By Jeff Brumley
The number of people skeptical of the Bible is rising while those who view it as sacred is dropping, according to a recent American Bible Society survey. But those findings aren’t rattling some Baptist ministers.
What concerns them, instead, is the growing number of Christians who swear by Scripture but don’t do such a good job of knowing — or following — what’s actually in it.
“Biblical illiteracy has been on the rise for some time with the nature of our country being post-Christian and less people going to church,” said Joe Bumbulis, minister to students and missions at First Baptist Church in Austin, Texas. “Even Christians don’t know the book and the [biblical] stories.”
Scholars, too, say ignorance about the Bible is saturating congregations across the denominational spectrum.
That means passing references to “the prodigal son,” the “woman at the well” or “the Psalms of David” are just as likely to generate blank stares as affirming nods, said Bill Leonard, a professor of Baptist studies and church history at Wake Forest University School of Divinity.
“It’s no longer possible to suppose the people sitting in the pews understand biblical references or givens to any significant degree,” Leonard said. “Basic biblical knowledge cannot be taken for granted in anybody’s church anymore.”
No surprise to some
Even so, the attitudes documented in the recent ABS poll confirm trends youth and church pastors have seen for years, both in their sanctuaries and classrooms and in the wider society.
The survey reported that the percentage of Americans who read the Bible daily and consider it sacred are now matched by the number who see it as nothing more than a book of stories. Both are at 19 percent.
The overall percentage of people who believe the Bible is sacred dropped from 86 percent in 2011 to 79 percent today, the survey also found.
Baptist ministers interviewed by ABPnews/Herald said the numbers are not surprising and coincide with the ongoing popularity of science-versus-religion debates and with other surveys documenting the rise of religiously unaffiliated Americans and Millennials’ dissatisfaction with dogma and denominationalism.
But it’s not all bad news, either. Some ministers say the ABS and other polls are as much an opportunity for churches as a threat and may well help the larger church navigate the challenges posed by a postmodern and post-Christian culture interested in spirituality, if not formal religion.
Planting seeds of biblical skepticism
Christians have themselves to thank for the whole situation, Leonard added.
“It all started in the churches.”
“It” was the debates between fundamentalists and liberal Christians that emerged in the 19th and 20th centuries and eventually drove wedges between believers and churches.
Those disagreements influenced the way different groups studied and used Scripture in worship and personal devotions.
Meanwhile, outsiders were watching and listening as Christians battled it out over issues like inerrancy and metaphor.
“The divisions between liberals and progressives, and between conservatives and fundamentalists, created huge debates over the nature and authority of the text itself,” Leonard said.
If nothing else, contradictory methods of study of Scripture laid the seeds for eventual confusion and skepticism about the Bible among believers and unbelievers, he added.
“That has often kept people from the text or from digging into the text.”
Sending the wrong message
Another place where the church may have contributed to declining literacy and rising skepticism around the Bible is by taking away incentives to read Scripture, said John Crowder, the pastor at First Baptist Church in West, Texas.
“You come to church where we put Scripture up on screens and you no longer need a Bible,” Crowder said. “I’ll just tell you what it says.”
While many congregations are still urged to bring Bibles or consult them at home after worship, fewer are actually doing that, Crowder said. It may mean hitting that theme a little harder.
Otherwise, “we are sending, unintentionally, a message that the Bible is not that important.”
Skepticism is healthy
Others are less concerned about how much a person, Christian or otherwise, reads the Bible than how open they are to learning about it.
That’s why Stephanie McLeskey, the chaplain at Mars Hill University in North Carolina, said she welcomes conversations with college students who have doubts about the Bible.
“I would rather engage with a skeptic in conversation about the Bible than someone who thinks they understand it inside and out and is unwilling to discuss it,” McLeskey said.
Skepticism is a stage that’s healthy for young people to experience because it means they are asking soul-searching questions. In her ministry, McLeskey said she tries to show students how their life experiences are mirrored in biblical stories.
“The Bible is amazing and awesome and there are stories in there that are really hard to believe,” she said. “It’s coming to the point where our own experiences inform our ability to have faith in biblical stories.”
Bible vs. science?
Questioning and skepticism are even cropping up in youth groups, thanks in part to the large science-versus-religion debates raging across social media platforms, Bumbulis said.
“There is a strong presence of atheists and skeptics, so it’s really easy [for youth] to discover this anti-Christian, anti-faith perspective,” he said.
Churches and youth ministers can respond to the natural questions such debates generate with conversations that show that reason and faith aren’t either-or propositions.
“I want our students to know that the issues are more complex than are being presented,” Bumbulis said. “I want them to know that you don’t have to either believe in the Bible or believe in science.”