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Biblical Illiteracy

By Rick DuBose | Posted In Why It Matters

The apostle John begins his gospel by declaring, “In the beginning was the Word ... .” Which emphasizes the fact that everything God does begins with His Word. Sometimes it’s a new word that aligns with His revelation in Scripture, and sometimes it is a reminder of His already established Word. But we can be sure that if God is doing something, it will begin with His Word.  

You might have seen the GQ magazine list of 21 books you don’t need to read. I was not at all surprised to see the Bible on that list. The editors called it “repetitive,” “foolish,” and even “contradictory.” I’m not surprised because I realize the devil knows that de-emphasizing God’s Word, the Bible, is one of the best ways to stop the advancement of the gospel and the Church. Of course, when it comes to spiritual matters, we should never look to the world for book recommendations. As the Church, the one book we should always recommend and begin with is the Bible.

In a recent survey by American Bible Society, only 16 percent of respondents said Bible reading is part of their morning routine, while more than twice that number (37 percent) said they start their day with coffee.

The lack of a Bible-first lifestyle may help explain why, according to recent findings from Barna Group, over half of all churchgoers are now unable to identify basic biblical priorities, including the Great Commission. And it seems the Bible knowledge gap continues to widen from generation to generation.

I wonder whether what we’ve seen over the last few decades — the disintegration of the family, rising drug and alcohol addiction, and acceptance of societal sins, to name a few — are the result of a shift away from a Bible focus. As ministers, it is our responsibility to make the Bible a vital part of every believer’s life. For us to increase readership, understanding and biblical living, we must ask ourselves these questions: How have we gotten to this point? What is the greatest factor that has put the Word of God in disfavor with so many? And how can we turn it around?

It’s time to make biblical literacy more than just a slogan; it must become a clearly defined target.

Access and Attendance Are Not Enough

Over the last several decades, the American Church has made attendance a high priority. We’ve found many creative ways to attract Christians and non-Christians to our churches. We’ve worked hard to remove every barrier we could find and make attending our churches as convenient as possible. We’ve carefully crafted our presentations of both the worship and the message to meet felt needs in our communities. We’ve invented terms like “seeker sensitive” and “church assimilation” to describe these processes. And in many ways, it has worked. People who would not otherwise attend church are now filling our seats.

We have also placed a heavy emphasis on access to Scripture. As our churches grew, we knew we needed to get the Word of God into the hands of as many people as possible. We have translated the Bible into many of the languages of the world. We have also reworked the English versions of Scripture to meet the demands of today’s audience. Alongside the traditional King James Version are more commonly understandable versions, such as the New International Version, the Amplified Bible and even The Message.

We have broken free from the limitations of the printed page and now have the Bible, in all its versions, on our computers, tablets and smartphones. No matter where you go today, the Word of God is as close as the device in your pocket.

But despite the ease of access to the Word and the familiarity of the language, fewer people are actually reading it, studying it, and (especially) living by it. Church attendance and access to a Bible alone cannot make us into what God wants us to be. To live like Christ will take a much deeper commitment to learning and living out the Scriptures.

It may be that our focus on numerical growth allowed, maybe even required, us to use our calendars, our clocks, and our creativity just to get people in the door. Multiple services that necessitate clearing the parking lot for the next group have forced us to truncate our services. And by accident, we have — in some cases and in some ways — de-emphasized Scripture. Simultaneously, we’ve designed many of our children’s programs more for keeping a child’s attention than for discipling them. This, too, may have played a role in producing a deficit in appreciation for biblical knowledge among the young.

I am not suggesting we fill our churches with classrooms and lectures. However, in the 1960s, more people attended Sunday School — with its emphasis on strong biblical learning — than the worship service. Our congregations had a love for the Word that was evident in how we lived. That, in turn, affected our communities. As worship attendance has increased, learning forums have decreased. I believe in the power of worship, but it should not come at the detriment of biblical learning.

Just having a Bible app on our phones or a clever logo on a church sign will not make a difference in our neighborhoods. But digging deeper into the Word can change us and the world around us. As Pentecostals, we believe in the power of the Holy Spirit to be our strength and our teacher, but if we ignore His textbook and its prophetic promises, we hinder the Spirit’s ability to accomplish His will among us. The Bible is the Spirit’s toolbox.

What Is Biblical Literacy?

What does it mean to be biblically literate? In one sense, it’s a deep understanding and comprehension of the Bible as a series of books connected over millennia that reveals God’s plan for salvation. But you cannot demonstrate biblical literacy simply by passing a test.

