By Jeff Brumley
Religious literacy has declined to the point where modern audiences would be baffled at films like Monty Python’s 1979 The Life of Brian, A British Broadcasting Corp. official said recently.
Comedians are also affected, Aaquil Ahmed told The Independent newspaper in England, because audiences don’t have the basic biblical knowledge required to get certain jokes. “They can’t go into specific stories anymore because no one knows what the stories are.”
Some Christian leaders on this side of the Atlantic agree with Ahmed’s observation, adding that a drop in religious literacy is a natural result from the rise of the “nones” — that growing population of church-averse Americans.
And it’s more than an academic issue for the nation’s churches as those trends are changing how newcomers learn the Bible and the way preachers preach.
‘Insiders vs. outsiders’
“One of the results of biblical illiteracy is that sermons are, for the first time in centuries, getting longer,” said Brett Younger, associate professor of preaching at the McAfee School of Theology in Atlanta.
“Precisely because people have not grown up with the stories, many preachers see their job as explaining the text rather than helping worshippers experience the hope of the story,” he told ABPnews in an e-mail.
Brandon Hudson said his preaching has changed to accommodate visitors and newcomers who grew up without church.
“That’s a very different audience than people who have been in Sunday school for 20 years,” said Hudson, pastor at Crosscreek Baptist Church in Pelham, Ala. “They don’t know the general narrative.”
Church members must also make room for worshippers who aren’t steeped in biblical stories and the traditional teachings about them. It calls for patience for longer sermons and a willingness to avoid church-speak around those who are learning, he said.
“One of the real challenges for those of us who grew up in the church — and now work in the church — is to now realize what kind of translation is necessary in this insider vs. outsider language,” Hudson said.
Baptists in particular are experiencing these shifts, especially outside the Bible belt where they are still relatively known, said Bruce Gourley, moderator of CBF West and executive director of the Baptist History and Heritage Society.
“Out here in the West, the general concept is that all Baptists are Southern Baptists or Westboro Baptists,” he said.
Baptist, Christian and religious literacy in general has been in rapid decline in the Western states well before the concept of the “nones” gained national headlines in 2012.
“We moved to Montana 20 years ago and I immediately realized that some of the stories of the Bible that I took for granted … were not known by many people,” Gourley said. “Even the Christmas story was not known by many children.”
The South is headed in the same direction “if the trend of the ‘nones’ continues,” he said.
‘Not carrying that stigma’
The rise in religious illiteracy doesn’t bother Susan Sparks — either as a pastor or a standup comedian.
It’s true that Sparks has had to get more basic with her preaching at Madison Avenue Baptist Church in New York City.
“I have to lay more of a foundation before I can spin off of it,” she said.
Bible studies tailored to previously un-churched adults also have been introduced, she added.
In her standup routines, when she makes religious references, she keeps them broad, like: “The Bible says to love your neighbor, but what if your neighbor is a telemarketer?”
But Sparks disagrees with the BBC’s Ahmed that younger audiences wouldn’t laugh at humor presented in The Life of Brian. They might miss the specific references, but they would get that authority, judgment and hypocrisy are being lampooned.
That’s because, while unchurched, young people have a strong sense of right and wrong and a yearning for ethical living, Sparks said.
Plus, in some ways they are more comfortable in church than many who grew up there.
“They are walking in not carrying that stigma against laughing in church,” Sparks said.