Last month I read an article in The Christian Post (Dec 3, 2020), entitled “Biblical Illiteracy Utmost Problem Facing Global Evangelicalism.” Leah Klett’s article summarized an interview with Thomas Schirrmacher, the new secretary-general of the World Evangelical Alliance. Schirrmacher stated, “Our biggest problem is that Bible knowledge is fading away. This is the utmost problem we have beyond all theological differences, and political questions.” His statement surprised me. I thought he would mention resurgent Islam or human trafficking or world hunger. Instead, he focused on biblical illiteracy. He went to say that biblical illiteracy is a problem for laypersons and church leaders alike.
In her article, Leah Klett cited the Barna Group’s annual State of the Bible Report for 2020, which is also sponsored by the American Bible Society. According to the report, the percentage of adults in the USA who claim they read the Bible daily declined from 14% in 2019 to 9% in 2020. The 9% figure is the lowest reported in the ten-year history of the report.
At our church, only about 50% of our members come to Sunday school. So, half of our members receive no other biblical instruction than they receive during the worship service. Sure, I realize they could access good Bible teaching on the internet or radio, but I’m supposing that they do not.
As a seminary professor, I mainly taught missions courses, but I often referred to the Bible. Sometimes, I would ask my students a Bible question, and they would just look at me blankly. One day I scolded them and challenged them to read the entire Bible. Over the years, I’ve conducted an informal poll of seminary professors who teach the introduction to the Old Testament and Introduction to New Testament courses. These courses are required for all students. I asked the professors how well their students know the Bible. They all responded that most students begin seminary with little Bible knowledge. One professor said, “I assume they know nothing, and that is usually correct.” I believe one reason for this is that we get a lot of seminary students now who professed faith in Christ while in college. So, they did not benefit from years of teaching in Sunday school, as I did.
Though I attended Sunday school every Sunday (unless I had a fever), I did not understand the sweep of Bible history. I knew the stories of the Bible–Moses in the bullrushes and Daniel in the lion’s den—but I did not know how all those stories fit into God’s plan of salvation. Thankfully, when I went to college, I learned biblical history in Old Testament survey class, and I finally understood the eras of the Bible and where biblical characters fit into the timeline.
Schirrmacher also expressed concern about untrained pastors. In fact, he described the problem of insufficiently trained pastors a “crisis.” He emphasized pastoral training as a priority for the World Evangelical Alliance: “This is just one thing we do, but it’s extremely important. Because if evangelicals don’t know the Bible any longer, it doesn’t make any sense that we a Bible movement. We have nothing else. We have no pope; we have no structure that keeps us together, no matter what we believe. We need to sit down and study the Bible, know the Scriptures, and be properly equipped for ministry.” Now, you might think: Sure, this is a problem for churches overseas, but it is not for us Southern Baptists.” Well, I can tell you that some years ago the IMB gave the new missionaries at its International Learning Center a test on Bible and doctrinal knowledge. The results we so bad that the IMB added a week of biblical and doctrinal instruction to its training program for new missionaries.
What can we do to address the problem of biblical illiteracy? First, we can reemphasize Sunday school and/or small groups. All our folks should be studying the Bible. Second, we can strive to use the Sunday school hour fully for Bible teaching. In many adult classes announcements, prayer time, and discussion of community events takes up much of the teaching time. Third, we can emphasize Bible reading plans. There are lots of read through the Bible in one-year plans. We should promote those. Finally, we should offer instruction that teaches the members the sweep of biblical revelation. Bruce Wilkinson’s Walk Through the Old Testament and New Testament addressed this need, and their popularity proved that our members are hungry for this. Lifeway’s Gospel Project and other curricula provide this type of instruction.
So, let me pose two questions to our Voices readers.
- Do you agree that biblical illiteracy is the biggest problem facing the church?
- And, what can we do to provide biblical instruction in our churches?