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Issues Facing Missions Today: 2. Biblical Illiteracy in the Western Church: (b) Problems at the Personal and Community Levels

Issues Facing Missions Today: 2b. Biblical Illiteracy in the Western Church: Problems at the Personal and Community Levels


The Church’s mission to ‘make disciples of all nations’ (Mt. 28.19) entails ‘teaching them all that I [Jesus] have commanded you.’  The charge of Biblical illiteracy in the Church involves a failure of mission.  Whatever is going on in churches today—and I have primarily churches in Western contexts in view in this commentary--the overall result is, generally speaking, Biblical illiteracy.  Having laid this problem first at the feet of theologians who come up with creative ways to deny Biblical authority in the previous post, we need to consider the problem at personal and community levels as well.  I will note five causes for Biblical illiteracy and try to discuss each as briefly as possible—so much more could be, and needs to be, said.

*Biblical Illiteracy and the Challenge of a Post-Christian Culture: The most dramatic change has taken place in Western culture during the 20th century.  The Church that stood at the centre of European and American culture—no matter how inadequately representing true Christianity—is now a Church that is marginalized by these cultures.  Whatever perks, whatever infrastructure, whatever customs that were in place to favour Christianity have been or are fast being removed.  While this may actually be a blessing, since the pseudo-Church of Christendom is being exposed, the effect of this is that Christians must work harder to teach Biblical faith and practice in a hostile culture in the West.  (I could not be a more avid supporter of the Christian schooling movement!)

*Biblical Illiteracy and the Challenge of Technology: Technological advances have an impact on literacy.  The affect may be positive for some, but for others the simple practice of reading a book is discarded for the more pragmatic practice of ‘using’ material from books or the more engaging experience of ‘seeing’ a book in video form.  An electronic Bible allows one to search key words or phrases—or even to find the book in Scripture—such that the reader uses Biblical content more than follows the literary flow, canonical shape, and detailed communication of particular texts.  The reader is more in control in his or her use of the text than is the author in leading the reader through his thoughts.

*Biblical Illiteracy and Preaching: A key answer to Biblical illiteracy in the Reformation of the 16th century was the sermon.  Whether the pulpit replaced the Eucharistic table at the center of the church building or was raised to lofty heights at the front corner, the sermon gave a new prominence to Scripture.  Sermons were reflections on the Biblical text.  In some circles, Church music was restricted to the words from the Psalms.  Also, at the heart and centre of the Reformation was Bible translation.  The Reformation was a reforming of the theology, practices, and ethics of the Church based on a fresh understanding of what Scripture said, and discovering what Scripture said was the engine that drove reformation.

Yet, sermons can and often do contribute to Biblical illiteracy!  The lectionary was developed to make certain that preachers delivered messages from all parts of Scripture, not just their favourite sections of Scripture.  It sets passages on which the sermon should be based for each Sunday of the year.  However, this assumes, wrongly, that those developing lectionaries do not have their own agendas.[1]  The lectionary also places significant pressure on the preacher to grasp the issues of different books of the Bible each Sunday instead of developing a study of one book of the Bible over several weeks.  This is also a challenge to those hearing the sermons, since they move from passage to passage without gaining an understanding of what an author has written in a particular book.  If a lectionary is to be used, it should be used alongside a robust teaching from the Scriptures in some other, weekly venue.

Moreover, many sermons fail to teach the Scriptures by the way in which the preacher develops them.  I tell students that a sermon should both explain what the Scripture says in its context and train listeners to look for what texts say in the context.  This is what is meant by ‘expository preaching’—an exposition or teaching of the text.  I also tell students training for ministry of the Word to read Biblical theology to gain an understanding of the forest and not just have as their goal an exposition of an individual text in a sermon.  Both the overall understanding of Scripture and the specific understanding of a text need to be presented in a sermon.  The sermon may and often should include teaching about how we form our convictions from the text of Scripture and practice the Biblical teaching in our contexts, although I could see this being done more effectively through discussion after the exposition of Scripture in a sermon.  My overall point here is that sermons need to blur the line between ‘preaching’ and ‘teaching’ so that, whatever one means by preaching, it includes a clear teaching of what the Scriptures say.  The audience, furthermore, needs to be able to see how the preacher has derived the point or points of the sermon from the Biblical text.

Approaches to preaching form the content of many books.  Where preaching leads to Biblical illiteracy is where hearers are not shown by the preacher how the message has been derived from Scripture.  Some brilliant forms of communication can be excellent examples of this problem.  Three examples I often hear may suffice to demonstrate my point. 

First, there is the sermon that develops around stories, humour, pithy sayings, and other rhetorically strong devices.  Listeners seem to enjoy hearing a piece of the preacher’s life that is connected to some wise word for living.  They enjoy connecting the events of the week, from sports to international news, to a thought from Scripture.  These are great examples of rhetoric—they are good communication.  They are not examples of Biblical preaching. 

Second, there is the sermon that has as its goal communicating a single idea—the ‘big idea.’  The preacher is expected to do his or her exegesis, figure out the big idea (this is ever so reductionistic), and then present the big idea to the congregation in some engaging story-telling.  The message may be straight from the Scriptures, but the work of exegesis is hidden from the congregation.  This requires a tremendous amount of trust from the congregation in the preacher, but it also does not teach them to become interpreters of Scripture themselves.  In the weekly home Bible study, the church’s members are likely to tout their own big ideas that the text somehow raises to consciousness rather than focusing on what the Bible says.  Hearers of such sermons, moreover, will not have been trained to hear errors in interpreting the text: they will be listening more for to the rhetoric than focusing on whether the preacher has rightly interpreted God’s Word.

