At a Loss For the Word

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Study after study proves Bible illiteracy is drastically increasing. Here’s what several ministries are doing to combat that.

At age 5, John D. Barry became the youngest person to be baptized in his church in Anchorage, Alaska. By 8, he sensed God had placed a strong calling on his life. Previously, an allergic drug reaction triggered two seizures, each of which  nearly killed him, leaving him with a severe speech impediment until age 8. Barry says, God “performed a miracle” through speech therapy and Barry regained the ability to talk. At 10, the words he heard repeatedly were: “You will speak truth to the nations.”

Today, as editor-in-chief of Bible Study Magazine, Barry is on a quest to bring this truth to humanity by freeing people from the spiritual bondage of biblical illiteracy.

In light of a recent LifeWay Research study that found 67 percent of the largest generation in the nation—the 78 million Millennials born between 1980 and 2000—rarely or never read the Bible, Barry believes God has called him to help ignite a “Bible study revolution” to reverse this “all-time high” in Bible illiteracy.

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“When I think of the situation today, the analogy that comes to mind is when the Hebrews had gone astray in the Old Testament, their king finds the law in the archives and brings it out,” says Barry, who’s also the publisher for Logos Bible Software in Bellingham, Wash. “He starts reading it to them, and they are all shocked at what it says. They realize they have to change their lives.

“We are like those people. We are a people with a book that we affirm, but we don’t know what the book says.”

As part of this year’s 400th anniversary of the King James Version of the Bible, Logos Bible Software and a cornucopia of book publishers and ministries are releasing innovative and easy-to-read print and e-Bibles to raise biblical literacy in the U.S. This effort comes as studies have found a “generational decline” in Bible acceptance. This drop-off is occurring as younger generations have expressed growing skepticism about the reliability of the best-selling book in history and whether it is the inspired Word of God.

Barna Group President David Kinnaman says not only do people know less about the Scriptures, they also see less importance for it in their lives, with fewer viewing it as the “source of life-giving truth.”

“Younger people are more skeptical, more likely to question the authority of the Scriptures and more interested in all sorts of alternative ways of exploring spirituality,” Kinnaman says. “Among professing Christians or nominal Christians, there is less and less regard for Scripture, which is translating into more biblical illiteracy.”

The Ventura, Calif.-based research firm found what used to be basic, universally known truths about Christianity are now unknown mysteries to a large and growing share of Americans, especially young adults. For instance, while most people regard Easter as a religious holiday, only a minority of adults associate Easter with the resurrection of Jesus. As the younger generations—Baby Busters born from 1965 to 1983 and Mosaics born between 1984 and 2002—ascend to numerical and positional supremacy in churches nationwide, the data suggests biblical illiteracy is likely to increase significantly, Barna found.

Back to the Basics

A recent study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found 37 percent of Americans read the Bible at least once a week, but only 16 percent of Americans read it daily. About six in 10 Americans read the Bible at least on occasion, down from three-fourths in the 1980s, according to a recent study by the Center for Bible Engagement.

In the effort to prompt what few are doing—reading the Bible—Zondervan is promoting The Story, a Bible that reads like a novel and looks like a trade-fiction book, says Zondervan Senior Vice President and Publisher Chip Brown. Consisting of 31 chapters of carefully selected Scripture arranged in chronological order, The Story helps readers understand God’s story and how their stories intersect with God’s. Only a quarter of the size of the Bible—and without the numbers and headings—Brown says it’s much less intimidating than the complete Bible.

“You are basically reading the meta-narrative that exists from Genesis to Revelation that sort of teases that Christ is going to come in the New Testament,” Brown says. “Unless you read the Bible all the way through, that is usually lost on people.”

In what has become an organic national movement, more than 400 churches have purchased The Story Church-wide Experience kit and are taking their congregations on a journey from Bible illiteracy to Bible engagement through the 31-week course.

In recent decades, many churches have moved away from providing in-depth Bible study and discipleship programs for their members. While the seeker-sensitive movement and dynamic preachers have helped fill the pews in large churches, experts say biblical literacy has often taken a backseat as the Scriptures were “dumbed down” to attract more churchgoers. In the past, people attending Bible studies would use fill-in study guides to help them gain a deeper understanding of God’s Word. But with the rise in the popularity of home-based small groups and the accompanying DVDs, people aren’t gaining the kind of biblical knowledge that comes from the more hands-on learning methods.

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