Biblical Literacy: Moving from a Dream to Reality
by Jane Kunzie-Brunner (January / February 2001 • Volume 17 • Number 1)
A church faithful to Christ's good news is also one which uses and knows the Scriptures. Yet, practically speaking, people raise objections. How can we address them?
Luke 5:1-11 — From now on you will be catching people
I have a recurring dream about my church. I dream that by the time I retire in 23 years, the entire ELCA will be 100 percent passionate for biblical literacy.
I dream of generations falling in love with God's Word and knowing it so well, that they will no longer need to teach one another, but will seek out and teach those who do not yet know the joys contained within the Holy Scriptures.
I dream of our people wearing their Bibles out every five years. I dream of our people committing huge chunks of Scripture to memory. I dream about people knowing the biblical basis for the liturgy, our hymns and praise songs, theological discourse, service, acts of mercy, and justice.
I dream of people comforting one another in times of stress and encouraging one another with biblical principles of edification. I dream of churches bursting at the seams because folks cannot get enough of God's Word. I dream of our people understanding the magnitude of Jesus, his Father, and their Spirit.
I dream of a Church in which the Holy Scriptures will truly be the norm and authority for our faith and life.
I want every disciple of this church to share in this dream. I know it can and will happen. I know also, that we have a long way to go to make this dream a reality.
But before anyone dismisses my dream as mere wishing, let's cling to the knowledge that we are a church of the Reformation. If we are to be faithful to that movement, we need to address the tragedy of biblical illiteracy in our day and in our church.
Priority or Not?
Let's be honest! How many leaders in this church are delighted with the level of biblical literacy evident in our people and in ourselves?
One of the greatest gifts I ever received was a question. Beverly and Erwin Hoeft, who are absolutely passionate for God's Word, offered it to me and I now offer to the church: "Is biblical knowledge a priority of this church?"
Congregation by congregation, setting by setting, we need to ask the question and honestly seek to understand how we could be satisfied with so low a bar of expectation. How many of us would be thrilled to have our appendix removed by someone who got a C- in surgical technique? How many of us want our airplane guided by an air traffic controller who understood 15 percent of the operations manual?
Too much is at stake, if we resign ourselves to mediocrity and biblical dullness. If we are not faithful and fruitful in this matter, the best we will share is good stuff about a little-known God, not the Good News of God in Christ Jesus.
What is the worst thing that could happen if the entire ELCA was passionate about biblical literacy? (Take a few minutes and think this through!)
But now, ponder the opposite scenario. What are the 10 best things that could happen, if we were passionate about God's Word? (Take some time to dream out the implications in your setting if we were to make knowledge of the Scriptures the number one priority.)
Are we willing to develop, fund, and resource an effective and comprehensive strategy to make this dream a reality? Are we willing to move from shame and guilt to incentive and excellence to achieve this goal? Are we willing to admit that we need to become biblical seekers and re-evangelize those already inside the church, for the sake of those who have never heard?
And now I ask the really tough question that is guaranteed to yank a few chains. Are we, as leaders willing to submit to tough standards of accountability for scriptural knowledge. (By this, I do mean to imply that one of the reasons we are satisfied with biblical dullness is that it covers the magnitude of our own ignorance. There I said it. Is it not most certainly true?)
|We need to address the tragedy of biblical illiteracy in our day and in our church.|
How then, do we submit to the Reformation agenda of biblical literacy? How do we convert and transform the culture and the expectation of this church in the next 23 years?
Recall that Luther was faced with a very similar crisis in his day. Therefore, I decided to embark on a bit of a visitation myself, otherwise known as a marketing and research strategy, discovering objections and seeking to design a program and product line that overcomes objections in a target audience.
I started to visit in the homes with the people of my congregation, speaking directly with adults and children, about the problem of biblical literacy. I simply shared my dream and asked, "What are the objections that must be overcome to make this dream a reality?" Here's what I found:
Objection #1: I do not want to participate in a disciplined Bible study, because I do not know much about the Bible. (The main reason that adults avoid reading classes, is that they do not know how to read!)
People do not want to be humiliated, shamed, ridiculed, or embarrassed. If Bible studies are perceived to be confrontational or argumentative, folks will stay away. Is it safe for a biblical seeker to participate in your Bible studies? If you have Bible brutes who enjoy mauling an inquirer, it is best to deal with the problem before you submit a seeker to their ill-informed tyranny.
Objection #2: I do not know how to find the passages in the Bible. It is essential to gently guide folks to the right passage and to equip them to understand the index, outlines, and chapter and verse numbers.
I highly recommend the use of extended Bible tabs to ease the overwhelming anxiety of being the last one to find the text. Every hospitality skill that we employ to make our guests feel honored and welcome in our homes, should be used to help the biblical seeker feel at home in the Bible.
By the way, remember that the biblical seeker may be a person of great life-long faith, but with little scriptural skill or knowledge. It is particularly difficult for a life-long Lutheran to deal with this challenge.
