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Biblical Illiteracy

by Tim O'Hearn

A recent Barna Research Group survey showed some disturbing trends. Some of these are not surprising to some in the churches of Christ. Some are surprising on the very face of them (such as the finding that a majority of people know Easter as a religious holiday but only a small number associate it with the resurrection). Some results are positive, while some should wake up the church.

The congregations that call themselves the Church of Christ have been traditionally known as “book, chapter, and verse” oriented. To the older generations it is not surprising that biblical literacy is declining across the board. Some might even say that this has been happening for centuries. The growing numbers of people who do not believe that immersion is essential to salvation is pointed to as evidence of the length of time this has been a trend. One can listen to most radio or television preachers and never once hear a direct quote of scripture, or a reference to where even an allusion can be found. Some preachers have gone through seminaries in which doctrine was taught, but the Bible never opened. To a group known once as “people of the Book,” this is nothing new. The problem, identified by experience and observation, is that even in the groups known as Bible oriented and biblically conservative, the younger generations are not following in their parents’ and grandparents’ footsteps.

I know adults who have long been associated with congregations of the churches of Christ who have moved toward the idea that one can be saved and then be baptized (immersed). Salvation at the point of baptism has been the one hard-line doctrine of these congregations, yet they are teaching so many other things that they have forgotten to teach, from the scriptures, why they believe the way they do. And if the adults are losing that faith, what are the children being taught? A whole generation of people who have believed that the Dispensational Premillennialist view ignores every rule of interpretation of scriptures has failed to teach their children that the Bible does not teach of a coming thousand-year reign of Christ on earth. It is not just the Christian world as a whole that are becoming biblically illiterate, it is also the children of people who have prided themselves on their biblical literacy.

Perhaps as a result of this lack of reading and understanding the Bible, people are less inclined to tell others about their faith. Among the younger generations, practical concerns of life (education, career, friendships, and travel) come before family and faith. Further, because of a lack of understanding why we believe what we believe, people are less likely to draw the line at certain core beliefs. It is more important to fit in with the world’s view than to stand on God’s side. As a result, many people are not seeing that Christianity has any value. If people fail to take a stand, and if they don’t have the scriptural grounding to base snap decisions on core values, others don’t see Christ as an option in their lives. If Jesus is only one teacher among many moralists there is no reason to accept him as superior, or, more importantly, as savior.

On the positive side, people are more likely to engage in social issues. Helping the poor, homeless, or disenfranchised is important. The emphasis on these things needs to be encouraged. Barna notes, however, that the challenge will be to sustain this tendency. If it is based solely on a sense of justice or rightness it will be short-lived. Unless we tie the good works to the God of all good, this will go the way of the “social gospel” of the 1960’s. Personal concerns will take precedence, and social concerns will die out. “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” (Acts 20:35) That is good, and important. But unless tied to “we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them,” (Eph 2:10) they become optional.

We need to be teaching the word of God. We need to be teaching why the word of God is important. And we need to be teaching that social activism is good not because it is good but because God requires it. Until then, we can expect to lose the next generation to a watered down version of faith, to be brought out when all else fails.