Rampant Biblical Illiteracy
In Amos 8:11 we read these frightening words: “‘The days are coming,’ declares the Sovereign LORD, ‘when I will send a famine through the land – not a famine of food or a thirst for water, but a famine of hearing the words of the LORD’.” While it may not be likely that Amos had the 21st Century West in mind, it seems like his words pretty well sum up our situation.
I have written before about our woeful lack of basic biblical knowledge, and how believers today seem more intent on soaking in the latest trendy wit and wisdom of secular humanism than they are on devouring and seeking to master the Word of God. Our knowledge of the Bible today is perhaps at its lowest levels ever.
Yet some recent statistics coming out of America make this situation all the more reprehensible. George Guthrie offered a “Read the Bible for Life” conference these statistics:
“-25 million copies of the Bible are sold in the United States annually.
-Nine out of 10 homes in the U.S. have a Bible.
-More than 400 million copies of all or part of the Bible are distributed through Bible societies each year.”
That’s a lot of Bibles. But he went on to give these frightening figures: Only “16 percent of churchgoers read the Bible daily and 25 percent of churchgoers don’t read the Bible at all. This means that more than 50 percent of people who come through the doors of our churches on a regular basis only read their Bibles occasionally, perhaps one or two times per month, if at all. Even more sobering, only 37 percent of those who attend church regularly say that reading and studying the Bible has made a significant difference in the way they live their lives. Only 37 percent.”
And we wonder why Christians are losing the plot, churches are dying, and entire denominations are going the way of Cain. It is not difficult to get some answers here. Simply treat the Bible like an optional extra, to be read or ignored at whim, and there is your recipe for Christian suicide.
These damning statistics are a shameful blight on contemporary Christendom. And I do not doubt for a moment that the same sorts of figures can be found here in Australia. We have Bibles all over the place, but who is actually reading them and studying them?
I have stated before that any believer can read the entire Bible straight through in one year if they simply read three chapters a day. That is a measly 15 minutes a day. Yet I suspect that most believers don’t even read three chapters in a week, maybe even a month.
And the famine for God’s word is certainly not found in your average Christian bookstore. They are awash with Bibles, coming in all shapes and sizes. Indeed, there is a bewildering, and at times ridiculous, range of choices to be found. We have every sort of Bible under the sun.
There are men’s Bibles and women’s Bibles and teen’s Bibles and Spirit-filled study Bibles and eschatology study Bibles and apologetics study Bibles and blond-haired, left-handed vegetarian study Bibles and lower Manhatten 18-20 year old party goer study Bibles, etc.
There is a Bible for everyone and for every group imaginable. But the real question is: are we reading them? Are we studying them? More importantly, are we obeying them? Our accountability as Western Christians is great because we are drowning in Scripture, yet we know little about the Word and do little about the Word.
So how do we turn things around? I would suggest repentance would be a good place to begin. We need to get on our faces before the living God and repent of ignoring one of the most important gifts he has given us. We need to confess our sins here, and ask God to help us get back to his Word, and to give us a renewed love for his Word.
Then we can say with David in Psalm 119:97-99, “Oh, how I love your law! I meditate on it all day long. Your commands are always with me and make me wiser than my enemies. I have more insight than all my teachers, for I meditate on your statutes.”
At this conference other suggestions were given to buck this trend. Guthrie said this: “First, we need to look at processes in the local church and not just programs of the moment. We need to read and teach people how to read Scripture more effectively and meaningfully. And we need to get into the grand story of Scripture – individually and as a community.
“By doing this, people will begin to realize that ‘this is my story and it has implications for my life.’ This coordinated attempt at changing patterns and processes of interacting with Scripture is a way to help the church be the church and learn to read the Bible well.”
Another conference speaker, pastor David Platt, said. “We walked through the story of Scripture from cover to cover testing out the Read the Bible for Life curriculum. To see the Word come alive through this material and through our church was incredible. As a pastor I’m indebted to this.
“As you unpack the grand narrative of Scripture, you start to realize that the God of Peter, James and John [and] of Isaiah, Moses and Abraham is your God. To have your eyes opened to the fact that God, the consuming fire on the mountain, is the same God we meet with…. it takes our daily routine up to such a higher level when we realize we are a part of something so much greater – a grand story of redemption.”
If a program such as this is needed to turn things around, fine. But the first step must be to come to God in humility and repentance, admitting our guilt here. It is either that or business as usual. I know which direction I would rather take.
As A.W. Tozer so rightly stated, “Whatever keeps me from the Bible is my enemy, however harmless it may appear to be. Whatever engages my attention when I should be meditating on God and things eternal does injury to my soul. Let the cares of life crowd out the Scriptures from my mind and I have suffered loss where I can least afford it.”
