Search our archive:

« Back to Issue 46

Preaching for Biblical Literacy

By Krish Kandiah.

It is the best-selling book of all time, with billions sold worldwide, yet it is increasingly becoming the least-read book on our shelves. Within evangelicalism today, there is a such a crisis in confidence in the Bible that it is in danger of being sidelined from being the central foundation of our existence. We are less likely to read our Bibles on a daily basis, less likely to leave the house with our Bibles, less likely to be able to locate a particular book or story of the Bible, and less likely to talk about the Bible in everyday conversation.

These are the general observations that prompted the Bible Society and the Evangelical Alliance to conduct the Taking the Pulse survey in 2008. The survey polled 1,700 leaders and 1,900 churchgoers from across the UK denominations and traditions, and is the largest survey of its kind. One example of a question that was asked was: “Do secularists like Richard Dawkins affect your confidence in the Bible?” - to which a quarter of church leaders admitted that the attack of militant atheism affected their confidence while 40 per cent of regular churchgoers felt their confidence in the Bible was undermined by this recent trend. Division in the church also impacted biblical confidence according to 18% of those polled, and lack of biblical knowledge was cited by 50% of church leaders as a significant factor.

Most shocking of all was the admission that 10% of the church leaders were not regular readers of the Bible, and a staggering 70% of churchgoers were honest enough to admit they did not read Scripture on a regular basis.

Not only is the Bible more accessible than ever, there are also more resources to help people study the Bible than have ever been available throughout the whole of church history. There are over 408 translations of the Bible into the English language alone[1] and the full text of the Bible is available online in many of these translations for free. Devotional Bible reading material can be listened to on a podcast, sent by email, read in a book or magazine and even text-messaged to us on a daily basis and often for free. Yet, despite this banquet of availability, our appetite for Bible-reading is, it seems, at an all-time low.

In response to this survey, a multi-organisational project called Biblefresh is committed to present initiatives to help the church re-engage with the Bible. This project will culminate in a year of focussed activities and campaigns in 2011 which will tackle some of the underlying reasons behind the growing problem of biblical illiteracy inside our churches and beyond.

Preachers sometimes eulogise the halcyon days of biblical literacy in an attempt to inspire their listeners to go back to the Bible. Apart from the fact that this tactic rarely works, opinions also differ on whether the inspirational accounts of puritan devotional life were really widespread or actually just restricted to the wealthy. The anecdotal evidence coming out of Bible colleges, where tutors bemoan the fact that students are starting off with less biblical knowledge than in previous generations, could also be set off against the fact that professors of mathematics are claiming the same things about the dropping levels of numeracy amongst undergraduate students.

There are some traditions which particularly pride themselves on retaining their biblicism. Nevertheless, from my own experience and observations, this familiarity with the Bible varies widely and can often simply be a strong appreciation for a small selection of key passages.  Unfortunately, while this is at one level both admirable and inspirational, it does sometimes disguise a lack of understanding about the Bible as a whole, a lack of exegetical skills, and a reliance on spiritual jargon.

It may be counter-productive to simply hold up pockets of churches where the Bible is truly and deeply loved and lived, just as it is unwise to try to travel back in time to a period of history when Bible reading was ‘better’ than today. Surely it is time to press forward towards a future where our churches in general are following a trend towards ever-increasing biblical literacy.  Somehow we need to get beyond the guilt and embarrassment about our past performance in our relationship with the Bible and instead to move on to fresh ground.

Three key areas strike me as being fundamental to address in order to raise the level of biblical literacy in our churches, and in these areas preachers have a huge role to play.

Restoring confidence

While certain passages are treasured both inside and outside the church community, there are also certain parts of the Bible that have become almost ‘toxic’ both inside and outside the church community. These include the genocides of the Old Testament (which appear immoral), the laws (which appear inconsistent and arbitrary), and the Bible’s teaching on sexual ethics (which appear na?ve and outdated).  There is an enormous apologetic task that must be undertaken to counter the corrosive effects of our culture on these parts of the Bible, but also to counter the direct attack of the militant atheists like Dawkins who can write:

“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”  (The God Delusion)

Pastors and preachers must look to tackle this head on. We must deliberately teach from the Old Testament and not just confine ourselves to our favourite parts of the New Testament. We need to help build a biblical worldview into our congregations so that the drama of Scripture’s overarching narrative can help make sense of these difficult questions. Teaching about God’s moral purity, his absolute holiness, his persevering faithfulness, his compassion and his justice are seen through the Old Testament and, as these abstract concepts are revealed through the narrative and we understand the story of God’s revealed character, this will show the shallowness of Dawkins’ claims.

