A few months ago I wrote a number of pieces concerning the lack of foundational biblical and theological literacy in the average evangelical assembly, and the apparent lack of interest in this issue (real interest, not the usual talk) in the leadership. After reading a number of other people on the same subject, particularly an article by Dr. George Guthrie (Mind the Gap) of Union University, I have revised and narrowed my focus somewhat. Dr. Guthrie’s paper brought me to realize how widespread this problem actually is throughout the Baptist and evangelical church.
Though I continue to believe, among other things, that there is a fundamental need for basic, organized theology, catechism and similar instruction as a primary focus of congregational life, and that this supersedes many other program activities, the most pressing issue overall is the almost complete lack of systematic training in Bible Study methodology.
I would venture to guess that your average church member or attendee, including both new and old believers, has never been offered a course of study in bible reading methodology and study skills.
Wait a minute, you say. Your church has small groups that do bible studies, Sunday school that examines bible issues, and some level of expository preaching (though that gets more rare by the minute, replaced by emergent social psychology).
The answer is that none of these addresses the foundational and essential issue in most cases. They are all deductive in nature, do not effectively equip the individual to undertake effective personal bible study, and are often largely passive. As such, they do not help the believer to know how to study the Bible. They mostly examine small portions of Scripture with a predetermined outcome in sight. Though this can be valuable in its own right, it is not what is needed to equip the individual to divide the Word for themselves.
Most people are simply told to ‘Read your Bible’. In most cases that is tantamount to asking them to read the Greek New Testament and look up what they don’t understand. Admittedly that may be an exaggeration, but you get the point. The Bible is not a simple book for the most part, and they have no skills with which to approach it. The result is more often than not some combination of quiet discouragement, little or sporadic individual Bible study, and poor understanding of the implications of what is actually read. In other words, poor understand, little closeness to the Word, possibly flawed theology, and complete dependence upon others for information.
Furthermore, the existence of ministry programs such as small groups, though they serve other important fellowship functions, allows leadership to skirt the issue of instilling real, individual Bible study skills in the congregation. The result is individual biblical illiteracy. Even the congregants themselves are unlikely to see this clearly in many cases, or are not likely to admit it. After all, who is going to admit that their bible study skills are not great? Equipping the people of God for effective, individual bible study, however, is a fundamental responsibility of the church leadership, which is shirked at their peril.
What is the result of this? Not only is the result a congregation that is largely and silently unable to rightly divide the Word of God for themselves and form solid personal biblical opinions to be applied in life, but we slowly and insidiously move toward a pre-Reformation situation in which authoritative Bible study and personal theology is vested in a new magisterium of the Pastors. This is most certainly not what the Reformers had in mind!
If you don’t believe that this is happening, just observe quietly how much of the church theology defers to Pastoral opinion and how little actual biblical or theological discussion takes place.
So what is the answer or the start towards an answer?
Here is a suggested but not exhaustive list of actions:
1. More public reading of Scripture in the congregation
2. Solid instruction in individual bible study methodology fro all members
3. Particular emphasis on deductive bible study skill development in the youth and new believers
4. Straightforward expository preaching, with notes and minimal dramatic enhancement
5. Small groups focused on deductive skills and foundational theology
There, that’s a start at least!
That said, the slide away from biblical literacy being an actual priority (assuming of course that it once was one) has been developing for some time, so it is likely to be an uphill trip to revival. Moreover, though church leadership (with some notable exceptions) do discuss these issues they are historically unlikely to move on them pro-actively and persistently at the expense of other more socially relevant programs. Getting beyond mere recognition of the problem and onto the active agenda is a significant part a battle in itself.
We have to start somewhere, though, and a new emphasis on encouraging all of us to learn, share and practice basic inductive bible study methodologies can do other than enhance all other aspects of faith and practice.