Every year since 1995 Wheaton College—one of America’s preeminent Evangelical post-secondary schools—has tested the Bible knowledge of incoming freshmen students.
These students are among the best and brightest of Christian youths in the U.S. Most come from strong churches and have a long history of involvement in Sunday school, youth groups, camps and mission trips. They are students “who are the most intentional about cultivating their faith,” says Wheaton New Testament professor Gary Burge.
Despite this, many do poorly on the Bible test. They can’t put Bible events in order: they don’t know that Abraham came before the Old Testament prophets, that the prophets preceded the death of Christ, or that Christ died before Pentecost.
They find it hard to identify biblical characters like the apostles, or name the thief released by Pontius Pilate. They struggle to locate stories like Paul’s missionary travels in the Book of Acts or the Passover story in Exodus.
“We tend to assume that because they come from strong churches, they know the details of the biblical story,” says Burge. “But students tell me after they take the test that they didn’t have a clue.”
Wheaton isn’t the only school where students lack basic Bible knowledge; something similar is happening at Hesston College in Kansas. At Hesston, all new students are required to take a biblical knowledge test. As at Wheaton, many do poorly; on average, students only get half of the answers right.
“They know some individual Bible stories, but the majority don’t know how the whole story fits together,” says Michele Hershberger, who teaches in Hesston’s Bible and ministry department.
Their lack of Bible knowledge is “pretty startling,” adds Marion Bontrager, who also teaches Bible at Hesston. “Many are unable to sequence major characters or events, and they have no sense of how things are connected,” he adds.
Dan Epp-Tiessen, who teaches Bible at Canadian Mennonite University in Winnipeg, Man., finds that things aren’t much different in Canada. “Biblical literacy is pretty low,” he says of the students he teaches. “They don’t know the story.” He notes that students who attended Christian high schools know more than others, but their understanding is still only “vague.”
How did we get into this situation?
Burge believes most of the blame can be laid directly at the feet of local congregations. “The problem starts at the church level,” he says. “Bible instruction today is episodic, looking at a few favourite passages out of context; . . . most teaching is based on felt needs. They never get the storyline from front to back.”
Bontrager agrees. “There’s a disjointed approach to learning about the Bible,” he says. “They are taught a bunch of individual stories without seeing how they connect to each other.”
Karen Jones, author of Transforming Student Ministry: Research Calling for Change, echoes those sentiments. “There are key passages and books that we faithfully teach [to youths], but large portions of Scripture that we overlook or only mention in passing,” she wrote in the May 8, 2006, issue of the Southern Baptist Texan.
Youths “rarely complete an in-depth study of the entire Bible,” she added. “Whether it is intentional or not, the result is the same; our teenagers often leave our ministries with an incomplete understanding of biblical truth.”
Of course, merely knowing certain Bible facts doesn’t make someone a better Christian. As Hershberger puts it, “Just knowing information about the Bible isn’t transformative.” But, she adds, without knowing the basics of the faith, “we’re lost.”
What’s the solution?
Burge believes that churches need to take a “curricular approach that tells the story.” Without such an approach, he believes young people won’t be able to assess the Bible and apply it to their lives. “They can’t do analysis about something they really don’t understand,” he states.
Hershberger agrees. At Hesston, professors walk students through the whole Bible story, beginning with the creation account in Genesis and ending in Revelation. Their goal is to help them answer this question: “How has God worked in history to solve the sin problem and bring everything under the lordship of Jesus Christ?”
Along the way they provide visual and mental “hooks” to help them remember not only the stories, but the sequence and how they fit into the big picture.
But helping youths learn the Bible is about more than better teaching in Sunday school, Hershberger notes. Adults also play a role. “If we want to make the Bible come alive for youth, we have to make it a priority as adults,” she says. “If we are on fire about learning our faith, it will help youth to be more excited.”
Reading the Bible to young children is also important, Bontrager adds. “The key is the home,” he says. “Students who said their parents read the Bible to them as children score highest on our test.”
In 1999, Burge wrote a seminal article in Christianity Today entitled “The greatest story never told.” In it he recounted how he asked youth leaders whether their students were learning the content of the faith and the stories of the Bible.
“‘It is hard to find time,’” one told him. “‘But I can say that these kids are truly learning to love God.’”
“That is it in a nutshell,” Burge wrote. “Christian faith is not being built on the firm foundation of hard-won thoughts, ideas, history or theology. Spirituality is being built on private emotional attachments. Is it any wonder, then, that our young people and adults do not know the stories of the Bible? That they cannot reason theologically?”
No one, he went on to say “is teaching them. No one is modelling it for them. No one is announcing that the biblical story is ‘the story’ that defines our identity and life in the church.”
John Longhurst directs marketing and sales for Mennonite Publishing Network (www.mpn.net/curriculum), which produces Gather ’Round, a Bible-based curriculum for children and youths, as well as Adult Bible Study and other Bible study and faith formation resources.