Posted On April 14, 2021

What Is Biblical Illiteracy and Is it a Problem Within the Church? 1

One subject that isn’t getting enough coverage in contemporary Christian books and Christian media is the significant issue of biblical illiteracy. Two researchers who have looked into this problem in the Church, George Gallup and Jim Castelli, write, “Americans revere the Bible–but, by and large, they don’t read it. And because they don’t read it, they have become a nation of biblical illiterates.”

At this point, you may think both George and Jim have overstated their case, but they haven’t, and it’s worse than you could ever imagine. George Barna (the author of The State of the Bible: Six Trends for 2014) has dedicated his life to researching trends in the Church. His research is eye-opening when he tells us the following:

  • Fewer than half of all adults can name the four Gospel accounts.
  • Many Christians cannot identify two or three of the disciples.
  • Sixty percent (60%) of Americans cannot name five of the Ten Commandments.

“No wonder people break the Ten Commandments all the time. They don’t know what they are.” Barna comments. His statement is a sharp indictment of the problem of biblical illiteracy and ought to open our eyes. He concludes, “Increasingly, America is biblically illiterate.” Several surveys further illuminate the problem of biblical illiteracy to help us understand how real this problem is:

  • Eighty-two percent (82%) of Americans believe that “God helps those who help themselves” is a Bible verse.
  • Even among “born-again Christians,” eighty-one percent (81%) believe that the Bible teaches the primary purpose in life is to take care of one’s family.
  • Twelve percent (12%) of adults believe that Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife.
  • Over fifty percent (50%) of graduating high school seniors thought that Sodom and Gomorrah were husband and wife.

In a recent LifeWay Research study, we learned the following about the Bible reading habits among church attendees:

  • 19% – Read everyday
  • 26% – Read a few times a week
  • 14% – Read once a week
  • 22% – Read at least once a month
  • 18% – Read rarely or never.

There are a couple of interesting takeaways from this study. Almost 60 percent of churchgoers open their Bibles at home during the week at least once. And for every person who is reading his/her Bible everyday (19 percent), someone isn’t… at all (18 percent).

In my recently published book, The Word Explored: The Problem of Biblical Illiteracy and What to Do About It, I aim to help the problem of biblical illiteracy by helping people learn to read the Bible personally and corporately, delighting in God who delights over His people and His Word. By helping people understand the connection between God’s delight over His people and His Word, I’m aiming to help readers grab hold at the heart level of the truth of what God wants to do in their lives personally and corporately through Scripture.

The Lord loves His people, His Word, and His Church. These three things are all things that the Lord delights in. Born-again Christians should delight in what God delights in, and aim the trajectory of their lives towards that goal. Therefore, Christians shouldn’t view personal or corporate Bible reading as something they do to check-off their spiritual check-list, but engage in them to delight more in God and grow in Christ.

Personal Bible reading includes reading, studying, memorizing, meditating, memorizing, meditating, and applying the Word. Corporate Bible reading includes hearing Bible-based sermons on Sunday, small groups, and engaging in the local church’s life under God’s Word. By taking what I call a “delightful duty” approach to the Bible, what Christians do isn’t to see this as another activity in their lives to engage in, but to have the right understanding of the means of grace in their lives.

The Purpose of the Means of Grace

The means of grace are those spiritual disciplines in our Christian life that have an ultimate goal, and that goal is to grow to be like Jesus. The statistics about biblical illiteracy are alarming and concerning because of what they reveal about our approach to the means of grace. Many Christians think that reading the Bible is important, and they may understand how to read the Bible. But behind the statistics is an even bigger problem: they don’t understand why they read the Bible.

In Ephesians, for example, Paul lays out the why (what Christ has done) and then moves to the how (what Christ commands). The why and how is the pattern for the Christian life laid out throughout the New Testament epistles. First, Bible readers are told who Jesus is and what He has done, and then they are called to obedience to Him. The problem is we have reversed the order in Christian growth today. Instead of calling people to understand who Jesus is and what He has done, contemporary Christian literature focuses so much on how we are to do our lives apart from explaining why we are to do our lives that way.

This shows up in our Bible reading, which is what the alarming statistics mentioned in the introduction reveal to us. Christians in our local churches start off each year with a commitment to read the Bible, and that’s good. But then they stop because they spend the first few months of the year reading but then get stuck. Now, I’m not talking about the help the Church should provide to Christians who get stuck with reading the Bible. I’m talking about the many Christians who get stuck and never ask for help because they are exhausted by the continual call to read their Bible apart from delight in God Himself.

I understand being exhausted by reading the Bible. I also understand, as a long-time Christian, why many Christians get exhausted by calls to read their Bible daily. And that’s why I’m aiming to encourage God’s people in The Word Explored to something greater than mere duty (that is, checking off your spiritual to-do list by reading your Bible).

The Lord wants you to delight over what He delights over and to love what He loves. God loves His Word, His Church, and His people. The Lord wants you to grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus in the Scriptures, for the Scriptures contain the revealed Word of God and the gospel’s message in Christ and Him crucified. There is no greater need that a Christian has than to engage in personal and corporate reading. But we have to understand we do so, not out of rote obedience to God, but out of delight in Him and the desire to get to know the God who has revealed Himself in the sixty-six books that constitute the Bible.

Biblical Illiteracy is a Solvable Problem

Biblical illiteracy is a big problem today, but it is completely solvable. In The Word Explored, what you’ll find is not only more material like I’ve written in this article, but very practical encouragement to address some of the various struggles in your personal and corporate Bible reading. Along the way, in your reading of my book, you’ll find encouragement to “do life” with the Church. See, God doesn’t save us so that we can abandon the local church, but to be a part of the Church as it is the Bride of Christ.

The local church is the hope of the world because Jesus bled and died for the Church. As a Christian, God calls you to do life with other Christians because He calls you to gather together with His people on the Lord’s Day and then scatter for His glory to your families and vocation during the week. In the local church, we grow together with God’s people to be sent out to display Christ in the world, make disciples, and witness to and for His glory.

Today I encourage you to pick up your Bible and read it along with my book, The Word Explored, and discover that the problem of biblical illiteracy is not one that is insurmountable, but truly solvable. Dear Christian, the problem of biblical illiteracy starts with you. Please grow in the grace of God and delight over His Word and in doing life with His people.

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