Published on 05 June 2014

Why You Don’t Learn Much Bible in Church

by Michael S. Heiser

Short answer: It’s by design. For the longer answer, keep reading.

I came across a troubling, but completely predictable, article today by Mark Galli, an editor at Christianity Today, entitled “Yawning at the Word.” It’s about something of which I and my readers are acutely aware: the low tolerance for biblical content in church. If you go to the link you can read the essay in its entirety only if you subscribe to CT. I therefore can’t reproduce the article here, but I’m going to quote from it for the purposes of interaction.

Galli opens this way:

When I preach, I often quote the Bible to drive home my point. I think it more persuasive to show that what I’m saying is not merely my opinion but a consistent theme of Scripture. And to avoid the impression that I’m proof-texting or lifting verses out of context, I quote longer passages—anywhere from 2 to 6 verses.

When I did this at one church, a staff member whom I’d asked for feedback between services told me to cut down on the Scripture quotations. “You’ll lose people,” he said.

What struck me here was the “longer passages” line — defined as 2 to 6 verses. For those the author had in mind I can only say don’t visit this blog. If you lose focus after 2-6 verses I’ll (gladly) put you in a coma.

The author is correct, though. Most of you who come to this blog and others for biblical content do so because you’re starving in your church. The reason typically isn’t that your pastor doesn’t know anything or is too lazy to study. The reason you’re starving for content is because, as Galli points out, that’s by design. Pastors are encouraged (some are brow-beaten, or have their salaries threatened) to dumb-down sermons to be “relevant” and focus on “felt needs.”

On one level, this is understandable. The culture of the information age isn’t swelling with only information. The information superhighway known as the internet is also the entertainment superhighway for people who recoil at the idea of absorbing information. People who are already geared to want to learn (like those of you reading this) bless the web for all its content, though you have to separate the wheat from the chaff, which may or may not be easy. But those predisposed to distraction and who desperately want to be entertained at the expense of learning anything bless the web as well. And there’s more of them than you (us).

The math being what it is, there will be more content intolerant people in your church than not. Most of those really are at church for good reasons: they need the gospel, they’ve come to faith, they want fellowship with other believers, they want to feel needed and forgiven, they need the sort of help that a stable environment of friends and family can give them. And church should meet those needs. The problem is those people bring the reflex of content intolerance with them. Many churches today, instead of seeing this as a both-and problem/solution look at it as an either-or, and then summarily dilute (or just dump) the biblical content in favor of the “felt needs” of attendees.

I’ve run across content intolerance in the classroom as well. Though teaching isn’t my FT thing now, I’ve had thousands of students. A lot (far too many — even in Bible college) would come to class with a look that I came to label as “I dare you not to bore me with the Bible.” (Hence the title for my recent book). My attitude was challenge accepted. It didn’t take long to show people (in public) how much they didn’t know or the problems that existed within the Bible for one of their (or their tradition’s) pet doctrines. Sometimes that got them interested. Sometimes that got me in trouble. (I’ll bet you’re not surprised.)

Galli gives another example of intolerance for Bible content:

Recently in an adult Sunday school class, I heard a detailed and persuasive lecture on a biblical theology of creation. Rather than reading Genesis 1 and just waxing eloquent from that point on, the teacher patiently read passage after passage to demonstrate how central creation is in the Bible even after Genesis, especially in the covenant God made with his people. After class, the moderator for the class suggested that, for the following week, the teacher make room for questions; he suggested the teacher cut down on the reading of so many Bible verses as this would save time and, it was strongly implied, would better hold people’s interest.

Yep — let’s hold people’s interest with something other than Scripture. Like a story. Or maybe some stand-up comedy. How about a juggling act? Is Cirque du Soleil available to present their “ministry” next week? Unless we fill some space with something that will make us laugh or cry we might be forced to think for those few minutes. After all, we have people for 20-30 minutes in a week of 168 hours – we have to cater to them.

I’m sensitive to the retort (despite my sarcasm) — “We have to meet people where they are.” I get that. But here’s one back at you: If we always or mostly “meet people where they are,” then on what basis would we ever expect them to advance in their knowledge of Scripture and their faith? In other words, if all we do is meet them where they are, we’ll never be able to meet them anywhere else.

Galli goes on:

It is well and good for the preacher to base his sermon on the Bible, but he better get to something relevant pretty quickly, or we start mentally to check out. Don’t spend a lot of time in the Bible, we tell our preachers, but be sure to get to personal illustrations, examples from daily life, and most importantly, an application that we can use.

I’ll bet you’ve heard that one before. I’ve heard it ad infinitum. I have some questions. Just what is relevant about being entertained? Put another way, what is godly — or spiritually meaningful — about being hip? Why do so many “personal illustrations” come from a book – or websites that aggregate them? Why is the pastor’s daily life more relevant than the life of a biblical character? Is the account of that biblical life made so tedious or obtuse by the text that we have to mime it in the pulpit? I appreciate applications that are useful — but shouldn’t an application be attached to some specific point (gasp!) in the text so that people can distinguish it from our opinion?

But, Mike, spinning the text into a trendy, hip discussion about “life” is applying the text. Really? Let me tell you what’s actually happening. Since most pastors know that they are dealing with a diverse audience (age, gender, race, ethnicity, etc.) they have to “apply” whatever it is they’re applying in more than one way. The result is often sermons that consist of quoting something in a verse, paraphrasing it, then talking about that paraphrase for the next five minutes, “illustrating” it over and over again. String five of those segments together and you’re pushing half an hour — whoa, time to wrap up! What did we learn today? We learned a range of ways to say the same thing about a few words or lines in the Bible. You emptied the milk bottle again, pastor. Now burp us so we can go home.

