The problem of biblical illiteracy among Americans has been well documented. In 1991 the George H. Gallup International Institute of research noted that only 12 percent of teen-agers read the Bible daily, a number that drops to 9 percent in the college years.53 In the same year George Barna determined that among those who consider themselves to be Christian, 58 percent said they read the Bible at least one time during the week. Of these adults, however, only 12 percent read it daily.54
The trend of biblical illiteracy has only increased since these studies of the early 1990’s. In one of the more recent studies of the general population in the United States, The Barna Group found that “One fourth of adults (26%) say they never read the Bible, 12% read it less than once a year, and 10% read it only once or twice a year, not including times when they are at a church service or church event. These segments combined represent non-Bible readers. Thirteen percent say they read the Bible daily. Another 13% spend time in scripture several times per week, 8% read it once a week, 7% read the Bible once a month, and 9% read it three to four times a year. Therefore, the total proportion of Bible readers (read the Bible at least three to four times a year) is 50% of adults.”55
Consequently many American Christians lack an understanding of the basic fundamentals and teachings of the church. Barna cites the following empirical research findings as a confirmation of this conclusion:56
- 40 percent believe Jesus made mistakes;
- two out of three respondents do not hold to the notion of absolute truth;
- three of five adults do not believe in Satan;
- Bible knowledge is frightfully weak. Many cannot name half of the Ten Commandments or who preached the Sermon on the Mount.
While the Bible remains the world’s best-selling book, Americans, at least, remain unfamiliar with even the most basic of biblical facts. “One might imagine” muses Stephen Prothero in his study of religious literacy, “that ignorance of Christianity and the Bible is restricted to non-Christians or at least to non-evangelicals. But born-again Christians do only moderately better than other Americans on surveys of religious literacy.”57 And if biblical knowledge is weak, we can be certain that theology is even less understood or applied.58 In a sharp rebuke on the evangelical wing of the American church, David Wells argues that theology has been displaced from the center of evangelical life where it defined life, and relegated to the periphery.59 Consequently, adds James Newby of the Alban Institute, church members have great difficulty connecting what they hear Sunday morning to what happens to them on Monday. The question he raises then, is not whether or not we should teach more Bible and theology, but “How do we make the Bible and theological information meaningful and life changing on the farm, in the office, or in the classroom?”60
While it is important that church leaders encourage their congregations to do independent reading and study of the Bible, another way to learn and apply the Scriptures to daily living or to address pertinent issues from a biblical perspective is to study them with a small group of interested individuals. In small groups we can encourage and help each other discover and obey God’s Word in ways that are simply impossible in large groups or when the whole church meets together.
Harley T. Atkinson, The Power of Small Groups in Christian Formation (Eugene, Oregon: Resource Publications, 2018).