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John McNeil
 You're here » Christian Columns Index » Guest Writer

Crisis! We're not reading the Bible
by John McNeil
March 27, 2007
Category: Christian Living
THE CHURCH IS facing a crisis through the devaluation of its primary text, the new head of the Bible Society in New Zealand says.

Mark Brown says most Christians would be comfortable stating that they consider the Bible to be an important text. Yet recent research from the Bible Society suggests that the number of people regularly reading it is low.

Of the 2048 church-attending people who were questioned, only 21 per cent read their Bible daily, 22 per cent said they read it at least weekly, while the remainder said they either read it occasionally or hardly ever. The church with the highest incidence of Bible reading was the Brethren.

A similar study in the United States revealed that only 12 per cent of respondents reported reading the Bible once a day or more often.

"My discussions with others in Bible ministry in Europe and Australia have also revealed the same alarming trend," Mr Brown says.

Quoting American Professor J.H. Westerhoff, he says it's a crisis because unless the story is known, understood, owned and lived, we and our children will not have the Christian faith.

A lecturer in religious studies at Victoria University, Chris Marshall, points out that what is being lost is an awareness of the Bible's central role in shaping Christian identity and forming Christian character.

Mr Marshall says the leading function of the Bible is to tell us who we are as a people, where we fit in the history of God's redemptive activity, and how we should think and act in ways that will enable us to continue living God's story faithfully.

The less we listen to scripture, the more we will accept the world as we know it as our default setting, and the less we will have to offer the world that is fresh and powerful and redemptive.

"When we read the Bible we are not just undertaking an exercise in learning facts, but engaging in the process of being transformed," Mr Brown says.

"If I ask a group of Christian leaders, 'Do you think the Bible is important?', no-one - not even the liberal Christians - says it's not important. They all recognise that it's a primary text, whatever language they use.

"But then I ask, 'Are you reading it, are you engaging it? Is it a focus of your church?' And then I get the shifting of the seats, and the eyes avoiding contact."

Mr Brown says we are seeing a fragmenting of the scriptures, which is a side-effect of post-modernity.

"It's the practice of selectively choosing scripture to suit. Once you start getting into that dangerous territory, it's all about what I feel comfortable with.

"Churches treat the Bible rather poorly as only one of the many tools available to achieve their aims. And so it can be easily relegated in favour of more 'acceptable' tools such as inspirational worship or entertainment-driven preaching.

Mr Brown says that in the typical church the sermon is a kind of mixture of keeping people's attention and entertainment, but it's not solid.

"Even if they do mention scripture, it's almost in passing. Little scripture is used elsewhere, unless it's a liturgical church, and there is little encouragement for people to read the Bible themselves.

"We expose ourselves only to those passages that support our particular point of view, or we seek a quick 'scriptural fix' to life's challenges. We aren't being challenged, we don't understand the grand narrative and the themes of the Bible start to be diluted.

"Without this context the risk is that the Bible is ultimately reduced to a collection of clever sayings that compete in a marketplace of self-gratification. This is hardly the formula for Christian maturity.

"When you forget that it's about transformation, it's easy to ignore it. If it is something we understand as transformation, how can we but hook into it on a daily basis?"

Mr Brown says Bible engagement rates are so low because for many people, a typical day is packed tight with almost endless activity driven by lists of 'to do's'.

"The ultimate result of this is relativism, where my understanding of truth, though it may differ to your understanding of truth, is equally acceptable. No one owns truth; no belief system can impose its point of view on another if all belief systems are acceptable.

"Post-modernism also sees an emphasis on personal experience over facts - a preference for story, symbols and tradition over logic, reason and the scientific model; a reclaiming of beauty and goodness; and that reality is whatever you make of it. The classic post-modern question might be, 'What relevance does the Bible story have to me?'"

Mr Brown says the time has come for the Church to address this crisis by engaging with the prevailing contemporary culture, perhaps through the internet.

"This sort of thing will not be changed overnight - it's a generational problem. It's not so much just targeting young people, but also targeting church leaders and the elderly."

© 2007 ASSIST News Service, used with permission.
John McNeil, a veteran of 40 years of newspaper and radio journalism, is South Island editor for Challenge Weekly, New Zealand's non-denominational, independent national Christian newspaper.

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