Biblical Literacy in the Church: Three Benefits

In my book I Am a Church Member, I reference the envelope check-off system. Some of you are older like me. So you remember these envelopes.

Each week at church you would turn in your offering in an envelope. On the outside of the envelope was a place for your name, the amount you were giving, and a series of boxes to check if you were diligent in several spiritual activities for the week.

So you would check the box that indicated you were attending worship service. Another box said you were going to a Sunday School class. Still another communicated that you were tithing.

And then there was that other box. I can almost remember my hands shaking as my pen approached the minute cube: “Read Bible daily.”

Ouch. I read the Bible five days the previous week, but not all seven days. Wasn’t that sufficient for the inquisitive box? I would be tempted to check the box but, alas, I couldn’t tell the lie.

After all, I had read Acts 5 and the story about Ananias and Sapphira.

I was taking no chances. Would you?

The Problem of Biblical Illiteracy

You have undoubtedly read some of the studies that bemoan the growing biblical illiteracy in America. But the problem is almost as pervasive among Christians as non-Christians.

According to LifeWay Research, just three out of five Christians read their Bible at least weekly. Yet in the midst of church activities and busyness, many church leaders fail to emphasize one of the greatest needs of the church. Simply stated, Christians need to be reading the Bible and studying it in community.

The Results of Biblical Literacy

We know that we should be reading and studying the Bible. But what are the results when actually accomplish this? Let me share three results of increased Biblical literacy:

  1. We Grow Spiritually as Individuals. A 30-minute sermon once a week is not a sufficient time in the Word. If we expect to mature as followers of Christ, we must commit to a lifestyle of letting the Word of Christ dwell in us richly (Col. 3:16).
  2. Our Churches Are Healthier. Healthy churches are made up of healthy members. Church members who dwell in the Word overflow with the fruits of the Spirit. They are patient, loving, joyful, and others-focused.
  3. We Reach More for Christ. Biblical literacy is the foundation for evangelism and missions. We should not expect to be motivated to tell others about God’s love for them if we are not engaged in His word. Conversely, when we are dwelling in the Word and it is dwelling in us, we can’t help but tell others the good news of Christ.

The Movement Toward Biblical Literacy

Every pastor wants his congregation to be growing spiritually. But no matter how great of a preacher you are, a 30-minute sermon isn’t enough on its own to foster the type of spiritual health needed. That’s where small groups and personal discipleship come in.

Healthy groups study the Word, so what are your groups studying? We found in our Transformational Groups research, that nearly two-thirds of group resources are chosen by the group leaders, many of whom have no input from pastors or staff. And while pastors and staff shouldn’t be curriculum dictators, they should at least be informed and provide input. For this very reason, LifeWay is committed to providing resources which are able to be used in any environment, whether Sunday morning or during the week, at church or in homes.

If you are interested in checking out a book-by-book resource to study the text in its context in order for participants to obey the text in their context, LifeWay is offering a free trial of our redesigned Explore the Bible curriculum. Formerly a study only for adults, now adults, young adults, students, and kids will all study the same Bible book and same memory verse. This week, you can also enter to win a free year of Explore the Bible curriculum for you church.

Biblical literacy is critical to healthy church members and, as a result, healthy churches. Explore the Bible can help your members dwell in the Word as it dwells in them richly.


  1. Beau Hart says

    Once again, great thoughts.

    What really amazes me is the number of bibles left at the building during the week. To me it says people arent spending enough time in the Word. I realize people have multiple bibles, but it saddens me still when I see so many personal bibles left in the pews.

    I used to stress daily time in the Word, and while I still believe daily time in the Word is essential, I now encourage whatever time you can devote to study. If 30 minutes twice a week is all you can find, then great, make the most of those 2, 30 minute sessions. Daily time is always best, but whatever time you can give is great too.

    Thanks again, brother. God’s riches blessings on you.

  2. Leland says


    Thanks for a simple but much needed post. I have been the Interim Pastor at a local church for apporximately 4 months. I have encouraged my people to just simply start by reading the Scriptures. I have encouraged them to go on to bible memorization and later to small, incremental study times that increase with time.

    I have stressed that to be a disciple one must learn about/know Jesus.

    Thanks for the affirmation.

  3. says

    Thom, you may address this issue in your book “transformational groups,” Which I have not yet read. But I have noted your frequent reference to the importance of having groups, starting groups and the pastor’s having oversight over those groups for the purpose of both spiritual and numerical growth. I am very curious how you would counsel a church that is attempting both home groups and sunday school and is having a bit of a difficult time clearly defining the distinctions of each, if there is any, and laying out the “movement” of individuals as to the next step of spiritual growth and church involvement.

    Here is what I mean. Many churches, including my own, started Sunday School years and years ago primary for the purpose of instruction. The purpose, primarily, was to address the biblical literacy issue you discuss here. The group would meet in a classroom-style room, some teachers would teach lecture style, some would be more discussion oriented – but either way the primary purpose and goal was learning. Overtime many of these classes moved more in the direction of fellowship and community and focused less heavily on instruction. Many churches, noting the plentiful opportunities their people had to learn (especially if they had multiple services) pulled the plug on Sunday School all together and started home groups – unfortunately, many churches saw participation in home groups, compared to Sunday School, significantly decline. Even so, many, including church members, sang their praises. They saw home groups as a better, more purposeful, use of time even if it wasn’t as well attended as the former adult sunday school. As you have mentioned before, some of these churches are moving their home groups back to “on campus” just for convenience sake, so it now even the small group ministry looks more like Sunday School, while keeping the more laid-back, community connection focus of home groups.

