TIM STAFFORDTim Stafford is a free-lance writer living in Santa Rosa, California. He is the author of several books, including Knowing the Face of God: The Search for a Personal Relationship with God (Zondervan, 1985).

Over the past three years, CTi has interviewed young people in evangelical churches to find out how they used the Bible and what they thought of it. The research—part of the development of the NIV Student Bible by CT editor-at-large Philip Yancey and senior writer Tim Stafford—uncovered some disturbing facts. But it also suggested some ways to help all of us become more deeply involved in the world’s best-loved, but often unread Book

Gallup polls have established that the majority of Americans believe in the Bible as God’s inspired Word. But the same polls show that their commitment is vague and impractical: They cannot name four of the Ten Commandments, nor four of Jesus’ disciples. Obviously the Bible they proclaim as inspired is a Bible they do not read.

I used to think this represented those whose “born-again” religion consists mainly of Christmas Eve services. But what we found in our research paralleled Gallup’s results. Young people in the churches surveyed had no qualms about the authority of the Bible. To the contrary, many seemed to have an almost magical view of the Book. While a generation ago young people wanted Bibles with pictures, paperback covers, and modern translations—Bibles that did not “look like” Bibles—the young people interviewed wanted highly traditional Bibles with leather covers, gilt-edged pages, and the words of Jesus in red—Bibles that seemed to convey by their appearance the weight of tradition and authority. These young people had only positive expectations of what they might gain from the Bible. And they believed it offered the words of life. There was only one sticking point: they did not read the Bible. And when they tried, they rarely understood it.

Even I was appalled—and I have worked with young people for the last decade. It seemed to make little difference whether we talked to kids in Christian and Missionary Alliance churches or in evangelical Episcopal churches. Only a very small minority, well under 10 percent, had any regular, voluntary habit of Bible reading. The only exception was with young people attending Christian schools, where Bible reading was mandatory. (Whether this required discipline later becomes a voluntary habit we could not test.)

These young people are our future. If they do not develop the discipline of Bible reading early in life, they will be unlikely to develop it once marriage and children come. We may be breeding an illiterate church. And biblical illiteracy will reproduce itself indefinitely.

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Although our research covers only young people, I believe most of the results would be the same with adults. Most churches have not faced the demands of biblical literacy for either age group. Most church leaders speak warmly about the value of a quiet time, but make no real effort to find out how many in their congregation follow their recommendation. Even when pastors stress biblical sermons and Sunday school classes, that once-a-week dose of biblical education is not enough. The Bible is too big a Book for that. Only those who read it daily will gain some mastery of its contents.

The Barriers To The Bible

What keeps evangelicals from reading the Bible? They already believe in its importance. There is no need to convince them of that. We found practical considerations that may not readily occur to pastors, who have known and loved the Bible for so long they have forgotten how it seems to a beginner.

The first barrier is discouragement. Most people are not readers. What books they own are likely to be short and of recent publication, with one exception: a 1,000-page Bible, written thousands of years ago. The Bible is intimidating to most people. They have never read any other 1,000-page book. If they begin reading the Bible without guidance, they are very likely to get stuck, to get discouraged, and to give up.

In a survey done by CAMPUS LIFE, an interesting source of doubt popped up: Many young people doubted their faith because they were unable to read the Bible as they thought they ought to. This was a far more prevalent cause of doubt than the “problem of pain.” Because they believe in the Bible, many evangelical Christians make an attempt to read it every day. But most end the experiment in failure. That breeds a sense of guilt.

Chronically crowded schedules compound the problem. In our interviews with young people, we proposed a reading plan that would give them an overview of the whole Bible. It would require just 15 minutes a day. Most said such a plan would be attractive. Then we asked them what kind of initial commitment to daily reading would be reasonable: A year? Six months? Three months? One month? No one said more than one month. Many suggested two weeks. Young people may find it difficult to make long-range commitments. But I doubt whether adults would do much better. If we are committed to biblical literacy, we must find ways to help lay people have feelings of success, rather than failure, with that 1,000-page book. We must understand what they think they can do—not merely what we think they ought to do.

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The second barrier we found was orientation. Here, too, pastors may easily underestimate the problem. The Bible is not only long, it is complicated. Sixty-six books, by many authors, contain poetry, proverbs, history, biography—and long genealogies and lists of laws. The books are out of chronological order. They are divided into two unequal parts, Old and New Testaments. Learning to use this Book effectively is far more difficult than learning to use a thesaurus. But how many churches provide any practical orientation?

The average lay person comes to view the Bible as a gigantic compendium of inspirational messages, mixed in with a large number of incomprehensible, dull passages. We repeatedly heard this comment from young people: “I spend so much time just flipping through the Bible, trying to find something.” Without any guide to finding the “good stuff,” beginning readers are likely to stick to a few “trustworthy” books: the Psalms, the Gospel of John, Romans, Ephesians, and Philippians. The rest of the Bible serves them only when they look up specific verses the pastor quotes.

People who approach this long and complicated Book need to be taught where to start and how to advance in their understanding. They need to be given the confidence that, over time, they can master it. They need to gain an understanding of how it fits together as they gradually dip into its contents. Left to themselves they just get lost.

