FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–I listened intently while the teenager complained about the cost of the college of her choice. “It’s just too expensive,” she moaned. “And they want me to borrow what the scholarship won’t cover. That’s almost $5,000 a year.”
Then, pride welling up within, she said, “I just told them that the Bible says, ‘Neither borrower nor lender be.'”
I cleared my throat and said with a smile, “I read that once, just before ‘the Lord helps those who help themselves’ and just after ‘the Lord works in mysterious ways his wonders to perform.'”
The teenager, who pled for anonymity when I asked for permission to retell this story of Shakespeare’s newfound canonical status, was actually referring to Proverbs 22:7. The verse describes the borrower becoming a slave to the lender.
Inevitably, famous quotes of old and modern colloquialisms make their way into the realm of sacred literature. Assemble any group of high school teenagers today, and you’ll probably find other catchphrases that have wormed their way into “the Bible” as Americans understand it.
After all, who could forget when St. Benjamin spoke on saving pennies or the early bird catching the worm? Or when St. John — Wesley that is — wrote that “cleanliness is next to godliness”?
As amusing as the thought of these colonial proverbs being considered sacred is, there is a serious problem facing the church in its relationship to society, and even to the younger generation sitting in its pews. The church has a veritable Mt. Everest of biblical illiteracy to overcome.
In 2000, the Barna Research Group in Ventura, Calif., published a study that found, of the teenagers it surveyed, almost 86 percent claimed to be Christian. Only 34 percent, however, met the criteria for being considered “born again.”
Those “born again” were young people classified as having made a “personal commitment to Christ” and believing that they would go to heaven only because of that commitment. That is ironic considering that half of the Christians surveyed didn’t even understand the classical, orthodox doctrines of the faith.
While 62 percent of all teens were willing to recognize the Bible as a credible book, “totally accurate in all of its teachings,” most didn’t accept the theological implications and doctrines drawn from it. For example, 65 percent of teens didn’t believe that Satan is real, but that he is only a symbol of evil. That percentage isn’t all that much greater than what the teens’ parents believed.
When asked to agree or disagree with statements about the person and work of Christ, the results among the teens were astounding.
Fifty-three percent of teens believed that Jesus had sinned while he was on earth, compared to 39 percent of adults. Sixty-one percent believed that a person could achieve salvation by doing good works, a 10 percent increase over the previous generation.
Barna had his statistical socks blown off. “The bottom line is that today’s teens think they have learned and absorbed whatever the Christian faith has to offer and are therefore not questioning their spiritual beliefs, and are not open to being challenged in their views,” he said.
Even among the creme de la creme at Wheaton College, long perceived as a bastion of conservative biblical teaching, Christian young people couldn’t navigate the Bible. Gary Burge, a professor of New Testament at Wheaton, wrote in Christianity Today that between 30 and 50 percent of incoming freshmen were deficient in their knowledge of the Bible.
One-third couldn’t decide the order for Abraham, the Old Testament prophets, the death of Christ and Pentecost. Half could not put in order Moses in Egypt, Isaac’s birth, Saul’s death and Judah’s exile. One-third could not identify Matthew as an apostle from a list of New Testament names. Half did not know that the Christmas story was in the Book of Matthew. Half did not know that the Passover story was in the Book of Exodus.
Burge was correct when he wrote that the “Christian faith is not being built on the firm foundation of hard-won thoughts, ideas, history or theology.” Recent polls affirm that the church is losing the 20-something crowd.
Barna was a bit more strident in his criticism of the younger generation.
“If biblical truth is going to prevail in American society,” he said, “it will require a strategic, long-term, coordinated effort to convey God’s truth in ways that shake young people from their theological complacency and arrogance.”
Lest any assume that the problem is solely among the young, it is important to note that, according to a 1999 Gallup Poll, 75 percent of Americans of all ages believed that there was more than one path to God.
How should the church correct the problem? As I stated before, “theologizing” the young, and even society, will be an uphill climb.
First and foremost, the church must be a teaching church. Ministers must not assume that the members of their congregations are reading their Bibles between the times they warm their pews on Sundays.
Second, ministers should cease to give, as Burge wrote, “disjointed morsels of spiritual truth each week” in favor of a systematic approach which forces the hearer to confront his or her personal beliefs and compare the beliefs of society with a biblical worldview.
Finally, the church must also see that the responsibility for conveying classic Christian doctrine is not solely the responsibility of ministers.
In his convocation address to the faculty, staff and students at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary last August, Budd Smith, professor of foundations of education, said that the church has a collective responsibility to make disciples.
“When we say ‘disciples,’ many definitions come up. However, first and foremost ‘disciples’ means ‘pupils’ — ‘learners.’ The implication is if the whole church is to be fulfilling the Commission then we are all in some fashion or form to be teachers who are making disciples.”
The church, Smith said, is only an authentic church when its members “understand that to be the people of God involves collective responsibility to fulfill the function of teaching and disciple making.”
That process should begin with the church, “the pillar and foundation of the truth” [1 Timothy 3:15], accepting the collective guilt for the ignorance of Christian doctrine and biblical illiteracy so rampant today.
We should call society to repentance, all the while declaring that forgetting about God is forgetting God.
Gregory Tomlin is director of communications at Southwestern Seminary and a Ph.D. graduate there in church history.