How to Reverse Dwindling Biblical Literacy

Recent reports about how often people use the Bible are alarming. The American Bible Society reports an “unprecedented drop” in the number of Bible users in just one year. Research by the same ABS suggests that only 9 percent of Gen Z are engaging with scripture on a regular basis. That means all those born since the turn of the millennium, 22 years old or less.

It is said that “a problem understood is a problem half solved”.

I personally do not think that this means the Bible is any less esteemed than it used to be. It could mean that? But not necessarily. Maybe people are finding it hard to have a “quiet time” every day? This could suggest that changes in lifestyle and easier access to a plethora of other reading media are taking their toll?

But the Bible should not just be up there, sitting on the bookshelf, like the household gods that used to be parked near the hearth in Roman households. The Bible should not just be symbolic of our roots and culture. It should be consulted regularly – “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path”.  We should use it like a flashlight, to guide us in the darkness of this world.

If your excuse is that the world is now “enlightened”, hey – read the newspapers. It’s shocking how perverse and violent the world has become.

I am going to suggest a few causes that result in less Bible-time in our lives. Then I will make a few suggestions how we might reverse the trending.

I suspect that the first cause of dwindling Bible-use is busyness. Or should I say, busy-ness abuse.  I don’t mean business, for having a vocation is certainly a Biblical norm. What I mean is that social media, news, smart phones and tracking government protocols are complicating our lives. In the guise of simplifying or streamlining our lives. Their proliferation is literally crowding out Bible time.

How many hours a week do you spend on Facebook? Compare that to the number of hours you spend reading your Bible. See what I mean?  Having said that, because of the friends that I have invited to join me on Facebook, as it happens I do encounter a lot of Biblical literacy there. But it is mostly in the form of memes or spiritual songs, not good sound expository teaching of scripture.

With one exception – a retired friend of mine who does us proud by posting a regular service, walking through one book of the Bible at a time. What a gift!  And when he takes that sword out of its scabbard, he uses it to poke around. For only the sword of the Lord can cut spirit from soul. But I digress…

Another cause, I believe, is that children’s ministry has been downgraded from the priority it once was. To the extent that our youth are not growing up with the deep grasp of scripture that church-goers used to have as adults. This is partly because of the “squeeze” that Christian faith is getting from wokeness. Maybe this is deserved for the indiscretions of church leaders over past decades?

I also wonder about something – doctors used to have to study Latin to enter med school. But no more. Because somehow, the vocation outgrew the need for all that Latin terminology. The body of knowledge in the field of medicine has exploded in past decades and all that learning has not been recorded in Latin! That would be regress not progress. Along the same lines, I don’t think that we need to read Greek and Hebrew anymore to really “get it”. Nor do I think we necessarily need to read scripture – we can now listen to it on audiobooks. The Greeks were strong on sight as the image of knowing. The Hebrews were strong on HEARING the word. “God has spoken to his people.” The ear more than the eye was the Hebrew pathway into our consciousness.

I think that the broad milieu that has come to be called “wokeness” is also challenging the Bible’s credibility. Relativism, humanism, Marxism and Darwinism (or “science”) are some of the dominant influences eroding its leading place in Western culture. In Africa, which is still rooted in Biblical literacy, Christians call universities “the graveyard of faith”. Universities in Canada are not exactly known as friendly to faith, and are severely intolerant of Christianity.

Can the church ride this out? I don’t think so. This calls for a full-court press of activism to regain lost ground. Here are a few suggestions:

  1.  We should invest in audio-Bibles. These look like a little cell phone, with a navigation screen. You pick a book and a chapter and press play. Scripture is read out clearly and audibly. Remember that Sound is one of the miracles of the media revolution. You used to have to go down to Massey Hall to hear the Toronto Symphony Orchestra perform a classic. Now you can get various renditions of it and listen to them in your living room, or on headphones. Sound has revolutionized our lives, and it can be a new, accessible media to us for Bible-listening.
  2.  We need to invest a lot more in children’s ministries – from Sunday school to summer camps. Church retreats – not just “scouts” – with solid spiritual content. Teaching should be Bible-centred, not thematic. There is just no substitute for sound expository teaching. Walk through the Bible. Listen to its voice. As South African evangelist Angus Buchan puts it, the Bible is Jesus Christ in print. “In the beginning was the Word…”
  3.  We need to engage with intolerant relativists, humanists, Marxists and Darwinists (i.e. scientists). This takes some academic preparation but practice makes perfect. The soldier of faith metaphor in Ephesians chapter 6 comes to mind. Soldiers of fortune are not ashamed to sign up for a cause, as we are seeing in the Russian war against Ukrania – on both sides. Let’s not kid ourselves about our opposition; it is well-organized and resourced. So we need to engage through apologetics, speaking truth to power (prophetically) and upgrading outreach. This is not time to flee academically or geographically into a Christian enclave. It is the time to fight the good fight of faith.

Let me paraphrase the rhetoric of Romans chapter 12. If you are a scientist, then think through the issues and speak into debates like Creation versus Evolution, abortion versus right-to-life, and Creation-care. If you are a volunteer, then prioritize children’s ministries. If you are a pastor, adopt expository preaching as your methodology. If you are a stock-broker, take some risks in your faith as well as in your investments. Help to mobilize social investors as well as financial investors. There is more than one bottom line, after all. If you are wealthy, then pay it forward. You cannot take it with you and your generosity will show God that your heart is where your real treasure is – laid up in heaven.

We need to keep the Bible at the centre of these various pursuits. The Holy Spirit never fails to operate in and around sound Bible teaching. Expect signs and wonders. Promote this “rock of ages” – the Word of God.

“We have an anchor that keeps the soul

Steadfast and sure while the billows roll

Fastened to the rock that cannot move

Grounded firm and deep in the Saviour’s love.”

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About the author

Chuck Stephens is Executive Director at the Desmond Tutu Centre for Leadership in South Africa.