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Why biblical illiteracy is a huge opportunity for the Church

Studies have revealed that fewer and fewer people are engaging with the Bible. But it's not all bad news, as Joseph Wood explains... 

We live in the age of Instagram. Millions of people around the world are uploading photo after photo, video after video, broadcasting their life to the world.

Nearly 2.5 billion people use Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and other social media platforms. No other time in history has seen such a high level of instant communication and interaction.

But why has social media become so attractive and successful?

One reason is that social media encourages us to tell our story. We're encouraged to tell the world our story using images and text. 

Discipleship in the age of Instagram

The Bible contains God's story. But as the cover of the latest Premier Christianity magazine points out, it's a story which isn't being read.  

Two recent studies suggest that Biblical literacy has been decreasing for decades. Christians do not know the Bible as well as they used to.

According to one study, there are three problem areas for the Church: "First, some Christians have knowledge that is far less than their abilities suggest it should be.

"Second, more specifically, older Christians show little signs of growth; their biblical knowledge has moved on very little since they were first members. Third, new seekers and converts come into the church as adults with precious little biblical knowledge at all."

"Imagine what 'suffer the little children...' Appears to suggest to an unchurched teenager."

A second study asks, "Will millions of people in Britain and around the world believe in the value Bible stories bring to society, when little is being done in our homes or schools to keep them alive for future generations."

Both studies concluded that biblical illiteracy in the UK is a problem. Our contemporaries have grown up in Christian Britain. They have grown up in a society where religious studies is a part of the schools’ curriculum. They grew up in a society whose laws derive primarily from the moral code written in the Bible. Yet they are largely biblically illiterate. 

I co-lead small groups with my wife in our local church. One is a youth bible study and the other is a Christianity Explored course for new believers and not-yet believers.  

At our youth Bible study we choose a book to explore for the year. We have both churched and un-churched young people there, and it struck me that the unchurched didn’t know the Bible was a collection of books, or how it was divided into chapters and verses, or that it told stories. They were being introduced to the Bible for the first time.

At Christianity Explored both Christian and non Christians journey with us through the course. In the first session, we provide a Bible for each participant, and we quickly discovered they did not know much / if anything about the Bible. Like the young people, we had to explain what the Bible is, how it was put together and how to navigate it. 

Is biblical illiteracy a bad thing?

Is it bad that people who grow up in British society are no longer learning about the Bible from a young age? Is it a problem that we had to teach 40 year old adults how to find a chapter and verse in the Bible? 

Maybe. There's certainly nothing wrong with educating society about the Bible and it is a good thing for Christians in particular to be able to navigate the Bible and show others how to do the same. But there is something about these studies which excites me. Instead of just seeing this as a negative, what if the Church sees this as an opportunity?

We get to tell the stories for the first time! We get to model good practice in reading and learning. We get to share the story of God with those who, although they have been living in a society shaped by the moral code of the Bible, may have never heard the stories themselves. We have an opportunity to be creative in following the command of Christ to go and make disciples.

We get to share the story of God with those who, although they have been living in a society shaped by the moral code of the Bible, may have never heard the stories themselves

So what does discipleship look like in the 21st century?

First, we need to become good story tellers. It is fascinating to me that the age of Instagram in many ways draws us back to the age of the early Church. The ancient way of storytelling is being re-cast in new forms today. We can no longer assume that people in our society know these stories. We can no longer take it for granted that the average person on the street even knows who Jesus is. The apostle Peter said it best, always be ready to tell your story... "to explain the hope you have". 

Disciples in the 21st century must be good story tellers. Stories are compelling, inviting, informative, and ultimately transformative. 

Secondly, we need to really read the bible and teach others to learn how to read for themselves. I believe there's an increasing openness to the bible in the 21st century. The Church is being given the opportunity to retell the ancient stories, and shape the future of the Church by teaching new believers and non-believers alike, how to become a part of the greatest story ever told.

Access to resources and technology are enabling the Church to tell the story of God in new ways and for new contexts. See, for example, the current issue of Premier Christianity magazine to read a helpful article on this issue by Glenn Paauw.

In the age of Instagram, we are all looking for a story to follow and a story to tell. The Bible can answer both of those longings. 

Joseph Wood is a Lecturer at Nazarene Theological College in Manchester

Click here to request a free copy of Premier Christianity

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