You might be chuckling, but the thought doesn’t make me laugh any more. That is the American evangelical pulpit experience on any given Sunday for most Christians today.

If you’re in a reformed congregation, pardon me for not thinking you do much better. I’ve spent years in those circles as well. If all you’re doing is what I’ve described above and then sprinkling some selection from the Westminster Confession or the Heidelberg Catechism into the liturgy before you get to the sermon, big deal. If your people can’t think through that material with their Bible you’ve done nothing more than perpetuate a tradition and shorten the sermon by two minutes. Even if they understand the confessional material, what happens when they read things in the Bible that conflict with wordings in the confession? (If you don’t think that’s a reality, then you haven’t read either very closely — I’ve actually taught a whole adult Sunday School series on that with weekly, specific examples at a Reformed church). What happens when the confessional material doesn’t cover something? More application multiplication? Believe it or not, it’s not uncommon to have folks in reformed congregations filter the Bible through the confessions. If that’s your church, it’s failed to make believers biblically literate. The goal of pulpit ministry is not to perpetuate a Christian sub-culture — it’s to teach the text and its meaning.

But hey, let’s get more practical. Here’s an idea . . . Why not teach your spiritually mature people that it’s their ministry to take the biblical content and help other believers around them to apply it? Wouldn’t it be nice if the pastor actually dispensed content and then application is what small groups were for? Or even better, wouldn’t it be nice if discipleship (read: application) just sort of happened throughout your church outside the 20-30 minutes on Sunday morning? Is that really too much to ask? Is that really so profound an idea? That people who aren’t pastors should be taught they are each responsible for helping everyone apply what they learn? Pie in the sky, Mike. We need to trim more Scripture out of the sermon to make sure application happens. Besides, there aren’t many biblically literate, mature people in my church that would know how to apply Scripture to their lives unless I tell them how to do that — with a clever joke or a story that makes them cry. Actually, that isn’t hard to believe, so maybe you’ve got me.

As a side note, what’s worse about content intolerance is that we’ve now adopted it in place of what used to be called church planting and evangelism. This 4:00 video is an example. As you watch it, ask yourself: Where is the gospel message? I sincerely hope there’s more going on with this effort (six years) than this video presents, but in case not, I have a response: church planting and evangelism is not community organizing. The lost may have our shalom (and they should, unreservedly), but that isn’t the same as God’s shalom. One of those trumps the other (pop quiz).

Truth be told (!) this situation really bothers me. Yes, it’s true. It shouldn’t be the case that I can have more intelligent theological discussions with unbelievers at a UFO conference than I do in church, but that’s happened to me (more than once). It shouldn’t be the case I’ve had hundreds of people tell me that they were so desperate to learn the Bible they had to leave their church. It shouldn’t be that people abandon the faith over “problems” and “contradictions” in the Bible that can literally be resolved in minutes, with copious bibliography to boot. But it happens — far too often. These sorts of things tend to stay with you if you care about Scripture — and that people think well about Scripture.

Years ago I divorced myself from popular Christianity, church “movements” and organizations, denominations, radio preachers, etc., so I don’t know if someone out there is making a real dent in this (on a large scale) or not. But I don’t care. I don’t care because I don’t believe the solution is in hierarchy and organizations. It’s in individuals, pastors or otherwise, who make a commitment to learn all they can and then find others just like them and direct them to content as well (grass roots . . . sounds suspiciously biblical to my ear). I don’t view countering content intolerance as a contest. The people who care about content will always be the minority. So be it. This is why I try to produce content for the non-specialist. But that needs clarification.

By “non-specialist” I mean you (really, anyone who wants content, no matter what level they may be at for processing what I write). I have little interest in spending my time trying to convince the majority that they ought to be interested in the Bible. I’m targeting people who already are. True, some of what I do (like writing for Bible Study Magazine, where what’s in my “Dare You” book appeared first) filters down to the majority and (hopefully) awakens them to how interesting (and practical) Scripture is, but if that’s all I was doing, I’d want to quit. It’s challenging, but not stimulating. I want to give people some meat, not convince them they need to eat.

I’ve been blessed this year to basically devote my FT work time to producing that sort of content. The “Myth book” revision is nearing the 3/4 point, as is the very basic trade book version of that content (aimed at people who need awakening). There’s more beyond the revision planned, whether I get to do that FT like I have this year or an hour here and there on my own time. In an ideal world I’d be able to devote myself FT to that sort of thing, more blogging, and then piggy-backing that stuff onto fiction. But I’ll take whatever time God gives me for it. That’s how I view the mission of anyone who wants to give people biblical content and anyone who wants to take it in. Just keep doing it; there will be a cumulative effect. There was a time when I was a teenager that I didn’t know a single Bible character other than Jesus, Adam, and Eve (not kidding). I know the impact a slow, steady, relentless accumulation of content can have. You just have to find sources. Chances are they aren’t in church. If yours is an exception, you’re exceptionally blessed.

For more from Dr. Heiser, be sure to visit his excellent blog site regularly: drmsh.com

Also, go to the original article (link below) and read some of the responses - some of them are awesome and speak volumes about where many churches are "at" verses where they should be!

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