In evaluating my ministry with high school and middle school students I am continually depressed by their understanding of the Bible. Many of these young adults have been going to church for years. Most of them are self-professed Christians. However, if I ask them to quote 5 verses from the Bible, I suspect few of them could. Most of them could not give even a basic description of entire books of the Old Testament such as Isaiah, Ezekiel, or Judges (just to name a few). I have come to the realization that the deficiency is more in the teaching of the church than the ability of the students. Here are some reasons I think our young adults are largely Biblically illiterate.
1. Emphasizing character traits more than Christ. In the desire to teach young adults morality we often miss Christ. We treat the Bible like a playbook (sorry Joe Gibbs and Tony Dungy) and look for principles of successful living. As a result we have considerate students who do not know Jesus. We get to a passage such as Luke 4 (the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness) and teach students how they can use magical Bible bullets to defeat Satan while neglecting to mention how Jesus (the second Adam) passes the test where Adam failed. We forget to show how Jesus’ time in the wilderness is a reversal of the Israelites’ failures in the wilderness (that is probably why all of Jesus’ quotations to the devil are from Deuteronomy 6 and 8). The result of character overemphasis is the creation of virtuous pagans.
2. Relying on literature about the Bible more than the Bible. My new goal in equipping gospel ministers is to free them from shiny Sunday School quarterlies. If I am unable to explain “the gospel according to the Scriptures” then I cannot teach it. I want to understand and articulate the gospel according to the Scriptures and use Bible helps only as a secondary study tool. If we imply that the Bible is not sufficient and perspicuous (+3 points for a seminary word) then those we teach will feel ill-equipped to study it on their own.
3. Not modeling good Bible-study. When teaching I must not only communicate the truth of a meaningful passage of Scripture I must demonstrate good tools of Bible Study that can be reproduced in the lives of those I am teaching. While I might not walk them through my hermeneutical method explicitly they should absorb a method of faithful exegesis.
4. Unnecessarily low expectations. Each Christian is a fully capable minister of Christ. Further, many of the adults in my church are more intelligent and educated than I. The young adults in my student ministry spend their days studying Trigonometry, Latin, and Physics. The people I teach are more than capable to grasp the things of God. It is arrogant and incorrect to treat them as if they cannot understand the “deep” truths of Scripture.
I am still trying to work out the implications of these suggestions but my basic goals are to trust that the Bible is sufficient, clearly articulate the gospel, and focus on discipleship rather than entertainment in my model of ministry. Jesus is compelling and relevant. I must give students every opportunity to know, follow, and obey Jesus.
When I left for seminary I was warned that in the frenzy of schoolwork the first thing I would neglect was my “quiet time.” This seemed odd to me since I was going to seminary to gain more tools to understand the Scriptures. This dichotomy between “devotions” and “exegesis” has been continually reinforced by other pastors. “Study something in your quiet time that you are not going to preach,” they tell me. Really? I am supposed to meditate on the word of God and not share that in my public teaching?
I think this dichotomy is seriously problematic. On the one hand it can promote a shallow, pithy devotional reading of Scripture, out of context, for nuggets of “God promises.” On the other hand it can promote a cold, intellectual scholarship that neglects a life of submission to the Word of God. It seems essential to me to approach the text of Scripture with every tool to understand the original intention of the author with the aim of hearing and obeying the Word of God. For me, it means that I must use what little proficiency I have worked so hard to attain in the original languages to better understand the text of Scripture. The result is, however, not just more information but an encounter with the very words of God that convict, encourage, challenge, and commission me to be an agent of the gospel in every area of my life.
“Fight with every fiber of your being the common disjunction between “objective study” of Scripture and “devotional reading” of Scripture, between “critical reading” of the Bible and “devotional reading” of the Bible… Scripture remains Scripture, it is still the Word of God before which (as Isaiah reminds us) we are to tremble, the very words we are to revere, treasure, digest, meditate on, and hide in our hearts (minds?), whether we are reading the Bible at 5:30 AM at the start of a day, or preparing an assignment for an exegesis class at 10:00 PM. If we try to keep apart these alleged two ways of reading, then we will be irritated and troubled when our “devotions” are interrupted by a sudden stray reflection about a textual variant or the precise force of a Greek genitive; alternatively, we may be taken off guard when we are supposed to be preparing a paper or a sermon and suddenly find ourselves distracted by a glimpse of God’s greatness that is supposed to be reserved for our “devotions.” So when you read “devotionally,” keep your mind engaged; when you read “critically” (i.e., with more diligent and focused study, deploying a panoply of “tools”), never, ever, forget whose Word this is. The aim is never to become a master of the Word, but to be mastered by it.”
— D. A. Carson, “The Scholar as Pastor”
With the idea that professional Christians function as Christian priests comes an emphasis on the “office” of pastor. You see this in Protestant churches with the frequent requirement that the pastor must baptize new believers and administer the Eucharist/Lord’s Supper/Communion. There is a glorification of the office over the person.
When I read the New Testament, I see leadership titles (deacon, elder, pastor, etc.) as descriptive rather than prescriptive. Merely because someone is ordained, has graduated from seminary, or has received their magical “call to ministry” does not indicate they have the gifts to lead and shepherd a church body. In fact, I know a man who is not even a member of a church who considers himself a pastor because he is ordained and came forward as a young man to surrender to “the ministry.”
“To say that a Wandering Levite who has no Flock is a Pastor, is as good sense as to say, that the man who has no Children is a Father, and that the man who has no Wife is a Husband.”
– Increase Mather, The Order of the Gospel
A pastor is someone who pastors! A title, ordination, or seminary degree does not make someone a pastor (I can call myself an athlete but the sad fact is that in two years of junior high basketball I scored more points for the opposite team than for my own). Education can give one tools to be a better pastor. An ordination can publicly recognize one’s gifts to teach and lead. The title “pastor” does not magically give someone gifts or leadership qualities that they did not already have.