If you’ve listened to NPR or read blogs like this one over the past six months, you’ve probably heard something about the Pew Forum’s latest study on religious practice in America. The survey confirmed statistically what has been conventional wisdom for quite a while. Mainline Protestants are losing members, more Americans are describing themselves as religiously unaffiliated, and younger Americans are increasingly likely to identify as nothing in particular. Mainliners have lost around five percent of their members in the past five years. My own denomination, the ELCA, has lost around fifteen percent of its members over a similar amount of time. While there is no shortage of theories for why this shift has come about or what the church should do about it, there is one issue that comes up repeatedly: Biblical literacy.
Before diving into this, I should point out that I think Biblical literacy is a good thing. If you don’t have some basic familiarity with your faith’s scriptures, then your engagement with others will always be limited. Scriptures provide us with a common narrative through which we can define our own experiences. If you’re interested in inter-religious work, then having control over your faith’s teachings is invaluable. Even if you just speak English, you’re probably using phrases from the King James Bible. So the problem isn’t Biblical literacy itself. The problem is the way we’re talking about Biblical literacy.
There’s been a belief common among many that the solution to declining church attendance is to teach people more about the Bible. Collin Hansen, writing for Christianity Today, echoes this idea in his claim that “biblical literacy is a precursor to biblical transformation.” Teach people more about the Bible, the argument goes, and they’ll be back in church soon after. It’s an appealing argument, but it doesn’t hold up in practice. Trying to increase church attendance by increasing Biblical literacy is like pushing on a string. That lower church attendance has led to lower Biblical literacy, does not mean that raising Biblical literacy can increase church attendance.
Focusing on Biblical literacy is also problematic because it keeps the church from identifying the real problem. The steep decline in attendance numbers has perpetuated a “crisis” mentality, leading many to look to solutions before identifying the problem. Because Biblical literacy is easy to quantify (see the attention-grabbing statistics in any article on the topic) and can be taught, it is tempting to think that it must be the solution.
Yet pushing Biblical literacy as the way to revive the church may actually make the problem worse. My hunch is that declining membership has less to do with people being uninterested in the Bible and more to do with a perception that the church is too insular and exclusive. If that is the case then the last thing the church needs to do is bemoan the state of Biblical literacy. It is a sad reality that the church often appears to be more distraught over the percent of Americans who can name the four gospels than the number of Americans who live in food-insecure households or the percent of American children who live below the poverty line (17.9 million and 21.9%). Though conversations about poverty and injustices often occur inside churches, they rarely affect the public perception of the church. By lamenting the state of Biblical literacy, the church runs the risk of coming off as even more insular and isolated from the world around it.
Perhaps what the church needs to focus on developing is not Biblical literacy, but Biblical activism. It is one thing to know what the Bible says, but it is another thing entirely to understand what it charges us to do. We would be wise to spend less time telling people what is in the Bible and invest more time showing them what it means.