Rekindling Appetite

Pete Williams, the warden of Tyndale House, told me recently that the UK’s ‘5 a day’ fruit and vegetable promotion captured the public imagination not as a guilt-inducing initiative, but as an aspirational one. The challenge to us is to encourage a similar approach not to bring the church ‘back to the Bible’, but to bring the church forward in its appetite for Scripture, perhaps giving people a specific target of 10 chapters a week, which can be read in daily devotions or in a binge session at the weekend. Professor Gordon Fee of Regent College Vancouver told me he would like to see a reading programme where people are skilled to look to discover things in the Bible text - for example, to spot literary structures, intertextual cross references and genre markers - to help readers have a ‘Eureka moment’ when they read the text. This is certainly a major incentive for people to look again at the Scriptures, and these sort of Bible experiences, whether they come from the Bible college, the pulpit, a discussion or even a film can powerfully kickstart a more meaningful engagement with Scripture. 

There are dangers of course with these approaches - whether it is making Bible reading too much like an academic exercise, too much based on emotional response or too much like an item on a ‘To Do’ list.   John Stackhouse of RegentCollege recently told me that with higher percentages of the population going into tertiary education, people are generally more aware of the cultural distance between the ancient text and our contemporary context. However, this should also mean that a more nuanced, informed approach to Bible reading should be more widely adopted.  The “strange new word” of the Bible needs to be taken out of its simply privatistic or pietistic mode and lived out. Raising the level of biblical literacy does not mean simply giving people more information about the Bible, or helping them find more time to read the Bible, but imparting skills that will help people enjoy the Bible in its depth and diversity, bridging the ancient text with our contemporary context and inspiring worship for its Author.

Reimagining Preaching

The traditional twenty minute sermon could be an opportunity to demonstrate the art of Bible reading, yet what is often displayed can range from a demonstration of a preacher’s oratory ability and entertainment skills to the preacher’s theological knowledge or access to multimedia. In order to help motivate our congregations to read the Bible, preachers need to adapt their sermons to model an appreciation for the Bible that can help increase biblical literacy.

Because so many Christians in our churches are not able to grasp the flow or structure of the whole Bible, let alone the significance or content of individual books, the regular and systematic teaching through whole books of the Bible can be a great tool in forging biblical literacy. This does not need to be tackled in a verse-by-verse manner so beloved of Martin Lloyd Jones, but can be as broad as a four week series on the four gospels, or an overview of Isaiah by taking its eight greatest hits in consecutive order, or a six week tour of Philippians. The advantage of this kind of teaching is that it helps the congregation to see how the books of the Bible fit together. As the preacher speaks, it is helpful if, instead of simply presenting the answers, he models the process of discovering the answers through raising the questions, weighing up the different theories and applying the text in a variety of ways.

There is an equal need for thematic preaching as this models a different skill when it comes to biblical literacy. The danger of the consecutive exposition of sequential passages of Scripture is that the exegesis can become atomistic. For example, there may be lots of different passages in the Bible that can be applied to our attitude to money or relationships, but any one taken in isolation may lead to a skewed view of what the whole sweep of Scripture wants us to know about those things.  Preaching that shows how the different texts come together in a way that is relevant to our contemporary context is a major gift to our congregations. However, we need to watch out for the danger of isogesis - searching for supportive passages for our hobby-horse issues and presenting questions that the Bible does not answer directly.  A combination of regular sequential expository preaching and thematic preaching can counteract the dangers of both styles.

Many people feel the Bible is irrelevant for the modern world, and unfortunately, the sermon can underline that perception in two ways. First, if we preach the text but do not apply it to our context, we confirm people’s suspicions that the Bible has nothing to say today. On the other hand, if we preach without allowing Scripture to set the core heartbeat of our message, but instead rely on holding people’s attention through great story telling or multimedia clips, this again implies that we believe the Bible has nothing to say today. John Stott’s depiction of preaching as a bridge between text and context[2] is vital and preachers must learn to model the firm anchoring of the bridge on both sides to show that the Bible is absolutely relevant for our everyday life and experience.

Some preachers get easily discouraged because our sermons and the hard effort we put into them are so quickly forgotten. Although some of our sermons may well be memorable for a whole host of reasons, the majority of people will learn from the preacher the way they learned from their driving instructor. I don’t remember each of my individual driving lessons, but I have no doubt that what I learned through the 26 lessons skilled me in a process that I now use almost automatically on a daily basis. Similarly, preaching for biblical literacy that models how to read the Bible for all its worth, whether in the pulpit, house group, explorers group or youth group, will transmit a life skill that will serve your listeners well for this life and the next.

[1] See for a fascinating list

[2] Stott, I believe in Preaching, Hodder , 1998

Krish Kandiah

Executive Director (Churches in Mission) at the Evangelical Alliance

Ministry Today

You are reading Preaching for Biblical Literacy by Krish Kandiah, part of Issue 46 of Ministry Today, published in July 2009.

Who Are We?

Ministry Today aims to provide a supportive resource for all in Christian leadership so that they may survive, grow, develop and become more effective in the ministry to which Christ has called them.

Around the Site

© Ministry Today 2024