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David Nienhuis, a professor at Seattle Pacific University, has a helpful piece in the latest Modern Reformation on the problem of evangelical students “familiar” with the Bible but still essentially illiterate.

Here’s an excerpt on how it happened:

Christians schooled in this rather anti-intellectual, common-denominator evangelistic approach to faith responded to the later twentieth-century decline in church attendance by looking not to more substantial catechesis but to business and consumer models to provide strategies for growth. By now we’re all familiar with the story: increasing attendance by means of niche marketing led church leaders to frame the content of their sermons and liturgies according to the self-reported perceived needs of potential “seekers” shaped by the logic of consumerism. Now many American consumer-congregants have come to expect their churches to function as communities of goods and services that provide care and comfort without the kind of challenge and discipline required for authentic Christian formation to take place.

He goes on to describe the difference between those transformed by the Word and those who are merely informed quoters of the Word:

To make a real difference in people’s lives, biblical literacy programs will have to do more than simply encourage believers to memorize a select set of Bible verses. They will have to teach people to speak the language of faith; and while this language is of course grounded in the grammar, vocabulary, and stories of the Bible, living languages are embedded in actual human communities that are constituted by particular habits, values, practices, stories, and exemplars. We don’t memorize languages; we use them and live through them. As Paulo Freire reminded us, literacy enables us to read both the word and the world. Language mediates our reality, expands our horizons, inspires our imagination, and empowers our actions. Literacy therefore isn’t simply about possessing a static ability to read and write; it is a dynamic reality, a never-ending life practice that involves putting those skills to work in reshaping our identity and transforming our world. Biblical literacy programs need to do more than produce informed quoters. They need to produce transformed readers.

Toward the end he lays out his vision:

We want to create a community ethos of habitual, orderly, communal ingestion of the revelatory text. We do so in the hope that the Spirit of God will transform readers into hearers who know what it is to abide before the mirror of the Word long enough to become enscripturated doers; that is, people of faith who are adept at interpreting their individual stories and those of their culture through the grand story of God as it is made known in the Bible.

The whole thing is worth a careful read.

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14 thoughts on “The Problem of Evangelical Biblical Illiteracy”

  1. RJD says:

    I’d say 80% of the folks who attend our church’s service every Sunday show up without a Bible. Sad.

  2. I appreciated this post, very much.

    I have an anecdote to share the illustrates the validity of this article.

    When we published The Lutheran Study Bible, we offered several thumb index editions. There were far, far more orders for it than we ever had anticipated and then it dawned on me that we are now dealing with a couple of generations of people, at least two, maybe more, who never committed the Bible books to memory and can not even navigate their way around in the Bible.

  3. Ched says:

    Thanks for linking to this article.

    Nienhuis’ articulation of the issue is incisive.

  4. donsands says:

    I receive Modern Ref Mag. It’s a top notch magazine.

    An excellent article. I actually read it twice, and shared it with others.

  5. Recently, I was discussing with a pastor that in his church most of the people (the majority of whom are college students) were biblically illiterate. He scoffed at my remarks. But I suggested that most Western Christians are in the same boat, and not to take my remarks as a personal indictment. Rather, it’s simply the reality of the evangelical landscape as a whole.

    Furthermore, I suggested that preaching from PowerPoint (and having the Scripture projected on the screen) only furthers biblical illiteracy. Again, he scoffed. My rationale: I wondered aloud if PowerPoint trains an individual not to look at the text for yourself. As a father of five children, when we’ve visited churches that have PowerPoint, I’ve observed that my kids often don’t follow along in their Bibles. Instead, they’re merely waiting for the screen’s image to change. They then train themselves (quite subconsciously) that they don’t need to open their Bibles.

    My take: I hear a lot less Bible pages ruffling during the corporate gatherings. (And no, I don’t see the physical paper replaced overwhelmingly with the glow from their personal hand-held devices!) Is it not wholly possible that our corporate gatherings (often laden with technology) promote passivity in engaging with God’s Word, which ought to be front and center? This isn’t a polemic for being a Luddite! I’m simply wondering.

    But am I off in my assessment? PowerPoint very well may have a place in the Sunday morning gathering of God’s people, but is there any hard evidence to suggest that it actually furthers biblical illiteracy? Or is it simply an inference (i.e. few Christians bring their Bible’s for the corporate gathering)? Do any readers have any hard data one way or the other?

  6. Thom Bullock says:


    I think it’s a six of one, half a dozen of the other issue – if you don’t put the verses on a screen (or in the bulletin, if your church doesn’t have the technology), rather than opening a Bible, most folks will just sit back and listen, taking the pastor’s word for it when he says things like “the Bible says…”.

    I’m not sure this is a better way.

  7. adam says:

    The most damaging part of the reformation was making Christians think (whether or not they were told this I doubt) that anyone could understand the Bible just by reading it.

  8. Wow. Thanks for sharing.

  9. Timothy says:

    Some years ago I led a interchurch bible study. Members from two very evangelical churches and one rather liberal church joined together. Whenever I asked a question, and my questions can almost always be answered from the text, I noticed that those from the evangelical churches did not attempt to answer the question from the text whereas those from the liberal church always answered the question from the text. I found it troubling then and continue to find it troubling that evangelicals, at least at these two churches, prefer to answer questions from their memory of what is true or believe to be true rather consult the biblical text. Might it actually be true that liberals, not the liberals in seminaries and theological colleges but those who occupy pews, actually read their bibles more faithfully than those who occupy pews in evangelical churches? If so this would explain the illiteracy in evangelical churches but would also beg the question why evangelical Christians who claim to believe the Bible do not read it but liberals who seem to hang very loose from the Bible do read it.

  10. MatthewS says:

    Question for anyone:

    Say you are teaching an adult Sunday School / Adult Bible Fellowship / Small Group and you want to study a book of the Bible in such a way that leads your group towards greater biblical literacy – which curriculum or study guide would you use?

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Justin Taylor, PhD

Justin Taylor is executive vice president of book publishing and book publisher for Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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