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Obliterate Biblical Illiteracy

One church's journey of falling in love with God's Word.
Obliterate Biblical Illiteracy

"Please turn to Micah 6:1-8" is a standard colloquialism any time a preacher stands up to deliver a sermon. While it may not be that exact Scripture reference, we as expositors of the Word expose our listeners to biblical texts every week. The problem is that there are God-loving people in the pews that might actually turn to greet their neighbor "Micah" because they do not recognize Micah as a book in the Bible nor do they have the faintest idea of what numbers you are referencing. Yes, I'm exaggerating to some extent, but we have all witnessed blank stares and body language that tells us that we need to offer some more clues to help our listeners unlock our secret codes. This is what we in the modern church commonly refer to as the malaise of biblical illiteracy. People today simply don't know basic biblical content and we, the Christian community, are suffering as a result.

According to Kenneth Berding, a New Testament professor at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University, "I've heard people call it a famine. A famine of knowing the Bible. During a famine people waste away for lack of sustenance. Some people die. Those who remain need nourishment; they need to be revived. And if they have any hope of remaining alive over time, their life situation has to change in conspicuous ways." Biblical illiteracy or a biblical famine was the norm in the congregation where I served as a senior pastor in Denver, Colorado. While many church members were cultural Christians having grown up attending church services, the level of biblical interest, biblical intelligence, and biblical appetite across the congregation was virtually non-existent. A malnourishment from Scripture, as Walter Kaiser writes in his book Toward an Exegetical Theology, has contributed to the reality that: "Christ's church is not at all in good health in many places of the world. She has been languishing because she has been fed, as the current line has it, 'junk food'; all kids of artificial preservatives and all sorts of unnatural substitutes have been served up to her."

What our people need to be reminded of regularly is that the Bible is not just about the far away and long ago but this grand narrative includes us as we make disciples of all nations.

As preachers and pastors, one of our primary goals is to feed the flock a balanced diet from God's Word. But have we taken a step back to discern our church's level of biblical awareness, appreciation, and affection? Put differently, does our church love God's Word and is she living in obedience to this Word? Are the preaching and teaching and other ministries in our congregations helping to produce spiritually mature believers via the living Word? My goal in this article is to help us think more critically about why it is that our parishioners lack a hunger for the Word of God and to provide some concrete opportunities for us as ministers of the Word to help our people engage with Scripture employing different venues in the life of the local church. Practicing these suggestions dramatically transformed our congregation's attitudes toward the Bible and I hope that some of them might spark your church toward loving Scripture as well and becoming more biblically literate.

Give them the purpose of reading God's Word

Growing up as the product of devout Presbyterian Korean Christians, the common remedy for every problem in life was two-fold: read your Bible and pray. "Why?" I asked cheekily from a young age. "Because that's what Christians do," was my parents' response! That was never a helpful response. In many ways, the church has replicated the platitudes of well-meaning Christian parents. We've often told our parishioners to read the Bible but we haven't painted an attractive picture for the purpose behind reading Scripture. Why read the Bible? Give them a real reason that means something to them.

Many of the biblical authors at some point provide a thesis statement or purpose statement for why he wrote their book. For instance, John's gospel states in John 20:31, "But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name." We see a clear purpose statement articulated by the Gospel writer.

Then, what would be the purpose of Scripture in its totality? While no individual verse can sum it up, we might say that the purpose of reading Scripture is to know this God who through his sovereignty and mercy redeemed a fallen world through the sacrificial life and work of his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, and who continues to redeem all of creation by the power and work of the Holy Spirit. And, we, Christians, by his amazing grace, fit into this grand metanarrative. What our people need to be reminded of regularly is that the Bible is not just about the far away and long ago but this grand narrative includes us as we make disciples of all nations. Each of the 66 books of Scripture in some shape or form reminds us of who this Trinitarian God is, what his plans are for the world, and how we contribute to this larger story.

It's not enough that people recall biblical content for the sake of knowledge itself. Sure, it would be remarkable if every church member could recite the books of the Bible in order and name each of the twelve disciples. At the same time, we must help them know the God of the Bible who can be known more profoundly through studying his Word. We can also give them a clear purpose and create a need for their dependence on Scripture. Give them a purpose and motivation to read the Word because the Bible is also a story about us as we live out God's story of redemption.

Show them the pleasure in reading God's Word

I love Psalm 119 especially the second section labeled acrostically with the Hebrew Beth. Perhaps more than any other Scripture text, we see a believer completely enthralled by the Word of God. Notice how his affections for God are symbiotically related to his longing for God's Word. He writes in Psalm 119:10 and following: "I seek you with all my heart; do not let me stray from your commands. I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you. Praise be to you, O Lord; teach me your decrees. With my lips I recount all the laws that come from your mouth. I rejoice in following your statutes as one rejoices in great riches. I meditate on your precepts and consider your ways. I delight in your decrees; I will not neglect your word."

