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Are Christians still engaged with the Bible

By Mark A. Kellner

Do you believe Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife?

Do you think Billy Graham preached the Sermon on the Mount?

Surely you’re not of the opinion Sodom and Gomorrah married and lived happily ever after?

Regular Bible readers might chuckle at such scriptural misunderstandings — until realizing such assumptions are more common among Americans than imagined.

Surprisingly, a number of recent surveys suggest such beliefs are held by a growing number of people who identify themselves as Christians.

In 2005, the Bible Literacy Project, a nonsectarian group based in Front Royal, Va., released the results of a Gallup Organization survey of American teens. While the majority of those surveyed recognized the basic meaning of widely used Judeo-Christian terms such as Easter, Adam and Eve, Moses, the Golden Rule and the Good Samaritan, the report contained some troubling news.

“Substantial minorities lack even the most basic working knowledge of the Bible,” the Bible Literacy Project stated. Almost 1 out of 10 teens believes that Moses is one of the twelve apostles. About the same proportion, when asked what Easter commemorates or to identify Adam and Eve, responded that they didn’t know.

According to the report, “Only a minority of American teens appear to be ‘Bible literate,’ reaching the level of knowledge similar to that defined by high school English teachers as necessary to a good education.”

Both high school and college teachers, according to surveys conducted by the Bible Literacy Project, affirm that having a working knowledge of the Bible is important to grasping other concepts, such as the hundreds of biblical allusions in Shakespeare, Milton, Dickens and other great writers.

Yet, in a nation where more than 4 out of 5 adults claim Christian affiliation, the number of those who apparently are not well versed in Christianity’s founding text seems to be rising. People unfamiliar with the Bible and its basic concepts represent a greater challenge when the gospel is shared conversationally or via preaching. Moreover, the lack of scriptural engagement — defined as regular interaction with and understanding of the Bible’s text — is reaching into church pews.

“There is a noticeable trend away from general Bible knowledge and Bible engagement,” on the part of Christians, says Mark Wootton, a vice president and professor at Central Bible College in Springfield, Mo. “In this information age there is so much data out there that Scripture has come to be considered one of several sources to be consulted.”

Wootton, who served 25 years as a pastor, says even some seasoned Christians lack knowledge of more than a few favorite passages.

“Believers should read not just the New Testament and Psalms, but also the harder passages, because all Scripture is given by inspiration,” Wootton says. “You don’t understand the New Testament fully until you understand the Old Testament.”

Paul Caminiti is vice president for Bible publishing with international Christian media and publishing company Zondervan. His job is to get churches involved with Scripture, and he agrees there’s a problem in the pews.

“Especially at the church level, we have been less than creative about helping people to engage in the Bible,” Caminiti told TPE. “The one tried-and-true methodology has been for people to go to the back of the church and pick up a reading guide and read through the Bible in a year.”

Zondervan, which brought out the New International Version 30 years ago, will publish “America’s NIV” next year, containing more than 31,000 verses hand copied by people across the nation.

“Having your own written copy of the Bible to read is a relatively new experience,” Caminiti says. “For its first 1,500 years, this is how the written Word was spread: People handwrote copies, and it went from place to place.”

At the same time, Caminiti points to The Bible in 90 Days: Cover to Cover in 12 Pages a Day, a specially organized NIV Bible, as a way to get people more engaged. Readers cover the 12 pages daily, plus meet in a book club-like discussion group weekly.

More than 500 churches have undertaken the 90-day reading challenge with their congregations, including several Assemblies of God congregations.

“One of the most exciting things that came out of it was having the text in large doses helped people connect with the overall message of the Word of God, not just little snippets,” says Steve Lambert, pastor at First Assembly of God in Clearwater, Fla. “Reading whole books at one sitting had an impact on them. They could catch the message the author had meant.”

Lambert says about half of the church’s 500 Sunday morning worshippers participated in the program, and it included much intergenerational sharing: Older members and teens broke into small groups to discuss the week’s readings.

John Landmark, a pastor at New River Assembly of God in Red Wing, Minn., says people who participated — about 20 in the church’s first trial run — found the Bible to be “more than a law, but also a roadmap to God’s presence and how to stay in that presence.” He says the church is contemplating adopting the 90-day reading plan for all new members as a way to get them to engage with the Word.

While not officially endorsing the Zondervan project, Wootton is sold on the “through the Bible annually” reading concept.

“People need to be encouraged by spiritual leaders to have a set reading schedule of all of Scripture,” he says.

Along with any increased intake of Scripture, though, study resources such as a Bible dictionary and mentors are needed, Wootton says. Knowledge shared in a Sunday School class or small group setting helps people understand verses, he says.

Caminiti agrees there is a need for deeper Bible engagement among Christians.

“Daily devotions only take people so far,” he says. “We need a new hunger to know the whole Bible, to get the narrative arc, to see the big story.”

To understand the whole Bible, Wootton says, is to “understand the full dimension of God.”

MARK A. KELLNER is a freelance writer based in Columbia, Md.

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