The third barrier to Bible reading is a lack of basic information. For past generations, Abraham and Isaac were like members of the family, and their world was a familiar environment. It is no longer so. Again, pastors may easily forget just how confusing and irrelevant the Bible can seem. Repeatedly, young people told us: “I can’t understand what all this stuff has to do with me. What do spears and chariots have to do with life?” They appreciated their pastors making the Bible stories relevant by translating them into contemporary language. But they found it very hard to do for themselves. To them, the Bible was the most ancient, obscure Book they had ever read.

Suggested Solutions

Research has shown that the most critical factor in church growth is not technique, but commitment. Vague statements about growth are not enough; genuine commitment to specific goals makes a difference. The same is true of any crusade against biblical illiteracy.

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Are we committed to overcoming the barriers? Will we work to see that our church members, from the newest convert to the oldest member of the board, have cultivated the discipline of reading the Bible?

The first step is to find out how much our church members already read the Bible. A confidential survey should be used, because evangelicals want to think of themselves as better Bible readers than they really are. A survey needs to ask, “How many days did you read the Bible in the last week,” as well as, “How often do you ordinarily read the Bible?” You can cross-check their answers by testing Bible knowledge. A representative sample of the congregation can easily be given a simple test to see how much they get out of the Book they say they read.

Whatever the survey results, they will be a benchmark to help you set goals and against which you can evaluate programs.

My research has shown me that churches must do the bulk of the work in encouraging their people to read the Bible. Writers and scholars can provide helpful tools, but only the Christian family meeting to worship as a congregation can provide the motivation and encouragement. Here are suggestions for action:

Use modern versions. Increasing numbers of people find the King James Version painfully hard to understand. They may revere it and its Elizabethan phrasing, but they are likely to read it as often as they read Shakespeare. I talked to two girls who, trapped in this dilemma, were struggling to read the Bible twice: first in the KJV, because it “sounds like the Bible,” and then in a modern version so they could understand what they had just read. Few people will work so hard for very long.

Many pastors and Sunday school teachers recognize this, and so recommend newer versions for beginning Bible readers. But a recommendation is not good enough. Because readers often have a mystical belief in the Bible as a holy object, they want the same “full-strength” Bible their pastor or Sunday school teacher uses. Pastors who want their church members to use an easily understood modern version should consider adopting such a Bible for their public teaching and preaching. We must remember that if we use a difficult translation publicly, our people will try also.

Encourage participation. People will not read the Bible regularly until they have the confidence that they can understand it for themselves. Our research found, again and again, that group Bible studies are the context in which people gain confidence and excitement about the Bible.

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Many churches have such small groups. But they could work harder to use the groups as a bridge to daily personal Bible reading. A weekly Bible study should not be an end in itself. A person could participate in some Bible studies for a long time and never cover more than a few books of the New Testament. Bible study groups should consciously help their members develop the discipline of daily Bible reading.

The same could be said of Sunday school. As the Southern Baptists have demonstrated, Sunday school programs are most effective when they do more than offer an intellectual smorgasbord. They work best when members become involved at a social level with their class, so it becomes a point of identification where they find “their kind of people.” Such Sunday school classes, like small group Bible studies, can ask for more than simple attendance. They can ask the group to become committed to reading the Scriptures and encouraging all new members to join in that commitment. Readings can be specified and coordinated with lesson plans. But the key is not curriculum. The key is commitment on the part of leadership—not merely suggesting, but expecting people to read, and finding ways to help them.

Programs such as the Bethel Series and “Walk Thru the Bible” are well designed to give ordinary people confidence in their ability to understand the Bible. They can make a dramatic difference for churches that adopt them. Unfortunately, they require such high commitment that they often reach only a minority of church members. Churches want all their members, ultimately, to read the Bible for themselves. That may require additional programs that require a less rigorous commitment.

Help them succeed. A great many evangelicals associate daily Bible reading with guilt, frustration, and failure. They have fallen too often, and sometimes the church’s unrealistic expectations have helped them fail. If you set an immediate goal that 80 percent of your church members ought to have a 30-minute quiet time every day, you are doomed to defeat. Very few beginners have the will to stick to such a commitment, and when they fail they will be disheartened. It would be far better to launch two-week “experiments” in daily Bible reading, in which the equivalent of one chapter per day was lined out for the whole church to read. Sunday services could be keyed to those passages, and frequent public references made to the experiment. The program could become a regular part of your congregational life, providing an excellent bridge into longer experiments.

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Be sure to keep the end in sight. It is just as important to set a date to complete an experiment as it is to get started. People will be far more likely both to start and to finish a commitment if they can always see the goal. Asking for more than one chapter of Bible reading per day, or for any time period of more than a few months, will keep them away in droves.

Yet we ought not to make Bible reading sound easy and entertaining. For the ordinary lay person, it is a difficult spiritual discipline. I was struck in my interviews by how little interest young people had in all the attempts to dress up youth Bibles to make them look like fun. They knew that the Bible was the toughest book they had ever tackled. People are willing to work for something they believe has value. We ought to make clear that we are offering a spiritual discipline that will, if they master it, affect their lives deeply.