To really understand Scripture, you must first understand that it is a living text God designed to be our spiritual sustenance, our daily bread. Hebrews 4:12 says the Word of God is alive and active. When you get into it, it gets into you and will revolutionize your life. I see the world differently, I hear differently, and I react differently when I read and know the Word of God.

A life devoted to God is the best demonstration of biblical literacy. It’s how we act toward those around us. It’s the depth of love we have toward our family, our church, and our neighbors. It’s about us rejecting sin and reconciling others to Christ. A life led producing the fruit of the Spirit begins with a heart tuned to Scripture.

Biblical literacy is about reading and comprehending the Scripture in your own language. That’s why access is so important to biblical literacy. But it’s not the only component. Reading the Bible, which is powerful, is foundational and valuable, but not enough.

Biblical literacy is also about speaking. People who are literate in a language can not only read in that language, but they can also communicate with others. Raising up biblically literate Christians means we share and compare our biblical understanding with others in and outside the Church. We learn faster and more accurately in community.

Speaking and hearing others speak what the Bible says helps it penetrate our hearts. Confessing and proclaiming God’s Word helps establish and grow faith. After all, “it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved” (Romans 10:10).

The final component of literacy is being able to think it. If you are learning a new language, the ultimate marker that you are fully fluent is the ability to think and plan your life in that language. We must allow Scripture to transform our minds (Romans 12:2). Once the Bible changes our thinking so that we plan and react according to what God’s Word reveals, we will live a transformed life.

How to Get There: Pulpit, Process and Personal Devotion

We need to make sure the Bible is front and center in our churches and then in our homes. Doing that will require a very focused group effort that will take us down three paths.

The first path is the pulpit. Weekly, our pastors have an opportunity to shape the lives of people by presenting the truth of Scripture so they can apply it. What we preach is more important than how long we take or how creative we are. Our sermons must be biblically based and intentionally instructive if we want to increase biblical literacy. I believe we should design our services from the Bible out.

In the zeal of the church growth movement, leaders have too often designed their pulpits to be places of attraction rather than education, information or correction. That can produce a wider Church but often shallower Christians. The good news is that church growth and biblical literacy don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

The prophet Samuel grew up and began his ministry in a time when Israel regarded the Word of God with contempt. First Samuel 3:1 says, “In those days the word of the LORD was rare ... .” This is referring to prophetic words, but if you will allow me a little leeway, it could also be a description of the lack of biblical literacy at the time. Had Eli preached the Word of God, he would have had to confront the sin of his sons and others. Therefore, at the end of Eli’s life, enemies carried away the ark of God’s presence, and the tragic declaration that the glory of God had departed from Israel became this ineffective priest’s legacy (1 Samuel 4:21–22).

One of the main responsibilities of a pastor — one that will keep “Ichabod” from appearing on the church or on the heart of an individual congregant — is to develop and deliver a consistent, comprehensive process that will enable all church members, from all demographics, to become biblically literate and practice a life of biblical accuracy. Preaching and teaching the full council of God from the pulpit is the primary means of accomplishing that. Of course, preaching alone will not reach into every heart and every demographic.

Can a pastor truly accomplish the entire mission in one sermon a week? Can he or she lead, heal, win the lost and feed the whole church adequately through one message each weekend? I don’t believe so.

There must be a managed process in place, which is the second path to increasing biblical literacy. It was clear from the start that the Word of God was foremost on the agenda of the Church in the Book of Acts. “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (Acts 2:42).

First of all, believers were devoted to the doctrine of Scripture. They committed themselves to knowing it and applying it to their lives. It became as much a part of the process as eating and fellowship.

Later in Acts 2, Luke reports that church members met regularly, from house to house and in the temple, where I believe they not only shared Communion but also what the apostles had given them to share about the Scripture. What was the result of this process? “The word of the Lord spread through the whole region” (Acts 13:49).

The Early Church experienced not just an increase in the number of disciples, but an increase in the knowledge of the Word. It wasn’t just apostolic preaching, but a process centered on truly knowing and applying the Bible in their lives and neighborhoods.

In the past, we have utilized multiple structures to instill biblical principles and teaching into the hearts and minds of our children, young people, men and women, and even seniors. Sunday School was just one of those programs, or structures. It was a good one; it worked. It took advantage of the schedule of the attendees by tying it to the worship service — and by meeting on what was a day off for most people. Many leaders have also used the mid-week option, and some have used home groups. What should you and I use? Whatever works best in our setting!

