Mark S. Mitchell

Pastor, Writer, Follower of Jesus

The Greatest Story Never Read

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It was the perfect comedy routine. Jay Leno roved through the audience of his late night talk show and asked people how much they knew about the Bible. “Name one of the Ten Commandments,” he asked. A hand went up: “God helps those who help themselves?” Leno went on: “Name one of the apostles.” No answer. But when he asked his audience to name the four Beatles, the names “George, John, Paul, and Ringo” sprang from the crowd.

Obviously, we live in a post-biblical age where a general knowledge of the Bible cannot be assumed. As a book, the Bible has been removed from most reading lists of secular schools long ago. We lament that fact. But what about the church? Is biblical illiteracy as commonplace in the evangelical churches as it is in secular schools? There is evidence that it is.

For several years, the Bible and theology department at a leading evangelical liberal arts college, Wheaton College in Illinois, studied the biblical literacy of incoming freshmen. Wheaton’s students represent the “best and the brightest” of Bible-believing churches around the country. What they discovered was disturbing. Only one-third of the students could put the following in order: Abraham, the Old Testament prophets, the death of Christ, and Pentecost. One-third could not identify Matthew  as an apostle from a list of New Testament names. Half did not know the Christmas story was in Matthew or the Passover story was in Exodus. A similar survey of high school seniors in youth groups of strong evangelical churches showed similar results. On a simple 25-question test, these students averaged 50-55 percent. Fully 80 percent could not place Moses, Adam, David, Solomon, Abraham in chronological order. Only 20 percent knew to look in Acts to read about Paul’s travels. Only 33 percent could find the Sermon on the Mount in the New Testament, and 80 percent did not know how to find the Lord’s Prayer.

Of course Bible knowledge does not guarantee a life of Christlikeness and obedience to his commands. But, is it possible to grow in Christlikeness and obedience without an understanding of his Word? Gary Burge puts it well, “To disregard the source— to neglect the Bible—is to remove the chief authority on which our faith is built. We are left vulnerable, unable to check the teachings of those who invite us to follow, incapable of charting a true course past siren voices calling from treacherous islands such as TV programs, popular books, and enchanting prophecies displayed on colorful Web sites.”

A problem such as this requires that the entire church family take a hard look at itself. The problem is not just with the secular culture in which we live; it’s within the church. Elders, pastors, youth leaders, Sunday School teachers, parents and children all need to find ways to simply read the Bible. This is why it is so crucial that the Scriptures are taught at weekend services instead of just offering timeless principles from random tidbits of God’s word. This is why Sunday Schools should use curriculums focused on systematically teaching kids the Scripture from the time they enter Kindergarten to the time they leave fifth grade. But listening to Sunday morning teaching is not enough. Every believer should make an effort to engage in a systematic Bible reading program. If you have never read through the Bible from cover to cover, start now. “Like newborn babes, long for the pure milk of the Word, that by it you may grow in respect to salvation” (1 Peter 2:1).

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