 82 percent of Americans believe “God helps those who help themselves” is in the Bible.

The consequences of biblical illiteracy

The implications of biblical illiteracy among Christians can be quite alarming. Here are five ways that a lack of biblical understanding impacts Christians.

1. Shallow theological understanding

A lack of familiarity with the Bible can lead to misunderstandings or misinterpretations of theological concepts, which are often rooted in scripture. This can affect a person’s understanding of core Christian beliefs.

2. Impeded spiritual growth

The Bible is considered a source of guidance and inspiration for Christians. Those who are not well-versed in its teachings might miss out on opportunities for spiritual growth, reflection, and personal development.

3. Imperfect moral and ethical frameworks

Christian ethics and moral principles arise from biblical teachings. Without a solid understanding of the Bible, individuals might struggle to make ethical decisions based on their faith.

4. Ineffective communication with other Christians 

For Christian leaders, educators, and speakers, a strong grasp of biblical content is crucial for effectively communicating teachings and messages to their congregations or audiences. Even among lay Christians, so much communication rests on a shared understanding of biblical ideas, stories, and language.

5. Poorly understood cultural references

The Bible has had a profound influence on Western literature, art, and culture. An understanding of biblical stories and allusions is essential for comprehending many works of literature and art throughout history.

How do we address biblical illiteracy?

If we want to create disciples who have a deeper relationship with Christ, we need a strategy for teaching Christians about the Scriptures, and helping them fall in love with the Bible again.

Here are a couple suggestions for doing that:

1. Bring back Sunday school classes

In a 2015 article from USA Today, Melissa Pandika asked the provocative question, “Has the sun set on Sunday school?” She says:

“Between 1997 and 2004, churches lost tens of thousands of Sunday school programs, according to data from the Barna Group, and more recent studies show that enrollment has fallen across denominations. From 2004 to 2010, for example, Sunday school attendance dropped nearly 40 percent among Evangelical Lutheran churches in America and almost 8 percent among Southern Baptist churches, prompting speculation that the problem may be more than just a decline in American religiosity.”

Sunday school classes provided many churches with an opportunity for intensive Bible study along with deeper discussion and reflection. Too many churches have quit doing Sunday school, and they haven’t replaced it with other opportunities to study in community.

Many of the topical and curriculum-based programs that have replaced Sunday school groups are great in their own right, but they can’t take the place for community time centered around the Word. The church would greatly benefit from concentrated time spent in the Bible. We don’t have to call it Sunday school, but it would be nice to bring back the concept.

2. More expository preaching

Topical sermons have their place. It’s good for a pastor to spend a couple weeks focusing on marriage or social issues from a variety of angles. It enables congregations to develop a stronger grasp on how their faith intersects with these subjects.

But almost one in five churchgoers admits to never reading the Bible, and 40 percent only read once or twice a month. This means that they’re really only familiar with the Scripture they hear in church. It’s good for them to be exposed to exegetical preaching from the Bible. This way they are not only exposed to larger sections of Scripture, but they also get to experience it in context.

This will equip them to be better informed, and make the Bible less intimidating when they actually open it.

3. Encourage people to bring Bibles to church

The way we handle presentations in church has made it a lot easier to follow along. When the minister reads a passage of Scripture, I can see it on the screen and I don’t have to try and quickly find the passage before he’s done reading.

Unfortunately, it’s also made bringing your own Bible to church passé. You used to look around the sanctuary and see Bibles in the pews or on people’s laps, but that’s not so much the case anymore. Granted, we need to keep in mind a lot of people are accessing Bibles on their phones.

If you’re planning to read more than a verse or two, why not refrain from putting it on the monitor? Give people time to look the passage in their own Bibles. This will encourage them to start bringing Bibles to church again, and it will help them get used to looking Scripture up.

4. Promote Scripture memorization

Most Christians want to read the Bible more. It’s just that when push comes to shove, they come up with reasons not to. Getting your church excited about Scripture memorization can be a fun way to stir up their enthusiasm about the Bible-while helping them internalize it.

Obviously Scripture memory has some powerful benefits:

  • It helps us resist temptation
  • It enables us to make wise decisions
  • It gives us strength during trials
  • It brings us comfort

But let’s not forget that it’s going to get people into the Word.

Why not kick off the winter with a Scripture memory challenge? Encourage people to pair up and memorize 15 verses over the next couple months. You can offer suggestions or let people choose the passages they want to memorize together. As they start committing Scripture to memory, you can invite them to share it during services.

(If you’d like to learn more about how Scripture helps you handle temptation, check out the post “Lessons from the Temptations of Jesus.”)

Scripture is too important to neglect

There’s so much riding on the people of God drawing their understanding of who He is from the Word. Without a working, vibrant understanding of the Bible, the church is adrift in a sea of relativism, misunderstanding, and confusion. If we want to create discerning, God-honoring communities of faith, they need to be grounded in Scripture.

It’s time to turn this trend around.