Although some churches are returning to previously mentioned structures, whether through small groups or restarting Sunday School, I want to remind us that to be effective, it will require more than just a time on the calendar and a space in someone’s home to gather and talk, read a book together or watch a video. The Scripture, its meaning and its application, must be the focus. Becoming a biblically right church will take longer than three to six months and will require more work than expected. It will require a permanent commitment from the pastor, the staff and every member of the church.

Every church should have a process that will take anyone from any demographic and from any level of biblical knowledge to full biblical literacy. For that to happen, we need an overarching understanding of the whole canon of Scripture. Pastors must lead their people into a disciplined reading process that guides them through key passages of Scripture, starting in Genesis and ending in Revelation.

Our churches need to walk through the story of the Bible as it unfolds — with special emphasis on Jesus and the work of the Spirit all the way through. This should start at church but must land in the home, with support from the pulpit and reinforcement in every other teaching venue of the church.

The desired outcome is a baseline of biblical knowledge we can build upon. It should be adaptable by every ministry team and applicable for any setting. It would enable pastors to confidently feed the flock of God and help them grow their people in spiritual health, strength and effectiveness.

We must also help people apply what they learn, making sense of what they have read and turning it into a biblical lifestyle. This includes covering the fundamental truths of the Bible, but it should also include practical teaching that helps people see the world through the lens of the Word.

What believers read in the Bible should begin to change the way they think about sex and marriage, finances, worship, evangelism, etc. This is the talk phase, where discussing and interaction go to a whole new level. We all learn and advance better in groups — first the family, then the church. The power of the group is in the discussion. We need to talk Bible at home and at church.

The third path is living and sharing the Word. Now that you have read the full Scripture, learned to speak the language and started thinking it instinctively, how will you live it out daily? We believe the final phase is hands-on. It is Jesus sending the disciples ahead of Him. It is partially literate people engaging in the church and the world around it, according to and in light of the Bible. It is us being the Bible for others to read.

Again, this begins with the pulpit and continues through a process, but it ultimately depends on our personal and individual devotion to the Word.

Pastor, how you view the Scriptures will determine the attitude your congregation has toward the Bible. How much time you spend in the Word will set the bar for how devoted your flock is to feeding on it.

Jesus taught us through the Sermon on the Mount that our first priority is to go into our secret place, our closet, and devote a portion of our day to seeking His face, praying for His will and our needs, and leaning in to His Word.

God tells us that being with Him in private is so important that if we will simply show up, He will bless us when we leave. There is no better offer on the table!

For pastors, our task is so vitally important that we cannot do it without first receiving the Word for ourselves. In the Synoptic Gospel accounts of the feeding of the 5,000, Jesus first hands the bread to the disciples before they can feed the crowds. Without receiving the bread from the Lord, they had nothing to offer. But after taking it from the Master’s hand, they were able to feed thousands!

The most amazing part of that passage may be that not only did the disciples have something to feed the people, but they also had basketfuls left over to take home. If we want to feed our flock, we must look to the Bread of Life as our Source. When we devote ourselves to a daily diet from the Bible, we are not only more effective ministers, but we also become overflowing Christians.

The Fire of the Holy Spirit and the Word of God

More than 100 years ago, a group of Spirit-filled men and women needed a church. So, they formed the Assemblies of God. They designed it to provide access to educational experiences, accountability and fellowship. The first goal of this new Pentecostal Church was to show the world the greatest evangelism it has ever seen. We must continue our focus on evangelizing the world in the full power of the Holy Spirit and then pass that purpose on to the next generation. But it is also important to remember that the power of God through the baptism in the Holy Spirit began with a revelation from His Word.

We modern Pentecostals did not come from an experience first, but our experience came from correctly understanding the Bible. For those of us who have inherited this Church, our responsibility today is to make sure it stays biblical. When you get your biblical understanding right, all the other right things will follow. Everything God does starts with His Word!

If we desire to maintain those same early purposes, we must remain Pentecostal at every point, continuing to evangelize in His power to every neighbor, near and far. And we must also be one of the most biblically literate people on the face of the earth. How do we accomplish that? By emphasizing, celebrating, preaching, teaching and living the Word of God at all times!

Everything God does begins with the Word!  

This article originally appeared in the September/October 2018 edition of Influence magazine.