Third, there is the topical sermon.  Sometimes, topical sermons are necessary.  At least, congregations that understand themselves to be ‘family’ have lots to talk about, and sermons can be used to address some of the issues that they are facing.  Often, however, topical sermons are derived by the preacher through using a concordance and looking up passages related to a topic.  The result is almost inevitably a bad piece of Biblical research and, in the sermon, a demonstration of how to jump around Scripture without attention to the context of any given passage.

In a word, I would say that Biblical illiteracy is to some extent caused by a steady diet of bad preaching in churches that, in turn, models bad study of the Bible for individuals and Bible study groups.

*Biblical Illiteracy and the Practice of ‘Church’: Here I would like to raise three issues. 

First, our practice of ‘church’ in many parts of the world has changed considerably over the past half-century.  Sunday morning worship has been shortened, Sunday evening services have often been abandoned, and the mid-week service or Bible study has been cancelled.  People spend less time in contexts where they hear the Scriptures read and proclaimed. 

Second, in most parts of the world, ‘Sunday School’ is something for children and not for adults.  There may be an alternative setting for adult Bible study, but the question needs to be asked everywhere, ‘How are different age groups learning from the Scriptures on a weekly basis?’  I daresay that too many churches have too little of a focus on teaching the Scriptures, particularly after the age of 12. 

Third, too many churches have lost the concept of having a ‘teacher’ or ‘teachers’ in the local church.  Frankly, a good pastor may not be a good teacher, although the roles may overlap.  What each church needs to ask, however, is, ‘Who are the church’s teachers and how are they being prepared for their role in the church?’  For Paul, especially the elders who ‘labour in word and teaching,’ were worthy of ‘double honour’ (1 Tim. 5.17), and the next verse clarifies that this double honour includes financial remuneration.  Imagine a church that pays its elders to spend time in study and teaching!  All too often, the reality for pastors is that they are so busy with meetings, overseeing programmes, addressing staff issues, visiting the sick, and counseling, that studying Scripture and sermon preparation are pressed into a short time during the week that is devoted mostly to rhetorical concerns for the sermon.  What if, for argument’s sake, all those other tasks were unpaid positions in the church, whereas the teachers in the Church were remunerated?

An alternative, perhaps, would be Christian learning communities that bring churches together in a city or region, communities comprised of several churches paying teachers.  These might offer certificate programs for adults, internships training believers in spiritual life, ministry, and the Bible, seminars, and retreats.[2]  I do not think that this is different from what the early house churches would have done.  While different ‘congregations’ would have met in different houses around, say, Corinth, a teacher such as Apollos or Paul would have spoken in those homes and somehow to all the congregations.  The seminary of our day offers this ministry, but only to persons pursuing master’s degrees, often in contexts that require students to move far away from their churches and homes, and at a very high cost of tuition.  Teaching needs to be locally available at low cost for all believers.

*Biblical Illiteracy and the Challenges of Our Daily Lives: One final subject that I wish to note is the fact of our busy, daily lives and the difficulty we have to find time for Bible reading and study.  This is a family problem, a personal problem, and a problem related to what we do in relation to the local church. 

Time and space is an issue for our spiritual lives in general.  Even in rural Galilee in the first century, Jesus had to find a private spot on a mountain at night to pray (Lk. 6.12).  He had the pressure of public ministry, of course, but we all need to be intentional about finding that ‘spot on the mountain at night’ to tend to our souls.  Biblical literacy, however, is not so much a matter of a private, quiet time—many of us have that idea.  Rather, it is more about finding time and space to come together, with a qualified teacher, to study Scripture.  We should try to find some time each day to read Scripture and pray.  Yet we need more than this to learn Scripture.

We also need an understanding of Sabbath rest that involves Scripture reading and study in corporate settings.  How about turning upside down the notion of Sunday that sees Sunday School and worship as something to do before we get our personal time of rest?  What if we had the idea that our whole Sabbath day belongs to God?  As God says in Isaiah,

If you refrain from trampling the sabbath, from pursuing your own interests on my holy day; if you call the sabbath a delight and the holy day of the LORD honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs;  14 then you shall take delight in the LORD… (Is. 58.13-14).

I would propose that the busyness of our lives should be met with a better understanding of the Sabbath along the lines of Isaiah, and I would propose that the problem of Biblical illiteracy should be met with a more robust plan for teaching the Bible on Sundays.  We need to see the Sabbath as a day to ‘take delight in the LORD,’ and that might centre on study of His Word.  My own view is that teachers shared by several local congregations and teaching in lay certificate programmes would be a good start for a more robust study of Scripture for all believers.[3]

In conclusion, we seem to have a variety of challenges to Biblical literacy.  I have not addressed the challenges that those without Scripture in their native languages face, or perhaps a host of other challenges faced by those of us outside the West or outside the cities of the world.  Perhaps some reflection on the challenges I have addressed as well as others in our own contexts will help us come up with creative answers to the problem of Biblical illiteracy that so many note.  Whatever the causes, Biblical illiteracy stands at the very centre of the challenges that we face in missions today—the mission to make disciples of all nations.  To solve this problem is, to a great extent, to fulfill the Great Commission.

[1] If you use a newer lectionary, check to see if there is a reading from Rom. 1.18-3.20, where Paul develops the idea that the human problem is sin.
[2] Several of us are exploring how to run such a learning community in the Western Cape of South Africa.
[3] Several of us have begun this kind of teaching in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, and we hope to expand it in other cities.