Can We Talk About Biblical Illiteracy in the Church?

“Mystics without study are only spiritual romantics who want relationship without effort.” —Calvin Miller

I live in a quaint American town—a Norman Rockwellian picture of small-town USA. There’s a church on almost every corner and a palpable sense of nostalgia down every street.

It’s a farm town full of old Dutch families who still resort to their mother tongue when certain feelings need expression. Inevitably, someone is going to tell you that they’re “benouwd” when they’re feeling anxious, depressed, crammed into an stuffy room.

A proudly devout and principled people, they’re generally disciplined in practice, conservative in perspective and uncompromising in posture.

They’re wonderful despite their love of terrible treats like double-salted licorice. Seriously … that stuff is beyond nasty.

The downward trajectory of biblical literacy

One thing I find interesting is how values have been passed down and received in this close-knit community. It’s an interesting look at what happens to Christianity when it becomes part of a community’s identity.

If you stop nearly anyone on the sidewalk, they’ll tell you that Christianity is one of their most important and primary identifiers. You’ll find the streets are packed on Sunday morning as nearly everyone, en masse, floods the town’s churches.

But I’ve noticed a serious generational downturn in biblical literacy.

There are quite a few people in their 70s whom I’ve had the most interesting scriptural discussions with and, peppered throughout normal, run-of-the-mill conversations, they’ll drop nuggets that reveal how they draw on a deep, treasured reservoir of Scripture in their everyday lives. But I meet more and more 20- and 30-somethings who, although they were raised in the church and have a generally high view of Christianity, are unfamiliar with the much of the Scriptures.

On a sociological level, it’s fascinating to see this generational devolution of scriptural literacy happen. It’s curious because there hasn’t really been a loss of Christianity as a cultural identity. Younger generations still value church attendance, as well as Christian literature, music and radio. While there are many of the trappings of Christianity, there is a loss of depth and breadth of biblical understanding.

But don’t get me wrong; I don’t think this is a problem specific to my town—and it’s definitely not universal. But it’s representative of a growing problem with Christians everywhere. It’s just particularly telling to find it in towns with such a strong “Christian” identity.

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Jayson Bradley
Jayson is a God-botherer, writer, marketer, musician, and pastor in Washington State. An unapologetic grace and coffee junkie, Jayson desperately longs to see himself (and the church) conformed to the image of Christ.