Columnist George Will tells and interesting story about the battle of Dunkirk in WWII. The German army was bearing down on more than 300,000 allied forces trapped against the ocean. On the evening of May 25, the commander of the British sent this simple, three-word message to London, “BUT-IF-NOT.”
It was immediately recognized as an allusion to the book of Daniel. When faced with execution for not worshiping an idol, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego responded by saying, “Our God who we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and He will deliver us out of thine hand, O king. But if not, be it known unto thee, O king, that we will not serve thy gods . . .” (Daniel 3:17)
These three words were instantly recognized as words of faith . . . and acceptance. These trapped troops were praying for deliverance, but not willing to surrender if it didn’t come. The British responded with an evacuation that included destroyers, passenger ferries, hospital ships, and even fishing vessels. In nine days, 338,226 men were rescued in what has been called the Miracle of Dunkirk.
What’s amazing was that Britain’s biblical literacy in 1940 was strong enough that the import of these three words was immediately recognized. In less than 75 years, things in Britain have changed dramatically. In a recent study of biblical literacy in the UK it was found that:
- Nearly 30% of adults don’t know that Adam and Eve, David and Goliath, or the good Samaritan are Bible stories.
- 46% don’t recognize the story of Noah’s Ark as biblical.
- 54% thought the Hunger Games had a biblical storyline.
- Dan Brown’s DaVinci Code was recognized as a biblical story by 46% of adults.
- 27% thought Superman might be a biblical character.
Things stateside aren’t that much better.
In a country where people constantly talk about their reverence for the Bible, not many are reading it. Surveys of American biblical literacy reveal that:
- Less than 50% of adults can name the four gospels.
- 60% of adults can name 5 of the 10 commandments.
- 82% of Americans believe “God helps those who help themselves” is a Bible verse.
- 12% of adults believe Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife.
What is the church doing to combat this phenomenon? How are we championing an understanding of the book that we’re passionate about defending? There was a time when Sunday school was the church’s answer to biblical education, but it’s getting harder and harder to find church plants that include a Sunday school program or regular, in-depth Bible studies as part of their discipleship strategy.
Many churches offer small groups, which can be a powerful and effective way to grow a sense of community, but often fail to include deep scriptural discussion.
Rescuing the Bible from obscurity
There’s no question that the church needs to find ways to champion and encourage Bible study again. But how? Can we recognize the obstacles? And if so, can we find strategies to overcome them?
I think so.
1. Get people reading again.
Sadly if it isn’t coming through the average person’s Facebook news feed, it’s not getting read. According to the Pew Research Center, only 8% of Americans hadn’t read a single book in 1972. Since 2012, the number of non-book-readers has jumped to 23%—not one print book, ebook, or audiobook.
The church needs to be encouraging people to read as a discipline—particularly Bible reading. The same Pew Research Center study found that about 50% of American adults owned a tablet or e-reader, and over two-thirds of them own a smartphone.
There are so many amazing apps available to help people rediscover the scriptures, many of them absolutely free. Some offer so many helpful tools that people download them and are so overwhelmed that they never use them.
Why not hold a two-week class on some of the apps available? Or maybe find a Bible app that your church loves and work them into the life of the church, including a class on how to get the most out of them?
2. Encourage people to get more involved in kids ministry.
One way to get people into their Bibles is to put them into a position where they need to teach. Kids ministry is a great place to start. And let’s face it, our kids need to have a good grasp of Scripture too.
I don’t know of many churches that don’t have someone working hard just to recruit people to teach our children. It’s a challenge that most of us have experienced. What if your church had a drive to get everyone to spend some time teaching children?
3. Start a Sunday school equivalent.
Okay, maybe your church isn’t able to set aside time in the morning for Sunday school, but is there another time to when people can gather to study? Can your church host Bible-related classes one night a week? Is there someone who can bring a class into their home? A coffee shop?
If you think people get overwhelmed teaching kids, try asking them to teach other adults. You might have to bust out the smelling salts to revive them. The idea that they have to have all the answers about every biblical mystery can fill the most well-read Christian with dread.
But here’s a secret that I’ve seen reinforced time and time again: creating a culture of people interested in reading Scripture is caught as much as it’s taught. There is something that seems to happen organically when people begin reading the Bible together. They grow in their enthusiasm, and the people around them start to get interested too.
Leading a class doesn’t have to be overwhelming. There are plenty of books and curriculums available—leaders can even create their own lessons quite easily.
Don’t just defend it; read it.
Millar Burrows, biblical scholar and leading authority on the Dead Sea Scrolls, once said, “What we really need, after all, is not to defend the Bible but to understand it.” This couldn’t be more true.
The church doesn’t need people who simply venerate Scripture, she needs people who are so familiar with it that they can’t help but live by it. It’s time to make that a priority again.