“A classic is a book which people praise but don’t read” – Mark Twain

As I mentioned in part 1 of the The Bible Driven Life I was hoping to cover the work done by Gary Burge out of Wheaton College.  Before I wrote this blog I was familiar with his studies, but not necessarily his name.    However, ever since I heard about his studies on bible illiteracy via a CNN news article I was intrigued by his findings.  I was never interested in it for it’s initial shock value, although, that is often what studies like this often result in.  Instead, I was genuinely interested, because studies like this reveal deeper-seeded problems that lie at the foundation of larger issues in the church and the world.

Between 1999 and 2000 several studies were released that revealed some alarming facts about that state of the church in regards to bible knowledge.  The study from the year 2000 was put out by the Baptist Standard, a publication of the Texas Baptist Convention.  Some of the more eye-catching statistics from the publication included the following findings:

1. Fewer than half of Americans could name the first book of the bible.
2. Only one third knew who delivered the Sermon on the Mount, and many named Billy Graham.
3. A Barna studied revealed that 12% of Christians thought Noah’s wife was Joan of Arc.
4. 80% of Christians, cited the bible as the source of the phrase “God helps them that help themselves.”
5. 80% of people could name the ingredients of a Big Mac, but only 60% could name the sixth commandment.
6.  Most people could name all four Beatles, but couldn’t recall a single one of the ten commandments.

Before the Baptist Standard came out another study was performed in 1999 by Gary Burge, PhD of Wheaton College.  What made Gary Burge’s study even more interesting for me was that he conducted it amongst incoming freshman students at Wheaton College.  With a little online research I was able to find a sample of test questions that the students were given.  As soon as I found the list I wanted to take the test first to see how I would score.  I figured that would give me a good feel for the difficulty level.  In general, it felt very fair and the questions are pretty fundamental.  So, I felt there was no slight of hand going on there, and you would hope for that in a Christian survey.  LOL.  Just for discussions sake I scored 18 out of 20.  Here is a sample list of questions given to the incoming freshmen (answers at bottom):

  1. Which one of these books is not in the Bible?
    a. Isaiah; b. Jude; c. Hezekiah; d. Amos; e. Song of Solomon
  2. Who was Israel’s first king?
    a. Saul; b. Solomon; c. David; d. Samuel; e. Moses
  3. Sarah and Abraham had a son in their old age and named him “laughter.” What was his real name?
    a. Samuel; b. Moses; c. Isaac; d. Jacob; e. Ishmael
  4. Which of the following is not an Old Testament prophet?
    a. Elisha; b. Elijah; c. Aaron; d. Isaiah; e. Joel
  5. Place these events in their biblical order:
    a. 5. the giving of the law at Mount Sinai; b. 1.Creation; c. 2.the Fall; d. 4. the Exodus led by Moses; e. 3.the flood of Noah
  6. Place the following characters in their biblical order:
    a. Moses; b. Adam; c. David; d. Solomon; e. Abraham
  7. Which of the following books is from the New Testament?
    a. Judges; b. Malachi; c. Deuteronomy; d. Hebrews; e. Isaiah
  8. Who wrote Philemon?
    a. Philemon; b. Paul; c. Peter; d. Onesimus; e. John
  9. Which one of the following was among Jesus’ 12 apostles?
    a. Paul; b. Matthew; c. Luke; d. Timothy; e. Silas
  10. Whom did Pontius Pilate release during Jesus’ trial?
    a. Barnabas b. Peter, c. Silas; d Barabbas; e. Paul
  11. How many temptations did Jesus face in the wilderness?
    a. one; b. two; c. three; d. four; e. five
  12. Place the following events in their biblical order:
    a. The Holy Spirit descends on Pentecost; b. John has a vision on Patmos; c. Jesus is baptized in the Jordan River; d. Paul, Barnabas and Mark are sent out on a mission by the church; e. Peter denies that he knows Jesus
  13. Place the following events in their biblical order:
    a. Paul’s arrest in Jerusalem; b. Mary’s song; c. Nicodemus’ conversation about rebirth; d. Peter’s denial of Jesus
  14. Where would you find the Ten Commandments?
    a. Isaiah; b. Exodus; c. Genesis; d. Numbers; e. Matthew
  15. Where would you find the first Passover?
    a. Genesis; b. Numbers; c. 1 Samuel; d. Exodus; e. 2 Kings
  16. Where would you find “Create in me a clean heart, O God”?
    a. Proverbs; b. Ezekiel; c. Psalms; d. Deuteronomy; e. Luke
  17. Where would you find the Lord’s Prayer?
    a. Matthew; b. Acts; c. Ephesians; d. Malachi; e. Isaiah
  18. Where would you find “in the beginning was the Word”?
    a. Acts; b. Isaiah; c. John; d. Leviticus; e. Romans
  19. Elizabeth and Zechariah were the parents of:
    a. Jesus; b. Samuel; c. Paul; d. Timothy; e. John the Baptist
  20. Jesus was crucified during:
    a. Passover; b. Hannukah; c. Tabernacles; d. Sabbath; e. Purim

1. c; 2. a; 3. c; 4. c; 5. b, c, e, d, a; 6. b, e, a, c, d; 7. d; 8. b; 9. b; 10. d; 11. c; 12. c, e, a, d, b; 13. b, c, d, a; 14. b; 15. d; 16. c; 17. a; 18. c, 19. e; 20. a

Here is a summary of some of his findings –
1) 33% could not identify Matthew as an apostle, or could name the book of Acts as the source of Paul’s missionary travels
2) 50% did not know that the Christmas story is in Matthew, or that the first passover took place in Exodus
3) 80% could not put David, Adam, Moses, Solomon, and Abraham in chronological order, and could not locate the Lord’s prayer in the bible.

