According to Ed Stetzer of Pastors.com, we have an epidemic of Bible illiteracy in our churches. LifeWay Research and the United Kingdom Bible Society have recently released survey findings on biblical literacy, and the results are pretty alarming. Here’s a little bit of what they found:
- Only 45% of regular church attenders read their Bible more than once a week.
- Almost 1 in 5 churchgoers say they never read the Bible at all.
- More than half of Evangelicals believe that the Holy Spirit is a force and not a personal being.
- In the United Kingdom, almost 1 in 3 couldn’t identify the Nativity as part of the Bible
- 27% of British parents think Superman is or might be a biblical story.
Though these statistics are alarming, LifeWay also noted that most of the Christians they surveyed desire to become more mature followers of Christ. So how can the Church begin equipping believers to have a deeper understanding of the Word, and consequently, a more intimate relationship with Christ?
To begin with, Stetzer shares 8 predictors of biblical engagement, factors he believes are key to eliminating biblical illiteracy. They are:
1. Confessing sins and wrongdoings to God and asking for forgiveness
2. Following Jesus Christ for years
3. Being willing to obey God, no matter the cost
4. Praying for the spiritual status of unbelievers
5. Reading a book about increasing spiritual growth
6. Being discipled or mentored one-on-one by a more spiritually mature Christian
7. Memorizing Bible verses
8. Attending a small group focused on Bible study
Stetzer believes this last factor, attending a small group, is key to combating biblical illiteracy. After personally conducting research on the issue, he learned that, “group attenders were much more likely than non-group members to read their Bible regularly—67 percent compared to only 27 percent. Being involved in a small group made it more than twice as likely a Christian would be regularly reading God’s Word.”
He goes on to say, “On top of that, we found involvement in small groups made Christians more likely to pray for others and confess sins to God—both of which are predictors of biblical engagement. It’s no wonder we concluded quite simply: groups matter.”
In addition to the excellent points that Stetzer has made, I would add one more factor that is critical to biblical engagement, and that I think is missing from Stetzer’s list:
9. Teaching Christians how to effectively read and interpret the Bible.
Think about the last time you opened your Bible. How did you approach reading the Word? Did you just open up to a random page and pray that God would somehow speak to you through whatever you read? Did you follow any kind of process-driven approach to reading your Bible, or did you just go about reading willy-nilly, hoping a reassuring verse would pop up to speak to whatever circumstances you are currently facing?
I think it’s crucial that churches offer classes to teach their members how to read and interpret the Bible. As the research above indicates, we can’t afford to assume that people know how to correctly read, interpret and apply the Word to their lives.
Author and blogger Jen Wilkin has spent much time thinking about biblical literacy. She says this about the terrifying trend in which the Body of Christ has no idea how to interact with their Bibles:
Church leaders, I fear we have made a costly and erroneous assumption about those we lead. I fear that in our enthusiasm to teach about finances, gender roles, healthy relationships, purity, culture wars, and even theology we have neglected to build foundational understanding of the Scriptures among our people. We have assumed that the time they spend in personal interaction with their Bible is accumulating for them a basic firsthand knowledge of what it says, what it means, and how it should change them. Or perhaps we have assumed that kind of knowledge isn't really that important.
So we continue to tell people this is what you should believe about marriage and this is what you need to know about doctrine and this is what your idolatry looks like. But because we never train them in the Scriptures, they have no framework to attach these exhortations to beyond their church membership or their pastor's personality or their group leader's opinion. More importantly, they have no plumb line to measure these exhortations against. It never occurs to them to disagree with what they are being taught because they cannot distinguish between our interpretation of Scripture and Scripture itself, having little to no firsthand knowledge of what it says.
In her book Women in the Word (and please don’t let the title keep you from reading, gentlemen! This book is one of the most practical texts I’ve read on learning how to read your Bible), Jen unpacks several steps Christians can begin taking to purposefully engage with their Bible. Here have been my key takeaways, which have truly transformed my time reading the Word:
1. Always begin your time with prayer. Ask God to bring focus, clarity and wisdom to your time in His Word.
2. Print a copy of whatever portion of the text you want to read, with space to take notes (perhaps a chapter or two at a time). If you don’t want to print the text, at least make sure you have a journal to take notes.
3. Before you begin reading, make sure you understand the background of the book, the author and historical context. Most study Bibles have introductions at the beginning of each book.
4. Read the portion of the text several times, even out loud if it helps you absorb it better.
5. Go line by line and begin looking up verses listed in the cross-references of your Bible (the small, abbreviated notes in the margins). If you don’t have a Bible with cross-references, buy or borrow one. If you don’t know how to use your cross-references, ask someone to teach you.
6. On your print out, freely jot down cross-referenced verses, questions you have, and key themes you see emerging. I also like to write down what the passage tells me about God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit.
7. Use a dictionary to define words you don’t know.
8. Highlight repeated words – these often point to key themes or theological concepts that the author wants you to understand.
9. Consult the commentaries in your Bible or online only after you’ve begun to absorb the meaning of the text yourself. Relying too much on commentaries cripples your ability to make and draw your own conclusions about the passage.
Knowing how to read the Bible is critical for all believers. Understanding how to spend time in the Word should be a lesson taught in every Christian church and a priority of every Christian leader to pass on to those whom God has given them to lead.
Want to learn more? Relevant writer Bronwyn Lea shares 5 essential tips that everyone should follow when reading the Bible. Biblestudytools.com also has a tips page with articles to help you learn how to get the most out of your quiet time, including this popular Inductive Study Method by Kay Arthur.
What is your favorite method for studying the Bible? What can churches do to help more Christians learn to read the Bible effectively?
Kelly Givens is the editor of iBelieve.com.