    And then their are churches, like ours, still caught in a somewhat awkward dance between sunday school and home groups. Sunday school has always been a successful ministry in our church – it still is. Over the years, most of our adult sunday school classes have been taking on a heavy fellowship and community element. Most are discussion oriented on some level. Most have extra-ciricular activities that have developed strong bonds between the participants. However, our church started home groups a few years ago, along side of adult sunday school. The reason is that many of our congregation suggested it, and our sunday school – while heavily fellowship and community oriented – there were still a few things about the “set up” of Sunday School that worked against that goal of community. They met in a classroom (which was actually a school classroom the rest of the week, as a school meets in our building), the room is set up lecture-style even though many teachers would use discussion elements in the class, they only met for an hour, and it was relatively easy for the more quiet participants to come, sit, hide and never really fellowship. Many of the participants appreciated the friends and fellowship of Sunday School, but they noted that the interaction, because of the context and set-up of Sunday School was rather shallow. They longed for deeper connection, prayer, sharing, and transparency. So in comes home groups – alongside of adult sunday school. Home groups shot-up and it appeared very successful at first. Homes where crowed. But…it only took it a year before it petered out to the point of looking like a complete failure. After that trial year, we even pulled the plug on it all together for a year to evaluate and reintroduce it with new life and a more clearly defined purpose, that is: home groups where primarily for fellowship and community life, and sunday school was primarily for learning.

    But try as we might, Sunday School kept having a strong community element, and, in spite of our encouragement to make one more of a learning environment and the home group more of a fellowship purpose – Sunday School continued to be the primary place where friends where made, relationships where built, and where people who where new to the church considered a “next step” toward getting plugged into the church, whether we told them that or not. To complicate matters, pastors have had very little influence on Sunday School – it had never been much of an expectation in our church for the Sunday School leaders to get direction from the Pastors. So, with a renewed comment of our entire church to build relationships, welcome new comers, and strengthen community – the Sunday School leaders did take our cue on that one, and they applied it to their class. Sunday School began to take on a life of its own, in the opposite direction than we had planned. But all in all, it wasn’t a bad thing. We realized we were fighting a losing battle, and rather than trying to force Sunday School to be something that it wasn’t exactly, we encouraged the community element that was rapidly getting even stronger in our Sunday School ministry. Maybe, the environment wasn’t conducive to it, the room wasn’t even set up right, the time slot wasn’t long enough – but we decided if a cat wants to swim like a duck and it can swim…let it swim. There are a couple of Sunday School classes that are getting so big we need to start another. Its all a good thing. However…

    …we still have home groups. They are not all that well attended. Those who do attend them love them. Those who do attend them get involved in one another’s spiritual walk on a deep level, and those who do attend them, typically, also go to a Sunday School class. But we would love to simplify. If they are supposed to be different ministries, we would love to clearly define the propose of one next to the other. But at this point that is hard to do. So, we’d love to more clearly spell out for a newcomer what the “next steps” are. We’ve talked about bringing all of the groups (both Sunday School and home groups) under the same umbrella. Call them all “life groups” or something, and just spell out that some meet on campus and others meet in homes. The only issue there is that, right now, they are just different enough that bringing them under the same umbrella may be a bit forced. Also, those who go to home groups also, typically, go to Sunday School. Could we keep them separate, but still refer to them both as “groups.” Still encourage everyone to get involved in at least one group? Perhaps, we just make it clear to everyone that if they want to be involved in both types of groups they can be? The bottom line is, at first we had hoped that people in our church would join a Sunday School class for learning, and than also join a home group for the purpose of “going deeper” in their walks with the Lord and their relationships with one another. However, because of the way things have gone, we no longer care as much that everyone is involved in both kinds of groups, but we are happy if they are. The main thing we want is for the newcomer, or the new believer, to join at least one or the other. But we are unsure how to organize it at this point. Does that make sense? Sorry for being so wordy :)

  4. Chris Amos says

    Thom I am new to your blog.

    I Recently read Autopsy of a Deceased Church, very powerful and certainly Bible literacy or the lack thereof can certainly be a precursor to a dead church.

    A month ago I retired from law enforcement after a 27 year career with the Norfolk, Va. Police Department and began full time ministry as a pastor. I’ve written a book recently, There Is Hope and Other Lessons Learned By a Christian Cop. One of the most moving chapters dealt with the autopsy that I witnessed of a five year old child named Matthew. Little Matthew had been fatally assaulted by his mother’s boyfriend.

    There is something about death that literally shouts to those who are willing to listen and as Christians we must listen if we are to make a difference. Your book Thom, SHOUTS lesson after lesson after lesson to those who will take the time to read it. Thanks for doing the dirty, ugly, difficult work of allowing dead churches from the past to speak to those of churches that are still “living” and ministering!

    I look forward to your blogs. God Bless.


  5. says


    Good information in this post. You provide a stat from Lifeway that 60% of Christians read their Bible weekly. What definition was used to classify a person as a Christian? Also, is biblical illiteracy due to a lack of attendance to Bible studies (wherever they may meet), or weakness in curriculum, or ineffective small group leadership, or some combination of these and other issues – or is it simply that people do not know how to read and study the Bible for all it is worth? Has Lifeway completed any surveys that measure the effective of ministries to teach people Bible study methods and rules of interpretation? I believe biblical illiteracy is a function of many issues, but the root cause is the failure to equip people with tried and true Bible study methods. This equips them to read scripture, determine what it says, what it means, and how it applies to their life or the life of those they teach, mentor, or disciple – all of this under the guiding hand of the Holy Spirit.

    God bless.

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