Objection #3: I do not like anything touchy-feely. Let's face it folks, the days of validating every experience by an elevated feeling level, are over. This objection was huge. People wanted content, relationship, content, application, and content.
I must confess, that I too, avoid anything that claims to be a Bible study, but really ends up becoming a feeble, unqualified attempt at group therapy. I fully expected people to say they objected to a lecture format.
However, by an overwhelming margin, the folks objected to formats that resembled encounter groups. Most people responded favorably to a format that included lecture with high quality visuals, small group interaction, and home study.
Objection #4: I do not have a good Bible. In our congregation, I strongly encourage people to bring a well-equipped study Bible to church. (Yes, you can bring your Bible to worship and still be Lutheran!)
In fact, I reward it. Anyone who brings their Bible to church is invited to open the second drawer on the right side of my desk to get a piece of hard candy. I go through 10 pounds a month. The children have really caught on to this one!
One Sunday morning a six-year-old boy was carefully selecting his sweet reward when he asked his father if he would like a piece of candy. His father said, "Sure!" At which point this little darling slammed the drawer shut and declared, "Well then, you better get a Bible!"
Dad declared that he was, in fact, "Busted!" Later that week, the three of us went shopping for a super-equipped study Bible.
Then the idea came to me. If this fellow did not own a good working Bible, there had to be more like him. So I decided to combine my great passion and one true skillshopping!
With our Christian Education Board, Augsburg, the American Bible Society, and our local bookstore, we created a Bible Fair marketed at adults. It was conveniently located in our Education Hall, and it was staffed by people who were already sold on a particular Bible or Bible tool. The people went mad for it!!!
Objection #5: I do not have enough time. Usually this meant that folks were afraid that a Bible study would not be worth the time investment in their over-scheduled world, or that Bible studies were not offered at times when they could participate.
To this first part of the objection, I would simply agree. We will never have enough time, and we will not be getting anymore than 24 hours per day. Therefore, I would ask for the benchmarks of time value. (Time is the number one issue in the life of the people of my congregation.)
The answers always came to this point: Whatever we offered had to be worth their precious time. I could not agree more. Nothing will turn passion into apathy quicker, than something that is not worth the time investment.
People wanted to be able to come away with content, application, and a greater skill base for ministry and witness. People also wanted Bible study at a wide variety of times with quality babysitting and variegated scheduling should they have to miss a session.
Do we offer Bible studies in such a way that people have time to fall in love with the Scriptures?
Objection #6: I don't think I can understand the Bible. I can always come to you, pastor, if I have a question. At the heart of changing any culture is convincing the culture that it can change. It is important to ask the question, "Have we made our people pastor-dependent for biblical understanding?"
God has blessed this church with people who can understand the Scriptures and we have to let them know it! The only one telling them they cannot understand the Bible is the evil one.
Every time the Spirit moves us to proclaim, "I can understand God's Word," it just gives that old twisted deceiver fits. Go ahead! Horrify the devil. Teach your people that they can know and understand God's Word.
As to the second part of the objection, I just plain freak my people out. I ask them, "How do you know that I am not leading you astray by my own lack of understanding?" I also indicate that I am not a low maintenance pastor and that it will cost them far less in the long run to develop their skills and to keep me in their pocket.
Is It Lutheran?
Objection #7: What if the Bible Study isn't Lutheran? I always assure people that Bible study is Lutheran because it is a Reformation thing for folks to be studying the Bible. You may run into an issue or two if a Bible study is not printed by our publishing house. Deal with it, wrestle with it, fix it, pray over it, but don't avoid it because it might not be Lutheran!
Objection #8: I don't know anyone in Bible study. How true, which means wild, flaming, invitational hospitality must be the hallmark of every Bible study. Once you get a reputation for this, people will drop this objection. Once they experience biblically-informed hospitality, they will invite their friends as well.
Have we made our people pastor-dependent for biblical understanding?
Objection #9: I do not know how it all fits together. This is a critical objection to overcome. To do so, I must recommend a comprehensive strategy for an overview of the biblical story. Superlative visuals are essential to deal with this matter because they instantly lower entry anxiety. The content of the story simply appears to be overwhelming without a framework that grounds the story into reality.
I give my highest recommendation to the Divine Drama and accompanying biblical time-line developed by Harry Wendt and Crossways International. (Fear not, he is Lutheran!) I will not teach Bible study or prepare a sermon without these materials in hand.
I also highly recommend the newest version of the Mighty Acts of God by Robert Marshall and Craig Johnson (The "Leader Guide" is out of print, while copies of the "Participant Guide" are available while supplies last–ed.). All of these resources take the odd assortment of biblical knowledge that we already have and provide a sort of "closet organizer," which allows information to be retrieved and applied effectively.
I look forward to hearing of your strategy for making this dream come true! Twenty-three years will pass quickly, and we have an entire church culture to reform from lethargy and mediocrity to 100 percent passion.
Jane Kunzie-Brunner is associate pastor at Bethlehem Lutheran Church, St. Charles, Illinois.