Biblical Illiteracy and the Death of the Church Library

July 9, 2013

by Johnathan Pritchett

“My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge,” thunders the preacher quoting Hosea 4:6a, which is appropriate pulpit thunder these days.

“Yeah, but knowledge puffs up,” think some folks in the pews who know just enough random Scripture quotes to be dangerous. Of course, these folks are completely oblivious that the quoted passage deals with a lack of faithful love, rejection of God’s teaching, and being without truth. They are also completely oblivious that the snippet that popped in their minds in rebellion and protest has to do with food and idols.

Of course, the folks that don’t think of that text from somewhere, 1 or 2 Corinthians-something, at all usually don’t think much about anything they hear. They lack the mental tools to follow the points in a given sermon, and since in many cases the preacher thundering Hosea 4:6a forgets to thunder 4:6b along with it — which is the pertinent part to the biblical illiteracy problem in our churches — then some of the ignorance in the pews can be more easily understood. Often times, many pastors are proof-texters, filling their topical sermons with random verses that suit the message of their own spinning.

No, this is not a rant against topical sermons. The best topical preachers exegete and teach the passages they use to fit their themes. Sadly, many don’t. They merely fill their sermon with simplistic principles without explaining from the very texts they quote why the principles matter and how they relate to the story of God’s redemption in Christ that runs from Genesis to Revelation. That’s the problem.

In other news, biblical literacy is down in Southern Baptist churches, and other denominations as well. Even among those who read their Bibles regularly, though these people are fewer and fewer each year. Congregations get so caught up in the current routines that the fundamentals are forgotten. One fundamental that has been forgotten is teaching people how to read and study their Bibles. This lack of teaching from leadership may contribute to a lack of doing from the congregations.

My family and I spent six months last year visiting various churches, mostly SBC churches, but also other churches just to see what was happening there. We weren’t members anywhere at the time, so we took some time off from active membership somewhere (blasphemy to some people) to see what all was happening in the churches in our community.

Apparently, not much.

In any case, in Sunday school classes, small groups, sitting in the pews during services, and whatever other occasion for biblical study or learning, people were just at a loss as to how to follow Scripture. They do get some milk they remember until Monday morning when they wake up, but they do not get the meat, and meat sticks to the bones.

Is this purely anecdotal and limited to my community? Perhaps, but I highly doubt it. I hear too many stories from elsewhere, and hear the statistics in seminary. So, yeah, this is probably everywhere.

In other news, I noticed something that has paralleled this decline of biblical literacy that is truly sad. This I will refer to as “The Death of the Church Library.” In too many churches, even large ones, the best library in the church is the pastor’s office bookshelf, or even more likely (and sadly), the youth pastor’s office bookshelf. The most recent scholarship in the actual church libraries, if there is actually any scholarly works to be found in them, is sometimes only as recent as the 1970s. Most of the time, the tiny libraries are filled with old and occasionally new devotional junk, and way too much Christian-fiction junk.

It couldn’t hurt to reemphasize the need for the folks in the pews to study to show themselves approved, (2 Timothy 2:15), to be good Bereans (Acts 17:11), to store up the word in their hearts (Psalm 19:11), etc. Besides, speaking of Bible snippets, Jesus gave this command: “…teaching them everything…” (Matthew 28:20)

That sounds comprehensive.

Given the general lack of knowledge of Scripture, even among those who do not lack a familiarity with Scripture (big difference), not only is encouraging more daily study of Scripture necessary, but also necessary is a moving on from promoting, or encouraging, or even condoning, simplistic daily devotionals, goofy Bible app reading plans, and the like. After all, God has a standard for all this (Joshua 1:8).

It is time for pastors and other leaders to encourage the folks to buy a biblical survey book and a commentary or two for using as study and conversation partners in their private daily Bible reading. What level of commentary or survey? Whatever suits the person, and that takes the pastor(s) or other leaders knowing each of the persons in their churches to figure out what level of commentary is right for each person, be it lay, semi-technical, technical, etc. Are they somewhat pricey? Well, that depends — certainly not any more pricey than many people’s Blu-ray collections.

Given the Conservative Resurgence, all the affirmations — from the seminary professors to the pews — about the inerrancy and infallibility of Scripture is rendered meaningless if it is nothing more than a “uh-huh” affirmation of lip service without the actual knowledge of Scripture stored up in our hearts and its governing authority in our lives.

We are Southern Baptists. We are Evangelicals. We are “People of the Book.” It is time once again to live like it.

It is also time for SBC churches to reinvest in their church libraries. We build gyms for our churches, so why not also stock the libraries? One of those two things is related to knowledge, truth, faithful love, understanding and remembering God’s Word, and most importantly, avoiding destruction. One of them isn’t. It is not too hard to figure out which is which.


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Ben Simpson


Interesting article with your typical flair. Our library is an absolute mess. It’s outdated, unintentional, and unused. We are in the process though of moving more toward the book store model where we recommend books and resources for people to purchase. I believe people today are more interested in buying than borrowing. What do you think on the book store model?

Ron F. Hale

How we need a Josiah/Hilkiah rediscovery of the Word in our homes, class rooms, and worship services! Thanks for sharing.

Johnathan Pritchett

Ron, you are welcome!

Ben, I think a both/and would be good. Though I think the book store model works only when there is no significant mark-up. Profiteering shouldn’t be the goal, and the coffee shop money changers are bad enough (yeah, I said it). I think you are correct in that people involved in certain small groups/SS classes are willing to buy books already anyway. Availability at the church makes it all easier. Though, library also is a charitable thing. Especially with more Bible College and Seminary students doing online courses, having access to a decent library in their church is becoming a bigger and bigger deal. So there is that factor. But beyond the egg-head types though, an emphasis generally generates interest. As such, an emphasis on a good and robust library in the church encourages proper behavior and habits with regards to study. It also has the benefit for those who are curious or desirous to read and study more in some area or other, but can’t afford a robust library at home.

Though I will say that while not everyone is at the same reading level, the deficit in Biblical literacy calls for certain sorts of books at a minimum level and beyond that be encouraged and certain kinds of books be discouraged altogether. We don’t need any more devotional/practical pish-posh being encouraged in our churches. I mean, I know the Puritans were big on devotional literature, but what they called devotional and what we have today as “devotional” is not even in the same category, as you very well know. Of course, I use certain rhetoric and all for “flair” or whatever to make my points, and am not denouncing devotional material altogether, but certainly, critical study of Scripture needs to come first, and devotional stuff second. I am also aware of my deficits, and I know someone as dry as dust like I am could stand to read more devotional material. But, we need to be on guard for minimum standards. I mean, a Spurgeon M&E or a MacArthur level commentary should be the minimums (or whatever equivalent, for people ate up about the “Reformed” suggestions”…I am just tossing out examples) in their respective categories.

Since I am not a Rick Warren hater, I will use Purpose Driven Life as an example. I recognize the value in stuff like that for spiritual formation, but it will never help anyone understand what they need to know that is relevant to grasping the full picture of the book of Nahum. That kind of stuff is dessert, but the church needs to eat meals first, then dessert. I think commentaries and Bible surveys are useful in people gaining an understanding of Scripture, and they should not be perceived as the purview of only the pastors and theologians.

Hope that makes sense.

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