Last year, sacred music composer Christopher Teichler noted a disturbing paradox.
The widely observed decline in biblical literacy among American Christians has paralleled a growing interest in developing new and enriched ways of worshipping.
“If biblical literacy is so low at this point in Western history, then the God of the Bible is not the god being worshipped but rather a shallow and incomplete version of him.”
Many church leaders who share Teichler’s concern believe they’ve found an antidote — injecting worship with a bracing dose of Scripture, through systematic readings, carefully selected musical texts and thoughtfully crafted sermons.
“I gained a new perspective on the problem when I was teaching religion to college freshmen,” said Jim Somerville, pastor of First Baptist Church in Richmond. “Even at a Baptist college, there was a high rate of biblical illiteracy.”
The trend isn’t new. In his 2007 book, Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know — And Doesn’t, Stephen Prothero traces the decline in biblical knowledge not to the cultural upheavals of the late 1960s or the Supreme Court’s prayer rulings of the early 1960s but to the postwar Christian revivals of the 1940s and 1950s.
For the spiritually fervent, the unprecedented leap in church — and synagogue — membership represented a distinctive kind of American identity, especially in the face of godless Communism. Seeking common ground to face the threat, church members jettisoned content, and the result was a sort of nebulous common faith that President Dwight Eisenhower called “the Judeo-Christian concept.” Eisenhower encapsulated the spirit exactly when he famously said, after meeting with a Soviet official in 1952, “Our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is.”
The result was a loss of biblical memory and that legacy of illiteracy continues, in part, Somerville believes, because churches present Scripture “in bits and fragments throughout the year.”
“One Sunday you might hear Hebrews 13 in Sunday school, then the next week it’s Jeremiah, chapter 1,” he said. “You’re not building any kind of synthesis, or any constructive way to understand how the pieces fit together.” Without the connections, biblical literacy is hard to maintain, he said.
Somerville tries to correct the trend by following the lectionary, both in public readings in worship and as a basis for his sermons. “When you flip through the readings, you can get a sense of how the lectionary committee was trying to get the full story of Scripture into the congregation,” he said. “It’s like a nutritionist trying to put together a balanced biblical diet for the church.”
Somerville crafts sermons in the context of the larger biblical pattern, to help his listeners make connections among texts. “Unless I do a good job of establishing context, then that passage of Scripture will be untethered and floating around above the congregations’ heads. And that’s not helpful in figuring out how the whole thing holds together.”
Preston Trail Community Church, a Baptist General Convention of Texas-affiliated congregation in Frisco, Texas, pastor Jim Johnson finds his youthful congregation successfully absorbs Scripture through both an exposure to large portions of it in a relatively short time and smaller segments over a longer period.
“We’re trying to be culturally relevant in all that we do,” said Johnson, whose church worships in a contemporary style. “As we started reaching people, we realized we were attracting not just Baptists but people across the board denominationally. Now we have a ton of people who don’t know the [biblical] story. We had to ask how do we help people get the stories?”
Last summer, he and co-pastor Paul Basden used each Sunday’s worship to relate stories from the Old and New Testaments.
“We went through all the narratives of the Bible,” Johnson said. “People found it fascinating and discovered models of discipleship.”
This winter and spring — January through May — the two pastors are spending five months on the Sermon on the Mount, “couching it in a contemporary package that will meet people at their point of need.”
Keith Herron, pastor of Holmeswood Baptist Church in Kansas City, thinks congregations’ retention of Scripture would increase if pastors would “step up to the plate more in the way we handle it.”
“There have been some taboos we’ve stayed away from — complicated things we’re afraid to address,” he said. “Our congregation won’t go anywhere we’re not already headed.”
The Old Testament especially is where pastors “shy away from an adult reading of the Scripture story,” Herron said. “The Noah narrative is one that we continue to tell and teach as if we were speaking to preschoolers.… We just don’t handle it in a way that’s challenging and speaks to adult needs.”
In its worship services, Holmeswood practices lectio divina, an ancient Christian practice intended to engender communion with God and increase knowledge of God’s word by studying, pondering, listening to and praying the Scripture.
“For many of us, it’s a new way of praying and a new way of absorbing the Bible,” said Herron. “We invite quietness into our worship service to meditate on Scripture instead of thinking that some activity has to happen all the time.”
Biblical literacy also will increase when Scripture is sung, agreed the ministers, but vetting the texts is essential.
“We use a lot of contemporary music at Preston Trail, and the songs are very biblically based,” said Johnson. “They’re Psalms or portions of Psalms. It’s coming straight out of Scripture.”
Tom Ingram, coordinator of church music and worship for the Virginia Baptist Mission Board, said singing “gives people an opportunity to remember something much longer — to internalize it.”
But he added, “I would certainly be very aware of the texts that are sung. Sometimes the texts of musical pieces used in hymns or choruses, or choral anthems or duets or solos just have very poor theology. And sometimes they aren’t biblical at all. They just express a nice sentiment.”
Ingram, who serves on a committee developing a new hymnal to be released next year by Mercer University Press, said, “Music has always been a teaching tool. But Baptists have not always done a good job of explaining why we sing what we sing. Many worshippers never understand what’s happening [in worship] or why it’s happening.”
Herron said his church’s biblical literacy has increased with its use of world music, a growing trend in hymnody. “There’s a richness in seeing the world as God’s work and joining in unity with Christians of other countries and languages and cultures. That’s a biblical worldview.”
A church’s aim in offering the full range of Scripture is to “lay out the meal” and “lead people to the buffet,” said Herron. “That offers an opportunity for people to become more in tune with the rhythm of Scripture and make the connections. The themes of our faith are carried in the stories.”
Robert Dilday is associate editor of the Virginia Religious Herald.