What Ever Happened to Bible Study?

“Hey, we’re starting a new Bible study next week,” a woman at church announced. My ears pricked up as I was interested. I’d just returned from 10 years on the mission field and looked forward to being rejuvenated in a good solid study of scripture.

“What book will we be studying?” another asked. I leaned in to hear the answer, wondering if we’d be investigating Old Testament prophecy or exploring New Testament epistles.

But the answer was not what I expected. Instead of studying some book of the Bible, I discovered that modern American churches study books about the Bible in their small group sessions. The phenomenon has so saturated our church culture that it seems most new Christian books come with accompanying “Bible study guides.” The trend perplexed me.

Why the Trend?
So why have American churches become dependent on these books in Bible study gatherings? Perhaps the church does not have the lay leadership it once did. Pastor Jared C. Wilson seems to think so. In his book, The Prodigal Church, he writes, “Many leaders today either don’t have the spiritual gift of teaching or haven’t received adequate training, and the unfortunate result is that most of our Bible studies are rife with phrases like, ‘What does this text mean to you?’ as opposed to, ‘What does this text mean?’”

The lack of leaders skilled in Bible study could be a legitimate reason to lean on Bible guides and books. After all, no good Christian wants to see the church splintered by misguided mentors or spurious expounders of scripture. And good, solid Bible study guides can help groups stay on track. But I fear we’ve lost something significant if we can’t study the Bible without prefabricated answers in a leader’s guide.

We’ve lost the joy of unraveling the mysteries of faith for ourselves, the thrill of the Spirit-led journey of comparing translations and discovering the cultural context from our own investigation. We’ve forgotten, or perhaps never been taught, how to seek and encounter God in His Word.

Bible Illiteracy
But Wilson makes a legitimate point. American Christians just don’t know the Bible the way they once did. The 2014 “The State of the Bible” report found that 81 percent of U.S. adults consider themselves “highly, moderately or somewhat knowledgeable about the Bible.” But only 43 percent could list even the first five books of the Bible.

Gallop polls mapped the trend in teenagers back in 2004. “Only a minority of American teens appear to be ‘Bible literate.’” It reported. “Almost one out of ten teens believes that Moses is one of the twelve Apostles. About the same proportion, when asked what Easter commemorates, or to identify Adam and Eve, respond[ed] ‘don’t know.’”

But the nation’s Biblical ignorance is not for lack of books. Ironically, as Bible literacy has plummeted, Christian publishing has boomed. USA Today reported an increase in religious book sales from 197.7 million in 2000 to 236.4 million in 2005. The Association of American Publishers later found that by 2014 religious book sales had grown to $528.2 million.

We have Christian books on every subject imaginable. We have Bibles designed especially for skaters, for surfers, for home school moms, for minecrafters and even for dummies. We as a nation find ourselves virtually drowning in more resources than we’ve ever had before, still our basic understanding of scripture is slipping.

Cultural Causes?
Maybe the phenomenon is somehow rooted in our culture. We live in an electronic society saturated in easy access to simple answers at the click of a mouse. We don’t put effort into finding answers. In fact, the engineers at Google say the typical American won’t wait more than 250 milliseconds for a website to load. That’s quicker than the blink of an eye. A recent Microsoft study says the average North American’s attention span has dropped from the already dismal 12 seconds in 2000 to a mere 8 seconds in 2013, less than that of a goldfish!

We have more information than ever before at our fingertips, yet we are less capable of assembling and analyzing it. Pew Internet’s survey of technology experts concluded that in our world of “instant gratification and quick fixes” this over-connected generation suffers from a “loss of patience and lack of deep thinking.”

We have become the electronic generation and its pitfalls reach beyond the intellectual and into our spiritual pursuits. Missionary to India, William Carey, warned long ago, “The temper of our times is for instant gratification and short-term commitment—quick answers to prayer and quick results with a minimum of effort and discomfort.” How much more is his observation true today.

21st Century Bible Study
And so from this background, we approach Bible study in the 21st century. More than any other generation before us, we have the easiest access to Bible study tools – literally at the click of a button. Without traipsing to a library or lugging out heavy volumes, we can easily access different translations, lexicons, commentaries, Bible dictionaries, topical concordances, and cultural encyclopedias. Sadly, we don’t have the attention span for it. We, in today’s American churches, would rather let someone else do the dirty work and then scan it for quick and simple answers. But life’s toughest questions won’t be answered so simply and easily.

Bible study guides can be useful tools, especially in a society struggling with Bible literacy. But perhaps we would do well to use them as stepping stones to something more. Let Max Lucado, Beth Moore, and all the rest mentor us in various strategies and methods in approaching scripture, but let’s not stop there and be satisfied. May we commit our time and effort to learning how to wrestle with the Word ourselves and dig deep as we excavate the scripture. In doing so we may well find ourselves having real encounters with a Holy God on a more significant level than we ever thought possible.

Suggested Reading:

prodigal-churchIn The Prodigal Church, Jared Wilson challenges church leaders to reconsider their priorities when it comes to how they “do church” and reach people in their communities, arguing that we too often think that only loud music, flashy lights, and skinny jeans will get people in the door. BUY NOW