The Gaping Holes in the American Church: Part 2-Discipling Biblical Literacy

*This post is part 2 in an ongoing series. To read the first post, click here.

I will never forget the time I sat in a Bible study and the leader asked us to open up to the Song of Songs. A woman in the group who was highly regarded within the church proceeded to ask the leader whether Song of Songs was located in the Old or New Testament. I’m ashamed to admit my jaw almost hit the floor. I tried to hide my shock, but I was dumbfounded. How could someone who was seen as a mature follower of Jesus not know the general location of one of the biblical books?

As I participated in and led more groups, I realized this was very normal. A surprising number of Christians have no idea how to navigate the pages of Scripture, let alone discern their meaning. I’ve found it is not unusual to have people show up to a Bible study and never actually open their Bibles. And often, even if a biblical passage is read and discussed, people are very quick to whip out a commentary, a study footnote, or a quote from a devotional they recently read. 

To be clear, there is nothing wrong with using extra-biblical resources to better understand Scripture. I lean on a growing library of books and tools, and am so grateful for them because they’ve proven immensely helpful! We need resources from learned scholars who have dedicated their careers to the excavating the Bible and the cultures that shaped it. And of course, there will always be some who are more inclined to dig into this research than others. That’s the beauty of being in a diverse body. But when the resources replace the real thing we are on dangerous ground, running the risk of letting someone else do the work of meditating on God’s story for us.

A pastor recently told me he thinks Bible study groups are a waste of time. He claimed they are ineffective because he never sees much change or growth through them. But I had to wonder: is the problem the Bible study or how we are studying the Bible? Psalm 1 promises blessing to those who read and re-read God’s word, but as my pastor friend pointed out, he is not seeing transformation.

Think about it. How well are we in the Church doing at equipping people to consistently study the Scriptures on their own, outside of church and small groups? How many of our ministries leave people feeling more confident, more excited, and more curious about the Bible? How many churches dedicate significant portions of their staff, ministry schedule, and budgets to discipling believers into making sense of the story we claim to stake our lives on? Intentional reflection on Scripture, learning how to read it, understanding its design, patterns, and purpose—these are essential skills for spiritual formation that are sorely underemphasized in the American Church. Instead cultivating communities of Psalm 1 readers of the Bible, we rely on the pastor, the commentator, or the best selling author to tell us what glean from its pages. We have become good with keeping our Bibles on the shelf, reducing a love of the Scriptures to the Instagram Bible quotes that pop up, deceiving ourselves into thinking this kind of behavior is somehow faithfulness to our God. 

Of course, we have our reasons.

For many of us, especially long-time believers, the Bible has become dry and predictable. Been there, read that, heard that sermon a dozen times. We know the rules, the morals, the theological concepts. It’s so over-familiar it’s become hard to find anything new and inspiring, and frankly, we’re bored by a book full of “good reminders.” How many of us have sat there, bleary eyed in the morning, opened up our Bibles, and read something just to check the box? I’ve been there so many times myself, cherry-picking a few verses to get me through that day, but I’ve completely missed the bigger story at work because I lacked the tools to see it. My framework for reading the Bible left me unenthused, only getting me so far.

On the flip side, reading the Bible can also be a foreign and alienating experience. Many modern readers have no idea what to do with three-quarters of the book that lays in our laps on Sunday mornings. We search for a nugget to apply, but really we’re completely lost when it comes to something like Judges, or Leviticus, or Revelation. And so we stick to the parts we know: the Psalms and Proverbs, a handful of Sunday school stories, the Gospels, and the parts of the New Testament where the run on sentences don’t get too out of control. Sadly, I find it’s often women who stay away from the Bible for this reason. Intimidated by so many male Bible teachers, they feel inadequate on their own, so they just sort of give up.

For one reason or another, we’ve truncated the Bible into 365 neat little pages or virtually ignored it altogether. Unable to handle the Bible in its entirety, we remake it in our own image to solve the problems we import into its pages.  

For a great many believers, the story of the Bible is almost totally absent from our lives. And it’s so incredibly sad. Too many of my brothers and sisters come to me in their hurt and suffering, totally unaware that the Bible is basically a story about human anguish and suffering. So many church leaders who have been wrecked over strife and division seem to be lost as to how to move past it when half of Bible addresses this very thing. I hear things like, “My life is so broken. God feels far away.” Or “Church is messy. It’s not always simple.” Even seasoned believers seem to think the Bible is not big enough for their problems, that the wisdom it offers is wishful thinking. Better that we stick to the how-to’s and the self-helps and the popular instruction manuals for running our lives and communities. Is it really that the biblical story is deficient in offering us wisdom for the narrow road we have committed to walking as Jesus followers? Or is it, perhaps, that we’re missing it because we were never taught how to see it in the first place? 

Meditation on the Bible and the wealth of life it holds should be woven into the fabric of our faith. It should be a core part of the outworking of our lives as we follow Jesus, a skill we help each other cultivate throughout our lives. Instead it’s another gaping hole. By relying on paid professionals to do the work for us we have refused the blessing of Psalm 1. And it shows, friends. 

As I watch my children grow, I see more and more clearly how the culture around them waits hungrily, ready to swallow my four precious stones whole. My children will need more than some Sunday school stories and a commentary to navigate their way in this world. They need to know the Story. What’s more, they need to learn how to teach it to themselves. They need it evening and morning, shaping their hearts, probing their minds, forming their lives.

And so I remain committed to learn the Story myself, and help others do the same. I pray the next generation of Jesus followers are hungry to pick up their Bibles and spend a lifetime learning them, to immerse themselves in the story that points to Him, and let that shape their lives, relationships, and communities. And I pray that my own generation rises up to show them the way. It is a high call and heavy task that requires courage and humility. But I believe if we can recognize our own shortcomings and learn better ways to cope with them—if we can begin to stitch up some of these holes—we will be restored by the transforming wisdom within His word and bless generations to come.