Thirty years ago my job required several trips into Turkey over the course of 3 years. I was privileged to visit the ruins of Ephesus and several other sites of Biblical interest. I remember thinking that in the 1st Century A.D., this was Asia Minor and the hotbed of Christianity with all 7 churches of Revelation located in what is modern-day Turkey. As I interacted with the secular culture and found very, very few Christians, I remember thinking it was just like someone "turned out the lights."
David Nienhuis, associate professor of New Testament Studies at Seattle Pacific University, penned an excellent article at Modern Reformation several years ago entitled "The Problem of Evangelical Biblical Illiteracy". If anything, his observations are more pertinent today as evangelical illiteracy continues its downward slide in the American evangelical church.
" I often begin my survey of the Christian Scriptures course by asking students to take a short biblical literacy quiz, including questions of the sort mentioned above. The vast majority of my students--around 95 percent of them--are Christians, and half of them typically report that they currently attend nondenominational evangelical churches. Yet the class as a whole consistently averages a score of just over 50 percent, a failing grade. In the most recent survey, only half were able to identify which biblical book begins with the line, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." Barely more than half knew where to turn in the Bible to read about the first Passover. Most revealing in my mind is the fact that my students are generally unable to sequence major stories and events from the biblical metanarrative. Only 23 percent were able to order four key events from Israel's history (Israelites enter the promised land; David is made king; Israel is divided in two; and the people of Judah go into exile), and only 32 percent were able to sequence four similarly important events from the New Testament (Jesus was baptized; Peter denies Jesus; the Spirit descends at Pentecost; and John has a vision on the island of Patmos). These students may know isolated Bible trivia (84 percent knew, for instance, that Jesus was born in Bethlehem), but their struggle to locate key stories, and their general inability to place those stories in the Bible's larger plotline, betrays a serious lack of intimacy with the text--even though a full 86 percent of them identified the Bible as their primary source for knowledge about God and faith."
He relates the conversation with one student who told him, "Reading a lot is not a part of my learning style." She went on to inform me that students today learned more by "watching videos, listening to music, and talking to one another." She spoke of the great growth she experienced in youth group (where she no doubt spent a lot of time watching videos, listening to music, and talking with people), but her ignorance of the Bible clearly betrayed the fact that the Christian formation she experienced in her faith community afforded her little to no training in the actual reading of Scripture.
Unfortunately, the same is increasingly true today of many adults in evangelical churches - while strong relationships may be formed in small groups, the "learning" is confined largely to "talking to one another".
His recommendations at the end of his detailed analysis of the problem?
"(1) schooling in the substance of the entire biblical story in all its literary diversity (not just an assortment of those verses deemed doctrinally relevant); (2) training in the particular "orienteering" skills required to plot that narrative through the actual texts and canonical units of the Bible; and (3) instruction in the complex theological task of interpreting Scripture in light of the tradition of the church and the experience of the saints."
I couldn't agree more with him. But his recommendations are not something that can happen in informal small groups, as important as those gatherings are (i.e., see here.) They require a formal, adult education program with knowledgable and gifted teachers. But unfortunately many churches today increasingly consider formal adult education to be detrimental to the church body and foolishly cast it aside as irrelevant replacing it with only home small groups. Regarding small groups and formal adult education - it's a mistake to cast it as "either/or", it should be "both/and".
While I'm a strong supporter of both small groups AND formal adult education, here's an article by Brian Jones that presents some of the inherent weakness of small groups. Not pulling any punches he hits the nail on the head with his observation that,
When I attended my very first church growth conference in 1992, a nationally known small group “expert” stood up and said, “The way we say it at our church is, ‘If you can read, you can lead.’ If a Christian can read the questions in our study guide, he can lead a small group at our church.”
That’s easy, I thought. Too easy, in fact. And ridiculous.
“If you can read, you can lead” is a great slogan for people who organize a rugby team from your church, or your knitting circle, or the Saturday morning llama-riding group. But not for someone recognized by the community of faith as a mentor of new disciples.
The Achilles’ heel of the modern-day small group movement is simple: Small groups don’t create disciples; disciples create disciples. And modern-day small groups are led, for the most part, by people who have attended the church, had a conversion experience, led a reasonably moral life, and can read the study-guide questions, but are not disciples themselves.
Dennis McCallum in his article theorizing why home groups fail, postulates that ....
"pre-planned curriculum often actually scripts the meeting and requires little creativity or expertise on the part of group leaders. Indeed, the main reason for scripting the meeting is usually the feeling that group leaders have no expertise of their own. Such lack of expertise points in turn to a weak equipping ministry in the church."
He goes on to assert,
"For many churches, the first step toward a successful home fellowship ministry would be to establish a full year-long course of in-depth theological and practical ministry training for the proposed leadership group. We find that most churches try to get by with a five or ten week training series which is inadequate for sophisticated leadership responsibilities."
Unless American evangelicalism comes to grips with its puzzling aversion to studying theology, I fear our Biblical Illiteracy rate will continue its inevitable downward spiral until one day someone else asks ...
"Who turned out the lights?"
Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth. 2 Tim 2:15 [ESV]