21 Replies to “Rampant Biblical Illiteracy”
For this illiteracy we can only blame the churches themselves. I am angry at liberal churches that have spent so much effort debunking the Bible with various forms of “criticism”: higher criticism, literary criticism, redaction criticism, form criticism, history-of-religions criticism etc. etc. But that has been par for the course for 150 years.
However, what makes me even more angry is the so-called mega-churches: you go to their services and there is no Bible reading, while the sermons are oriented to “felt needs” or some sort of “pop” psychology – no serious attempt at Biblical exposition and application, let alone a series on a book of the Bible. And this is the diet of so many churchgoers today.
Meanwhile Sunday Schools have largely disappeared, and along with them any emphasis on Bible memorization, and also that ‘dreaded procedure’, catechism teaching.
This comes from churches who profess to be Biblical, and to believe the Bible thoroughly, yet many of the practices in their churches are unscriptural and belong more to the world. I fear that Stephen would say the same to us as he declared to the Jewish Council, “You who received the Law as given by angels but did not keep it.” (Acts 7:53. Yes, the Pharisee party could say all sorts of very orthodox things about the Old Testament, but when push came to shove they effectively put it on the shelf.
Murray R Adamthwaite
Yes you are quite right. And sadly it is many of the so-called Bible-believing churches which are losing the plot here as well. The theological liberals have long ago abandoned Scripture. But many evangelicals are not all that much further behind in selling their souls for trendy pop psychology, therapeutic lectures, and feel-good me-first-ism.
Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch
Thank you for that column Bill. I have noted the trend to do away with Bible reading in the Church service for some time now and it saddens me. Unfortunately, when I commented to the Pastor about this, I was labelled a troublemaker, and told that it would lengthen the service too much – the same with “long, boring prayers”. So much for a ‘Biblically based Church’.
Yes it is a real worry.
Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch
I was going to say that I thought Murray was painting some very broad strokes there and to complain about it, then I read what Joan had to say. Yikes! A trouble maker for suggesting we read the Bible? If there’s more of that around than I thought maybe Murray is right?
In my humble opinion, without the Scriptures we have nothing to say. We are just another religion in the religion market places of the world. However I know that is not true, and I have personal testimony to demonstrate it. Leave out the Bible though and you’re headed for trouble – it is the foundation of who we are and what we believe. It is no accident that enemies of the faith spend so much effort attacking it.
Without the word of God we become like those in sensory deprivation chambers. We lose touch with reality. We start to hallucinate and, if left long enough, we and whole nations go insane.
The language on this Youtube betrays the source of this gentleman’s ravings:
David Skinner, UK
Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ – St Jerome.
Interesting (and good!) that you mention King David’s words in Psalm 119:97-99, “Oh, how I love your law! I meditate on it all day long. Your commands are always with me and make me wiser than my enemies. I have more insight than all my teachers, for I meditate on your statutes.”
For many Christians, salvation is reduced to ‘me and Jesus’, and if any Bible reading is done, the New Testament and maybe the Psalms take precedent. The prophets are too hard and the Pentateuch (again, with the possible exception of Genesis) is seen as a modern-day irrelevancy, applicable to Jews only. The Law of God in particular takes a beating and is seen as ignorable since, of course, ‘we live under grace and not law.’ This could not be further from the truth. Not one jot nor tittle of the law, excepting the sting of death for those who believe in Christ, has been superseded. The blessings and curses of the covenant are still in force.
Thank God for His grace through Christ, but thank God also for His eternal Law.
I confess I am one of those people Bill. Though I did read Jeremiah a month or so ago, thanks to your two part articles on the prophet. I also read Luke’s Gospel. I have read the Bible from cover to cover, that was more than ten years ago. I rely more on your articles and good Christian literature. Both of the churches I attend to offer weekly Bible readings in their bulletins, so I don’t really have any excuse.
This comment is not quite specific to your topic but…
I was enrolled in a Christian course last year (at which you spoke as a guest speaker, as a matter of fact). I dropped out of the course part way through because of the poor handling of Scripture and poor grasp of theology. My ongoing concern, and debate, was that students were being trained to help others with their problems, but without a solid and truthful Biblical understanding of people, sin, and how God works in our lives. Secular ideas (albeit filtered through a fuzzy Christain lens) was being used as the basis of the course.
My point is that it was the ongoing ignorance of Scripture and Theology, and chosen preference for that ignorance, that I found concerning.
I’ve since found a brilliant course that acknowledges the place Christ and Scripture should have on our thinking and our approach to our problems and our whole lives.
Back when I was teaching a second grade Sunday school class I remember a little girl who knew everything about the purported end-times events a la ‘Left Behind’ series, and would regularly declare the coming wrath in excruciating detail, yet when I asked the class to turn to the book of Matthew, the poor child had no idea where to start looking for it. It rather broke my heart. And it has stayed with me as a memorable example of the dumbing down of the next generation’s biblical literacy.