Offer helps. A church that takes biblical literacy seriously will recommend and make available simple tools: Bible study booklets, simple commentaries, study Bibles, Bible dictionaries. Very few beginning Bible readers know much about such tools: where to get them, how to use them, how to choose the accessible ones over the theological and exegetical works. How many of your church members own a Bible dictionary? How many have been through a Bible study booklet, and know where to find more? How many know how to use a concordance? Churches should set goals to put these tools in their members’ hands, and teach them to use them.

Use the Bible in worship. Worship services are the central focus of church life, and they shape the ordinary Christian’s idea of what is important. Unfortunately, the Bible does not always rate so highly in public worship as it ought. Many ordinary Christians seem to think of the Bible as a religious Bartlett’s Quotations, and they got that view in church, from watching the ministers demonstrate their knowledge of the Bible by quoting expertly from dozens of different passages.

Pastors are naturally concerned with conveying the truth, and are not always aware of how they are forming their congregations’ views of the Bible. But pastors could take a little extra time to get their congregations to actually open the Bible with them, and to explain the context of the verses they are reading. Gradually, the believers under their care would begin to believe that they could read the Bible for themselves—and read it as books are meant to be read, rather than as a hunting ground for inspiring and familiar lines.

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We have every reason to expect success. After all, we are not trying to get church members to read Kant or congressional resolutions. The critical work has already been done: Evangelical church members believe in the Bible. They expect great things from it. They only need help to obtain those great things from an ancient and difficult, though endlessly wonderful, Book. Church leaders need only the energy, the commitment, the skill, to make certain that those under their care work through those difficulties.

If we do not, we will have to live in a church of hearsay faith: a church that rightly believes the things it hears, but does not experience them firsthand. If we do, we can expect a church that is alive through Spirit and Word.

Sunday School and the B-I-B-L-E

The Sunday school is the one educational program that virtually all churches have in common—and a channel that is already set up to communicate biblical knowledge, CT asked Wes Willis, senior vice-president of Scripture Press, how Sunday schools can do a better job of teaching Bible facts and concepts. Dr. Willis is the author of Make Your Teaching Count, a recently released book designed to help lay teachers understand Bible teaching and learn to build the skills to do it.

Overall, how good a job are the evangelical Sunday schools doing of teaching biblical facts and applying them to life?

Not as good as we ought to be doing. Too many of us feel that once we have gotten the kids to repeat back the facts, they know them. We’re not doing it well enough to get people excited about application. In order to do this, we need to provide better resources to help teachers understand what they are doing.

In evangelical Sunday schools, there is a tension at the children’s level between teaching them Bible facts and evangelism. Which is the primary function of the children’s Sunday school?

You really can’t separate the two. If you look at the Great Commission, Christ’s mandate to his followers to make disciples included evangelizing and teaching.

Clearly, you can’t do in-depth education for a person who has not yet accepted Christ. But a lot of instruction that precedes salvation will be applied by the Holy Spirit after a person has become spiritually alive.

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Evangelism is a primary element in the late preschool and early elementary grades. Children from church-attending families generally accept Christ between the ages of five and ten. Evangelism in those departments is very important. But teaching Bible facts will give you the best possible forum for a strong evangelistic emphasis.

In the adult Sunday school, the tension is between biblical learning and fellowship. What are some ways to rescue an adult Sunday school class for biblical learning?

The key thing is to recognize that fellowship and learning are not at all contradictory—just as evangelism and education are not contradictory at the younger age.

The better fellowship we have, the better learning will take place—dynamic interaction within an adult class is a critical element in effective learning.

The important thing is not the acquisition of facts nearly as much as answering the “so what” question. How does that apply to life today? If we understand, appreciate, enjoy, and love each other, we’ll be able to get into the “so what” issues.

Older children seem to want to learn less and fellowship more. Adolescents say, I’m learning all week in school. I don’t want to do that on Sunday too. Should you recognize that adolescence is fellowship time and resign yourself to fun and games?

No. Take advantage of that for learning experiences. You have to move away from the fact-giving mode and into the interactive mode of teaching. Rather than looking for powerful visual aids that will wow the students, plan discussions, interactive activity, things that will take advantage of the socialization, and their enjoyment of each other.

Rather than a teacher being used as the information giver, the teacher has to be the coordinator, the explorers’ guide.

There is a real resurgence of desire to know the Bible. Recently someone said to me, “I’m tired of coming to Sunday school and connecting little lines and drawing bumper stickers and doing posters.” He said, “I want to know what the Bible says, and I’m not learning that in Sunday school.”

That is a common reaction among the young people. And adults are saying the same thing.

How important is Scripture memorization?

Bible memorization should be an integral part of any curriculum, particularly at preschool level where children absorb things without even trying. As the students get older, we need to remind them they can memorize—but they need to be challenged to do it.

Scripture memorization provides the building blocks that the Holy Spirit will work with later. As much as possible, we should encourage students to understand what the Scriptures they memorize mean. But they will never fully understand until the moment in their lives that they need those truths. That’s when the Holy Spirit will remind them.


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