The Bible Fireside Chat

Any man will tell you: when a woman utters these four words in this exact sequence, his stomach drops, his heart skips a beat, and he immediately begins mentally reviewing his sins over the past decade:

“We need to talk.”

Friends and readers of both sexes, I don’t mean to alarm you. I don’t wish to frighten you. All I want to do is have a nice fireside chat with you for a moment. But with that said,

We need to talk.

I want to begin by acknowledging it’s always dangerous to begin a blog with a second set of four words, but I’m also going to say them, too:

It seems to me . . .

It seems to me our churches don’t take the Bible very seriously.

Before you close this tab in righteous indignation, let me explain what I am not saying. I’m not saying we think it’s trivial or insignificant. I’m not saying we try to marginalize it, demythologize it, or otherwise de-value it or empty it of content. And I’m not saying we don’t (on the whole) try to reorient our lives around its message.

What I am saying is we simply don’t know what it says and that its full proclamation is sadly lacking in many churches today. By “many churches,” I mean congregations throughout the entire spectrum: Christian Church churches, United Methodist Church churches, Episcopal Church churches, Baptist Church churches, all of them. All of us. I fully realize the gravity of this charge, so let me state my case.

My first real hint of the level of biblical illiteracy rampant in our pews came during seminary. A required textbook, Barna’s Futurecast (2011), gave me these research statistics:

  • 45% of all adults believe the Bible is accurate in its principles (p. 132)
  • 63% believe David killed Goliath with a sling and stones (p. 134)
  • 60% believe Peter walked on water (p. 134)
  • 44% read their Bibles at least once per week (p. 171)

I know what you’re thinking: “That’s pretty bad, but Chris, these are issues of belief and practice, not knowledge of content.” So let’s have some more stats, this time from the 2015 edition of the American Bible Society’s annual State of the Bible report (pp. 68-70):

  • Only 74% of practicing Protestants could correctly identify Abraham’s son of promise from a list of four names
  • 35% of adults ages 18-30 believe Mary has a book of the Bible named for her (Esther was given as a possible response)
  • Only 61% of those ages 31-49 believe the Bible strongly encourages serving the poor

If you’ve ever played a round of Bible trivia with your friends (or watched the average Jeopardy! contestant fail miserably in Bible-related categories), you can come up with many more (and more personal) examples.

We simply don’t know our Bibles anymore. And it seems the younger you are, the less you know (even relatively speaking; it’s a generational thing).

Why? Perhaps because we think singing vegetables, fantastic though they may be, can teach our children everything they need to know about Scripture. We’ve exchanged worshiping together as a family in earshot of a sermon for children’s church programs requiring far more props than Bibles and featuring more games than reading. (Some programs are good; many are not.) Parents no longer disciple their children at home, the one place they should personally spiritually invest in their children the most.

And we ministers have failed far more people than just children.

How much Scripture is read during worship? Do we include a variety or just the sermon text? When you announce your text from the pulpit, can people find the book under discussion, or would they spend an awkward few minutes trying to locate Hezekiah 4? Do we choose songs which let us sing our Bibles? The psalms are songs, after all, and many hymns offer an abundance of Scripture. How are our Christian education programs doing? Are they well-attended? Do they teach the Bible first and foremost, or are they primarily topical discussions with a few prooftexts thrown in? Will someone learn biblical truths or attend for years and still think Moses built the ark and Deborah was a baker of delicious snack cakes? Bible studies are exactly that: studies of the Bible. Are you spending time studying and discussing the Bible, verse by verse if necessary, or are you having short speeches on The Controversial Topic of the Day Which Doesn’t Appear in This Chapter We Didn’t Really Read Anyway®?

Of first importance to me is the sermon. First, let’s talk content, and then we’ll discuss styles. I begin with a caveat: if you never preach about Christ and his atoning death on the cross in your sermon, all you’ve done is deliver a well-crafted lecture or inspirational speech. It is not a gospel sermon. But you can and should build everything around that core of the gospel — and that means drawing on the entire canon. Preach Titus. Do a series in Deuteronomy or Lamentations. Preach the Bible, the whole Bible, and nothing but the Bible. Yes, you should, as a pastor, constantly be reading other books and sharing those theological insights with your congregations. But the church is not a book club: if you’d rather preach Calvin supplemented by Paul instead of Paul with commentary from the Genevan on Sunday mornings, get out of the pulpit and get yourself booked on Oprah. (Although I’ve never seen her add an orthodox theology text to her book club reading list.) Preach the text — the text illuminated by other texts. Bring in John’s gospel to help teach his epistles. Use the Aaronic and levitical priesthoods in Leviticus to shed light on Christ’s role as high priest in Hebrews. Use the Bible to preach the Bible.

There are a variety of preaching styles, and any one of them can do this effectively. I’m an expository preacher, meaning my sermons delve into the passage and stay there; I try to explain — to exposit — those verses to the congregation. I do this because I believe it is the best way to preach the text of the Bible. But narrative and topical preaching have their roles, too — just keep them anchored to the text. Without wanting to disrespect the preachers who have gone before me, I admit I’m currently discovering an entire generation of preachers whose sermons are nothing more than a series of illustrations held loosely together by a select thematic verse or two. Don’t do that. If you preach only extra-biblical stories and anecdotes, then your congregation will learn only extra-biblical stories and anecdotes. But if you systematically preach Scripture, then your congregation will learn the Bible. There is a place for sermon illustrations, yes, but they complement the text, not the other way ’round.

My seminary’s motto is “The Whole Bible for the Whole World.” Christians, that’s our mission: taking all of the Bible to all of the earth. But to do that, we have to know it. We have to preach it. We have to teach it. We have to read it on our own in our homes. The only way to fix the biblical illiteracy of our churches and our larger culture is to once more become a people of the Book. Of one Book: the Holy Bible. Write its words in your hearts that you may help others to do likewise.

We cannot be obedient to God if we don’t know what He said.

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