Amy Bailey, US
Well said Steve, if it was so serious in God’s eyes as to eternally judge mankind for breaking His law (the very reason for Christ’s death and sacrifice – our redemption to His glory); it is reasonable and Biblical to say that we have been redeemed in order to then obey His law (after all, His will is our sanctification).
Why would we stand judged under it, and then be saved from the curse of the law to then have that very law tossed out the window? We have been restored to righteousness, and made a new creature in Christ with the law written on our hearts. The Law of sin and death and the law of the Spirit of life (Rom 8 ) are one and the same – just as the gospel is to some death, and to some the fragrance of life.
God’s whole word and the law is a wonderful blessing for us – it shows us how holiness can practically be applied on a creaturely level, and it perfectly reflects the character of God.
I fear the Church at large has mostly forgotten the law that is implicated in the Lordship of Christ.
Isaac Overton, ACT
ps. wonderful article Bill!
It is, and probably will be, an ongoing issue in the West. When something is so readily available, we do tend to take it for granted and literally put it on the shelf.
I think you are right Bill, that the starting point must be repentance and admitting that we are wrong to sit back and forget about God’s word. I don’t think blaming the institution is of any benefit. If we are relying on hearing scripture on Sunday mornings and getting upset when there’s a lack – then the lack is really from Monday to Saturday (that’s not to say that some sermons really are scant of scripture).
It is so easy to have the best intentions and get caught up in the business of life – thank you for reminding us of where our priorities should lie.
With all due respect, those stats don’t mean much at face value. You would have to dig deeper. Take that 37% for example. If that group was largely elderly, a generation losing influence, then the churches have a problem. But if the trend in that group was towards the young, then possibly it could be a good sign. What you need are sympathetic social scientists such as Rodney Stark digging into the problem and analysing it.
All of the major religions have followers who are only nominally religious. Maybe we need enterprising researchers to explore the reasons why they remain nominal.
It is not my intent to become an apologist for this particular set of stats. What I will say however is there have been a number of other studies which have come up with similar findings. And anecdotal evidence also bears this out. As a non-believer you simply want to quibble over details. As a believer, I want to warn a sleeping church of this major danger.
Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch
Amen, we are the church. We are God’s people. Lord help me in my life to display your love and truth despite my failings.
Steve your statement “Not one jot nor tittle of the law, excepting the sting of death for those who believe in Christ, has been superseded. The blessings and curses of the covenant are still in force.” is absolutely true.
I was engaged in an intense debate with a gay MP a little while back who challenged me with the idea that if I believed in the Bible and the Old Testament, we ought to still stone homosexuals. It was only after the meeting that it occurred to me that in response I have should have said. “No, in a Christian society we no longer kill homosexuals or adulterers, for the penalty of sinning against a holy God has been paid by Jesus Christ. Certainly society pays a cost for allowing such behaviour to continue, by becoming dysfunctional and violent. Nothing is free. But in addition someone has to pay for the offence against God and Christ paid that price. Those who do not believe in Jesus Christ and continue to engage in immoral behaviour will indeed have to pay the bill themselves at the last judgement. And this will be a far worse death than merely being stoned. The law does indeed still stand. Someone has to pay, either us or Jesus Christ.
This might be worth revisiting:
David Skinner, UK
This is one reason why we need Scripture in schools! Not one of the 50 kindergarten kids I teach this year knew what a Bible was! (They do now!) These are the kids whose parents sent them to Scripture. Some of them attend Sunday School! A young man who has taken on teaching high school kids says that most of them don’t know who God or Jesus is, nor what a Bible is. We are a very unchurched, unChristianized society here in Australia. If so many Christians who actually attend church aren’t reading their Bibles, no wonder we are in such dire straits. How can we share the Word of God if it is not dwelling richly within us?
Yes quite right Dee.
Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch
Thanks Bill, It is amazing that some Christians can survive on a starvation diet. I find my Bible to be a feast. Here in Queensland we are still able to spend 30 minutes each week in State School classes teaching from the Holy Bible and encouraging students to love, appreciate, read and understand this most valuable and precious book. My classes were really impressed to know that only one man in all of history could change BC to AD, Jesus Christ.
Dawn McGregor Qld
I totally agree with you. Nowadays, we find ample time to grind ourselves in the day-to-day happenings in our life, and are quite busy and simply don’t spare time for the Word of God, which is the elixir of life. We fail to realise that it is the Supreme God, who provides and sustains us and we tend to always deny Him of the glory, we don’t thank Him and take pride in our ability when the thing is done.
Even the leaders in our church is to be blamed, at least in my church, they should convince the people that it is the Scripture which is to be read and not his sermons, which partly extols the preacher at times, and gullible people get swayed by his smooth sermons. It is like wolf in the sheep’s clothing. It is just a tip of the iceberg at least in our Church, where we keep photos of leaders near the pulpit, and people rather than praising and worshipping the Lord, they pay due respect to the leaders who never tell the believers, that it is He that has made us and not we ourselves, We are the sheep of His pasture.