Special Report: The Bible and the Church

“If indeed the Scriptures are ‘God-breathed,’ when you take away the breath, you’re left with what humans can produce.”

That competition for time and “ever-shortening attention spans” hamstring both churchgoer and preacher, says Deron Spoo.

“I see two factors that contribute to the lack of Bible-reading: complacency and competition. I am not pointing any fingers, because I see these factors at work in my own life,” says Spoo, who serves as pastor of First Baptist Church of Tulsa, Oklahoma. “As a result, pastors often resort to using the Scripture on a sound-bite basis. I sense this pressure all the time.”

Spoo thinks people want to go deeper in their understanding of the Bible, a belief supported by a January 2017 study conducted by the Barna Group in partnership with the American Bible Society. In the study a majority of respondents—about 6 in 10 adults (61 percent)—expressed a desire to read the Bible more than they currently do. Asked if their personal use of the Bible has increased, decreased or stayed about the same as one year ago, 23 percent said their Bible use has increased. Nearly 66 percent reported it stayed about the same during that time.

Spoo believes people feel lost as to how and where to start digging in to the Bible, which is the motivation behind his new book and church campaign, The Good Book: 40 Chapters That Reveal the Bible’s Biggest Ideas (David C Cook, 2017).

“People are easily overwhelmed by the nearly 1,200 chapters of the Bible,” he says. “But most people can wrap their mind around 40 chapters.”

Not a Reference Book

The folks at the recently formed Institute for Bible Reading (IFBR) don’t discount that the Holy Spirit can minister to seekers using 40 chapters or just one Scripture verse. But they believe that the Bible’s grand message and power has been grossly diluted beginning not 50 years ago, but 500.

“The culprit for the current Bible crisis is much less about postmodernity and more about what happened to the Bible in the early modern era,” says Caminiti, one of IFBR’s four directors. He points to the 16th century, when the Bible began to be translated in vernacular languages and be made available through Guttenberg’s printing press. Perhaps most noteworthy was the process of radically altering the Bible’s form by chopping it into chapters and verses, with each verse presented as a separate paragraph.

“This essentially turned the grand, sweeping narrative into 30,000 ‘Scripturettes,’” says Caminiti. “The result: Our modern Bible—the only Bible the public has ever known—is structured as a reference work versus the richly textured story God intended us to have. People now often just look something up, find a little thought for the day and ignore all the rest.”

Glenn Paauw, a fellow IFBR director and author of Saving the Bible From Ourselves: Learning to Read and Live the Bible Well (IVP, 2016), wants the church to re-evaluate its approach to the Bible.

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“We have to ask, did God know what he was doing when he gave us the original text? We need to read it on its own terms,” he says. “It requires ‘narrative discipleship’—applying your life to the narrative of the Bible, rather than finding Scripture to apply to your narrative.”

Caminiti and Paauw also say the Word was always meant to be digested in community. IFBR promotes the model of covenant groups coming together to dive in to single-column “reader versions” of the Bible—with all chapters and verses stripped out. A divine book club.

“A new era of Bible reading is ready to be birthed—an era where snacking gives way to feasting and where hyper-individualized reading gives way to rich communal engagement,” Caminiti says.

IFBR recently announced a partnership with Tyndale House Publishers to launch Immerse—six big Bible experiences built around six major sections of the Bible: Messiah (New Testament), Beginnings, Kingdoms, Prophets, Poets and Chronicles. In a three-year span, whole congregations will engage the whole Bible, says Caminiti.

“The rise of book clubs, coffee shops and ‘third places’ emphasize a longing for togetherness,” he says. “The church can tap into that longing and create communal Bible experiences.”

Making the Word Accessible

With or without chapter-and-verse, digital versions of the Bible have been available for years. The use of the YouVersion Bible App, created by Bobby Gruenewald of Life.Church in Oklahoma, is at an all-time high.

“The year 2016 was our biggest year ever in terms of people downloading and using the Bible App, and we’re already seeing even higher engagement in January and February than we did last year,” Gruenewald says. “More people are highlighting passages, bookmarking, taking notes, sharing verse images and completing Bible plans.”

“In the billions of data points from Bible App users all over the world, we haven’t seen any indications that this upward trend will be changing direction any time in the near future,” Gruenewald says. “I still believe that this generation could become the most Bible-engaged generation in history.”

The folks at YouVersion encourage churches to use the app during Sunday services and even let worshippers know it’s OK to be on their devices during the sermon. They also suggest committing to a churchwide reading plan and promoting small-group discussion.

App users can find not just word-based versions of Scripture but also audio and video, such as the Lumo Project’s beautiful, multimillion-dollar, word-for-word productions of the four Gospels. Each full-length film is also split into short videos according to the Scripture passages, so that YouVersion users can match them to the verses they’re studying.

A different but parallel approach comes from the Bible Project, a young nonprofit based in Portland, Oregon. Founders Tim Mackie and Jon Collins and their crew of artists and techies create hip, animated videos for each book of the Bible as well as theme-based clips, reading plans and other resources—all designed to give participants a visual overview and map through the Word, highlighting it as a unified story that points to Jesus Christ.

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Mackie and Collins say the videos—which are free—have been viewed on the Bible Project’s YouTube channel more than 2 million times as well as downloaded and used in churches worldwide.

Bible teacher Vicki Newby is doing just that for a discipleship class she leads at Southwest Church in Indian Wells, California. “Many of our people have come to Christ as adults, having grown up without any Bible knowledge. The Bible Project videos make the Word very accessible. I love them,” she says.

In an interview on the website for Western Seminary, where Mackie is an adjunct faculty member, he encouraged pastors to create a yearlong teaching series through the Bible, coordinated with a reading plan.

“The key is to offer classes or online resources that can help people keep the 30,000-foot view and to help explain the many difficult parts of the Bible,” he says.

One example: the Year of Biblical Literacy (YOBL), a collaborative project between Reality San Francisco church and Bridgetown Church in Portland, Oregon, in partnership with The Bible Project. YOBL launched in 2016 with videos, a reading plan, weekly sermons, a lecture series and supporting material as a way to help churches, groups and individuals comprehend the story of God. The model is available free to churches, groups and individuals for download.

Back to God’s Revelation

So what are thought leaders, observers and pastors saying when it comes to confronting today’s crisis of biblical illiteracy? Distilled to its essence: Leadership must return to an emphasis on consistent, churchwide, narrative Bible teaching and encourage individual and group study framed by community-building interaction.

After all, the church is the steward of the Grand Story that leads to life and salvation. “From beginning to end, God’s stubborn, unfailing, costly love for the world is in the spotlight,” says Bible teacher and author Carolyn Custis James, who sits on the advisory board of the Institute for Bible Reading.

“Remember, the main purpose of the Bible is not to give us our spiritual fix for the day or fill our heads with biblical facts, but to help us know God better,” she says. “The Bible is God’s revelation of himself to us—through stories, poetry, sermons and history. Every time we open the Bible, we should be asking, ‘What does this tell me about God?’”

Anita K. Palmer is an Outreach magazine contributing writer.