How Does the Decline of Bible Knowledge in America Impact Our Mission?
by Tom Goodman
February 15, 2013
"I know that you said we should get the Revised Standard Version, but all I can find is the Old Testament and the New Testament."
That's what a bright student told Professor Susan McWilliams, as recounted in the following story. If you're a church leader, you really need to think through what the following story tells us about our work. I'll share some thoughts about that, but
read her anecdote first and then see if you don't come to the same conclusions I've reached:
On my first day as a college professor, I told my fresh-faced students gathered in Classical Political Theory that during the portion of the course in which we studied The Bible, I would be using the Revised Standard Version. Two days later, I got an
e-mail from a freshman who would prove to be one of my most talented students: "I can't seem to find the right copy of the Bible for class," she wrote. "I know that you said we should get the Revised Standard Version, but all I can find is the Old
Testament and the New Testament."
I teach young people who are members of the meritocratic elite. They are the kind of young people who are, and have always been, "going somewhere." By the age of eighteen, most of them have lengthy resumes that testify to their capacities for
leadership, sportsmanship, citizenship, and every other kind of impressive-ship you can think of. They are not just competent test-takers and multi-taskers and application-filler-outers -- although they are all of those things -- but by large they are
legitimately intellectual, careful in their thinking and gifted in their writing. These are people who you can call, without exaggeration, the future leaders of America.
My students are also disproportionately unchurched (and unsynagogued and unmosqued). An astonishing number of them -- 15 out of 38 in the last class I asked -- come to college having never set foot inside a house of worship. Despite the fact that they
are extraordinarily well-read, many of them have never opened a bible and are entirely ignorant of its contents.
Now, I can imagine two reactions to this reality. But only one reaction will actually gain us traction in reaching people.
The first reaction is to "tsk-tsk" the decline of Bible knowledge in American culture. We can read about such ignorance among elite undergraduates and bemoan the state of the American youth ministry or the American pulpit or American parenting that
led to this.
Of course, there's a measure of merit in that observation. And be sure that if someone wrote a book criticizing the decline of appreciation for the Bible in America, a Christian publishing house would pick it up confident that a lot of Christians
would buy it.
But that reaction won't let us even begin to make a dent in the actual problem. Let's not forget that God is on a search-and-rescue mission for the young woman in Dr. McWilliams' class. Are we building a church where someone so unfamiliar with our
treasured Book would feel -- actually feel -- welcome? If she started attending our small groups, would she find our people reacting to her lack of Bible knowledge with grace instead of impatience? How can we welcome her interest in the Good Book and
nudge it along from this elementary and tentative start?
Just being willing to ask those questions of ourselves is the beginning of reaching the world around us.
Susan McWilliams is an Associate Professor of Politics at Pomona College in Claremont, California. Her anecdote opens her article, "A Call for Resurrection," in the Fall 2012 edition of The City, a publication of Houston Baptist University.
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