Biblical literacy needed for vital congregations

Published September 1, 1999

LIKE MANY OF YOU, I have given a lot of thought to the question of congregational vitality. What does it take for a congregation to become vibrant and magnetic, growing its members into mature disciples and bearing a credible witness to Christ in our contemporary world? The more I think about this the more I am convinced that the primary issue for any congregation seeking revitalization is biblical literacy.

It is fair to say that for some time now the majority of our congregations have not done a very good job of developing biblically literate members. Most members of most congregations, I believe, would readily admit to a lack of familiarity with the Bible: its over-all story, its major themes, its main characters and how to ready it personally for inspiration, insight and growth. Congregations with a biblically illiterate membership do not have much hope of influencing the surrounding culture with the Gospel.

There are many and various reasons why this situation has developed, but basically it has just been a matter of being busy with other things and letting this slip. We seem to have been operating on the assumption that the work of teaching the Bible and developing people who think and see the world through the lens of Scripture has been done elsewhere. But this is clearly a fallacy.

Teaching Scripture is the work of the church. Indeed, we might even say it is the primary work of the church because everything else in the life of the church – from worship to prayer to witness to service, and even our expression of compassion and justice – is informed by Scripture and grows out of our understanding of it. To neglect this for any reason is a classic example of letting the urgent crowd out the truly important.

There are four areas on which churches seeking to develop biblically literate members need to concentrate. The first is how we read Scripture in church, with a view to helping people truly hear and understand. Personally, I am not convinced that four quite different readings in a service are particularly helpful in this regard. Perhaps we would do better to present one reading in four different ways? We need to give thought as to how the passage is introduced, explaining the context and the issue it seeks to address. Are there ways in which drama and choral readings, for example, might be used to highlight and illumine the reading?

The second issue is how we preach Scripture in church. The great need here is to help people make the appropriate connections between Scripture and the daily circumstances of their lives. What are the issues that this passage turns up for people who are seeking to live as followers of Jesus; what challenges does it present, what direction does it offer, what is the good news it contains? People have the right to go home from church sensing that they have heard the Word of God, and that it has spoken to the deepest issues of their lives.

Third, how do we teach the Scriptures outside of our worship services in a purposeful, intentional way? Growing Christians need to be developing an ever-deeper familiarity with the Bible, so that they understand its over-all story, its major themes, and get to know its main characters and the issues with which they struggled.

Fourth, how do we teach people to read the Bible for themselves for direction, nurture, inspiration and devotion? I have had many people tell me stories of how they have decided to read the Bible on a regular basis, only to discover that they had no idea of where or how to begin. To be able to do so is surely the right of every member.

There is no one way or even one best way, for congregations to address these four issues. Congregations differ from one another in many ways, and what is appropriate in one is totally inappropriate in another. Nevertheless, I believe that these four areas are key in every congregation. The challenge is to think seriously and continually about what would be the most appropriate ways for your congregation to address them. What an inspiring challenge as we face the turn of a new century and millennium!

Canon Harold Percy is rector of Trinity Anglican Church, Streetsville, Ont., and the author of several books on evangelism.


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