I ran into a young husband and dad this week who used to come to our church, left for a while and now has returned. In the modern American church his experience isn’t unusual. Many people today join a church for shorter periods than previous generations and will move their membership several times through the course of a lifetime.
As the young man shared his family’s journey with me, though, I realized there was a new wrinkle, one that had a wider meaning than his own experience, so I asked him if I could share some of it. I appreciate his willingness to let me do so.
When he and his wife first took their children to the new church about six months ago, they quickly connected with many aspects of the ministry. The worship style was what they liked. The people they met were friendly and engaging. The enthusiasm of the congregation was contagious. But over a period of time they found the new congregation didn’t provide for something he and his wife felt to be crucial: their children weren’t taught the Bible. It wasn’t that the church was unbiblical or that its beliefs and mission were contrary to Christian truth, it was just that in the weekly connection with children there wasn’t the kind of biblical engagement and instruction this dad and mom felt their children needed. So the family returned to our church, a place they felt confident would provide for their children’s spiritual instruction in God’s Word.
Of course, we’re not the only church that places a high premium on teaching children the Bible. One of the blessings of living in this area is the large number of surrounding congregations that place God’s Word at the center of their worship, discipleship and ministries in general.
But the young couple was right to be concerned. In fact, more of us should be concerned, not just for our children but also for people of all ages. The American church across the board is failing in its responsibility to teach the Bible.
My conversation with the young man made this week’s blog post by Al Mohler take on a greater urgency. It’s called “The Scandal of Biblical Illiteracy: It’s Our Problem” and you can read the whole thing here. But here are a few of the important parts:
Multiple surveys reveal the problem in stark terms. According to 82 percent of Americans, “God helps those who help themselves,” is a Bible verse. Those identified as born-again Christians did better–by one percent. A majority of adults think the Bible teaches that the most important purpose in life is taking care of one’s family. Some of the statistics are enough to perplex even those aware of the problem. A Barna poll indicated that at least 12 percent of adults believe that Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife. Another survey of graduating high school seniors revealed that over 50 percent thought that Sodom and Gomorrah were husband and wife. A considerable number of respondents to one poll indicated that the Sermon on the Mount was preached by Billy Graham.
I’ve noticed over the last few years that the trend regarding Bible knowledge is moving in two directions. Those who love the Bible are more knowledgeable than ever. My congregation has so many serious Bible students that when I get something wrong in a sermon, I’m sure to hear about it before the day is over! The other trend is just as noticeable but not in a good way. People without Bible knowledge are more ignorant than ever–Mohler’s point about the widespread impression among high school seniors that Sodom and Gomorrah were husband and wife is easy to believe.
Christians who lack biblical knowledge are the products of churches that marginalize biblical knowledge. Bible teaching now often accounts for only a diminishing fraction of the local congregation’s time and attention. The move to small group ministry has certainly increased opportunities for fellowship, but many of these groups never get beyond superficial Bible study. Youth ministries are asked to fix problems, provide entertainment, and keep kids busy. How many local-church youth programs actually produce substantial Bible knowledge in young people? Even the pulpit has been sidelined in many congregations. Preaching has taken a back seat to other concerns in corporate worship. The centrality of biblical preaching to the formation of disciples is lost, and Christian ignorance leads to Christian indolence and worse.
With all our small group ministries and discipleship initiatives, we’ve lost sight of the importance of biblical preaching. The systematic exposition of God’s Word through the pastor’s weekly sermon can’t be replaced if our churches are to have true spiritual authority and our people are to grow in spiritual maturity. It’s no accident that the first apostles told the early church that their highest priority was “prayer and the ministry of the Word.” (Acts 6:4)
Churches must recover the centrality and urgency of biblical teaching and preaching, and refuse to sideline the teaching ministry of the preacher. Pastors and churches too busy–or too distracted–to make biblical knowledge a central aim of ministry will produce believers who simply do not know enough to be faithful disciples. We will not believe more than we know, and we will not live higher than our beliefs. The many fronts of Christian compromise in this generation can be directly traced to biblical illiteracy in the pews and the absence of biblical preaching and teaching in our homes and churches.
This generation must get deadly serious about the problem of biblical illiteracy, or a frighteningly large number of Americans–Christians included–will go on thinking that Sodom and Gomorrah lived happily ever after.
The young couple at my church grasps the urgency of teaching their children the Bible. But their spiritual journey is also a reminder to all of us that God’s Word isn’t an add-on for churches. It belongs in the center of congregational life. In today’s environment of not just indifference to historic Christian truth but active ridicule toward it, a commitment to teaching and preaching the Bible is the only way we can maintain our unique identity and purpose.