Issues facing the church today: Biblical Illiteracy

Article by Jeremy Marshall

A poll was recently held with the question “what is the number one issue for the church today?”. The overwhelming winner was (lack of) biblical literacy. Now in one sense, that’s a truism of course. If only we would all follow the Bible more closely then we would all be better Christians. But the keyword I suggest here is “literacy”. In other words, the assumption is that we can’t or we don’t know the Bible. It’s as if we can’t read it, we don’t know what’s in it, we are ignorant of its contents.

I suggest that in evangelical churches this issue is not the first issue. I suggest that the key issue is not primarily one of the head but of the heart. It’s not that we don’t know what the Bible tells us but that we (and I absolutely include myself) know what it tells us but don’t do it. It’s not knowledge but rather discipleship (by which I include evangelism which I regard as an essential part and proof of discipleship) which is the issue.

Let me develop my thesis. I realise that such a broad question is bound to produce generalisations so apologies in advance and feel free to disagree

Never in my view anyway has there been such a huge outpouring of biblical teaching and preaching as in the last 60 years. We have in my lifetime gone from having hardly any evangelical commentaries to having vast shelves groaning under their weight. We have gone from having very few means of training preachers and teachers about how to do exegesis to having huge organisations and conferences devoted exclusively to that task. I dare say there has certainly since 1900 never been in the U.K. so many good sermons explaining faithfully what the Bible teaches. Can more be done to teach the Bible? Of course, but is the fundamental problem for evangelicals “we don’t know what the Bible tells us to do?”

No, it is (again not least for myself) that “we do know what it says but we don’t do it. “

Certainly in my opinion anyway if we compare the level of spirituality and commitment to discipleship of the average church member 60 years ago to now it’s much lower. So all the excellent biblical input inputted into our churches has not led to holier Christians I suggest. It’s led to much better informed Christians but that’s not the same.

The Bible is full of warnings about not being hearers of the word but doers. The risk it seems to me is that we become consumers of well-crafted biblical sermons which carefully and faithfully exegete the Bible but they sail gently over the heads of the listeners. It is much easier to explain what the passage means than apply it to the listeners' lives. Application is a key missing ingredient. “Very interesting but so what?” is the risk

Nor is it just that our approach in preaching is overly cerebral. The problems are not just in the giver but the receiver. Do we not often approach the service like a university lecture? I’m not sure that the common practice of encouraging and at times almost demanding that the congregation takes notes is helpful. Do we not tend sometimes to approach church as individual consumers looking for something that entertains us rather than participants looking for transformation? Acquiring bible knowledge is a means to an end - transformed lives.

In short, we are at risk, as my friend Richard Borgonon says, of being like sponges - the water of the word is falling on us but if you just pour in water and it doesn't flow out then eventually the sponge will rot. We need to squeeze out the water into our lives and the lives of others.

Another issue is an over-reliance on the sermon and the Sunday service. Discipleship needs all week-round work and in particular 1-on-1 or 1-on-2 which checks whether the message is understood or not. The risk is that we outsource our Christian life to professionals. In fact, most discipleship (think of families in particular) should be individual Christians discipling each other. Small groups are meant to fill that gap but how useful are they? Jonathan Carswell said recently that they are in his view not effective and I fear that may sometimes be true. I also wonder about the demise of the weekly prayer meeting. Prayer is I suggest about many things but one of them is about deploying truth into our life. If we are just knowledgeable about the Bible and our own lives and especially our evangelism and our prayer lives don't grow as a result then we have the sponge problem.

Finally, the external pressure on our lives especially due to social media is so much higher now than 60 years ago. The problem is not only that the transmission is somewhat faulty and the recipient isn’t connecting but that the external “ noise “ is so much louder. We are all suffering from some kind of spiritual ADHD.

You will notice that I haven’t set out what I think is the biggest problem! That would take another article but in short, it’s not I suggest that our heads are empty but that our hearts are cold.

About the author:

Jeremy Marshall lives in Kent with his wife, they have three adult children. He grew up Bible smuggling every summer behind the Iron Curtain with his father, who was an evangelical free pastor.

He is currently going through chemotherapy and has found cancer has made him an “accidental evangelist”. He regularly speaks to churches, businesses, schools and and students and has written an evangelistic book Beyond the Big C.

You can find more of his writings on his blog God, Gold and Generals

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