When I first read about the study on CNN it caught my attention mainly because it was unique.  In other words, it would be safe to assume that most students being polled would represent a good cross-section of relatively strong evangelical young adults that probably came from strong religious backgrounds.  There was a strong possibility that they grew up in Christian homes and regularly attended evangelical churches from a variety of Protestant denominations and backgrounds.  In my opinion that sets his study apart from many others, including Barna’s studies on biblical literacy, because it’s looking at an isolated Christian group with a relatively well known background.

Another more recent study by Barna made major news headlines.  You Lost Me: Why Young Christians are Leaving Church and Rethinking Church, is a book written by David Kinniman, which covers the five year study by the Barna group.   The five year study included interviews with teens, young adults and their parents, as well as senior pastors, and youth pastors.  From the study, six primary themes emerged as the leading reasons why 59% of young adults had left the church by the age of 15, never to return or for an extended period of time.  Four out of the six reasons named as the culprit I felt presented an uphill battle for any church to address, and the strategies and answers to solve these problems were not trivial.  If you are interested in reviewing each of the six reasons I would suggest that you start with this article, which summarizes the findings detailed in David Kinniman’s book:


Two of the six reasons, caught my attention, because I feel that they could be fixed rather easy.

1)  Their experience of “Christianity” or in the church seemed “shallow”.
For instance, 31% responded that church was boring, and 23% claimed that the bible was not taught clearly or often enough.  I can’t believe that such staggering statistics are not raising red flags all over the place to pastors and church leaders alike in America.  In other words, roughly 1 in 4 young adults are telling the church that they are not teaching them the bible!  At first glance you would be inclined to think that the way to fix the boredom issue is via “relevancy”, which has become a common church building catch-phrase.  But according to these statistics, young people are not asking the church to mimic more pop culture, so that they can relate.  Instead, they’re screaming, “We Want To Go DEEPER!”  We want to hear about the bible. We don’t understand this supposed Calculus Level III you’re teaching us, because you never explained to us beginner level Algebra.  We have no answers to the simplest of questions in life, because no one ever explained to us the foundational principles of living.  The bible is not being taught often or clearly enough.

2) The church seems unfriendly to those who doubt.
While I feel that this point along with a few of the other six is definitely more of a preconceived idea rather than a reality, it still should be taken seriously.  There is a very good chance that people often feel unaccepted in certain church environments, because of their own insecurities.  When you take into consideration the statistic above regarding one-quarter of young adults reporting that the bible is not taught clearly or often enough, I wonder how many of their questions are answered in the bible, yet they are unaware of it.  In other words, has the church taught them sound doctrine (2 Timothy 4:3)?
It’s perhaps my own personal theory, but I believe the lack of biblical teaching is the primary reason for younger generations abandoning the church.  It’s astonishing how many people I’ve met even at my own age (35), who were exposed for the first time to biblical preaching and teaching within the last 5-6 years of their life.  These people span the full spectrum of American Christianity, from traditional white Methodists to the traditional black church, to non-denominational spirit-filled.  I’ve met them at golf courses, at churches, social gatherings and so on.  Their stories are all the same……..  hearing the preaching of the Word of God was a life changing experience for them.  By preaching of the Word, I specifically mean more expository styles of teaching the bible.  Where actual consecutive bible verses are taught within their proper context and explained.  In the process, the whole counsel of God is declared to the hearer, and they grow in their understanding of God and the bible.  As a result, many of their 20+ year long unanswered questions have been answered:

How do I know that God speaks to people?  Do I really have direct access to God, and where does it tell me about that in the bible?  I hear the word faith often, how can I grow in faith?  Why should I believe in the inclusivity of Christianity?  Does the bible have anything to say about male-female relationships and their roles?  I believe there are much more foundational questions that younger generations have that need to be addressed as well, because of their early exposure to science, technology, and the boundless amount of information on the internet.  They have a lot of questions.

I’ll end with a scripture that I feel is fitting from the book of Amos.  The setting for the book of Amos was that the people of Israel had reached a true low point in their devotion to God.  It’s a book known for it’s plea for social justice, because the people had become greedy and indifferent to the things of God.  In the eighth chapter of Amos, the destruction of Israel is nearing and God’s patience with the people was wearing thin.  Their personal wealth had become their idol, and their lack of knowledge of the Word and indifference to it was driving the unconscious state of hedonism.  A hedonistic lifestyle that was indifferent to those in need and wealth built on the backs of the poor and needy.  That lifestyle was detestable to God.  The following warning by God should make us all shutter.  God explains, through the prophet Amos,  that He will send a famine to their land, not of bread and water, but of hearing the Words of the Lord.  When we turn our hearts and minds away from God, he can decide in his sovereignty to bring a famine of his Word:

Amos 8
11 “Behold, the days are coming,” says the Lord God,
“That I will send a famine on the land,
Not a famine of bread,
Nor a thirst for water,
But of hearing the words of the Lord.
12 They shall wander from sea to sea,
And from north to east;
They shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the Lord,
But shall not find it.

13 “In that day the fair virgins
And strong young men
Shall faint from thirst.
14 Those who swear by the sin[c] of Samaria,
Who say,
‘As your god lives, O Dan!’
And, ‘As the way of Beersheba lives!’
They shall fall and never rise again.”