The Psalmist finds absolute pleasure and satisfaction in reading and meditating on Scripture. If truth be told, reading Scripture can often be seen as a chore rather than as a joy. I once shared with my congregation in a sermon about my grandmother who resembled the author of Psalm 119. She passed away in March 2013 at the age of 97. She loved the Word of God. Despite having only an elementary school education, she was a wise and learned woman. After accepting Christ in her early forties in South Korea after the Korean War, she became an insatiable student of Scripture. She read the Bible from cover to cover at least three times per year for close to fifty years post-conversion. Whenever she had a free moment, her nose would be back in the Bible. As such, Scripture passages would flow from her lips every time we sat down for a meal together. Her love for the Bible was infectious to everyone she met. She could recite lengthy portions of Scripture from memory. In short, her voracious appetite for God's Word overflowed into a life lived for the glory of God. But she didn't just read the Bible; she loved it and lived it. We can similarly show and model for the church what a life filled with Scriptural delight looks like. May our hunger for God's Word be contagious as we find great pleasure in the Word.

Offer them a plethora of ways to enjoy God's Word

Lastly, as I bring this article to a close, I want to briefly offer five ways that our church began to obliterate biblical illiteracy. It's often uninspiring just to be told to read the Bible especially if they don't grasp the grand picture. We can include more opportunities for our churches to learn about Scripture through intentional, creative avenues.

1. Preach through the Bible Book by Book
Our congregation spent an entire year focusing on the Word. Our church theme for the year was "Know the Word, Love the Word, Live the Word." Due to our church's lack of biblical knowledge especially with respect to the Old Testament, I decided to attempt something bold. That is, I preached through the 39 books of the Old Testament Scripture one book per Sunday for an entire year. What this meant was that I studied an entire book of the Bible each week and determined its main idea. I would preach that main idea as I exposited a particular passage. Almost every Sunday various people would comment on how much they appreciated being informed about each Old Testament book, each genre of Scripture, and how each Old Testament book reinforced God's story of redemption. By the end of the year, many people in the church could identify each of the 39 Old Testament books.

2. Extend Your Scripture Reading in Worship
Another way we sought to improve our biblical literacy was to read more lengthy portions of Scripture in the worship service. Sometimes I would read entire chapters when preaching narrative texts. My colleague Jeffrey Arthurs has provided the church with a wonderful resource in his book, Devote Yourself to the Public Reading of Scripture, on how we can "increase the quantity and the quality of Scripture reading in church services." We can push our church members to hear lengthier passages and experience the power of Scripture when it is read with enthusiasm, intentionality, and with apt emotions.

3. Encourage Daily Bible Reading
A third way that we tackled biblical illiteracy was through daily Scripture reading. We, as an entire church, began an aggressive journey to work through Robert Murray M'Cheyne's Bible reading schedule which comes out to roughly four chapters per day. (If this is too ambitious of a schedule, other daily reading plans are available.) Few in the church had ever read the Bible in its entirety. But by the end of the year, nearly one-third of the church had completed it. A hunger for the Word had begun. People were excited about Scripture and were talking about it in the sanctuary and in the fellowship hall.

4. Facilitate Bible Contests
Fourth, and perhaps most beneficially, our church's love for Scripture took off when we launched our first Bible contest. Our twelve small groups trekked on a journey to learn about the early church by studying the book of Acts together for three months during the summer. Included in their study was Scripture memorization, a study of biblical geography and locations, and remembering the main themes in each of the 28 chapters. In the weeks leading up to the event, I saw my church members staying after the worship service for hours studying their Bibles and quizzing each other. People who had never read the Bible had begun a love relationship with God's Word. It made me tear up and it made me proud to be their pastor. A healthy level of competition never hurt anyone. In fact, this competition propelled a brand new interest in the Word that spread like wildfire.

5. Teach Biblical Surveys
Lastly, on Friday evenings, I taught a survey of the Old Testament class using my colleague Carol Kaminski's CASKET EMPTY teaching resources. This course gave my church a solid overview of the major themes and epoch's in the Old Testament via a clear and easy to use acronym CASKET (Creation, Abraham, Sinai, Kings, Exile, and Temple) and timeline. Kaminski and David Palmer have also recently created a New Testament timeline using the acrynom EMPTY (Expectations, Messiah, Pentecost, Teaching, Yet-to-Come). Through this survey, the Word of God came to life for many as they began to see how God worked through the lives of Old Testament patriarchs, kings, prophets, the Israelites, and others.


By the end of the year, God had stirred in our people a newfound appreciation and hunger for Scripture. As they began to soak in the Word, their lives were being transformed as well. Marriages were beginning to mend, broken relationships within the church experienced reconciliation and healing, dormant desires for evangelism and missions rekindled, and people simply loved each other and our neighborhoods more. Collin Hansen, in his article "Why Johnny Can't Read the Bible," observes that: "Biblical literacy is a pre-cursor to biblical transformation." This was our congregation's experience as well. Biblical literacy is still possible today. May we not capitulate to the culture and merely find ways to entertain the church. Scripture reading doesn't have to be a tedious exercise. Find creative ways to engender delight in God's Holy Word and see how God will transform his church and the world.

Matthew D. Kim is Professor of Practical Theology and the Hubert H. and Gladys S. Raborn Chair of Pastoral Leadership at Truett Seminary, Baylor University.

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