Are today’s kids really not Bible literate? Let’s dig into the assumptions and realities of Bible literacy.
“Yes, I know who Noah is. He’s that boy on TV on that show.” —Jenny, age 5
“I know Jesus is in the Bible. I don’t know anybody else. Oh, and God.”—Lance, age 6
“I’m not too sure about what the Bible says about how we’re supposed to treat other people. I just try to be nice to everyone unless they’re mean to me first.” —Viola, age 9
“My dad says the Bible is a bunch of stories some guys came up with a really long time ago. My dad doesn’t believe in God, and my mom went to church when she was a kid but not now.” —Jackson, age 10
“I read the Bible probably every week, sometimes more if I have a problem. It helps me a lot.” —Katie, age 12
“I like Esther and King David. They both had interesting lives and I’m glad God put them in there.” —Zander, age 12
The kids these quotes belong to all attend Sunday school regularly, come to children’s ministry programs such as VBS and special events, or are the children of church staff. Their words show a wide range of biblical knowledge and understanding—from a near lack of familiarity with the Bible at all to in-depth knowledge of people and events that could rival many adults’ biblical knowledge. A mixed bag, for sure.
In a recent CBS News article, Boston University Professor Stephen Prothero summed up his take on things: “We’re a nation of religious illiterates. We have a lot of people who really love Jesus, but don’t know much about him. We have a lot of people who believe and hope that the Bible is the Word of God, but they don’t really bother to read it.” If this is true for adults who’ve presumably had longer and more in-depth exposure to biblical teachings, what does it mean for our kids? Are kids really as biblically illiterate as one might assume based on the drumbeat of data and expert opinions on the subject?
We asked children’s ministers and biblical experts to help uncover a clearer picture of kids’ biblical literacy today.
BIBLICAL LITERACY: A DEFINITION
To assess kids’ biblical literacy, we first must define it. Does being biblically literate mean a child can name the books of the Bible? Or locate them quickly? Is it memorizing Scripture? Or is it meaningful discovery related to specific Scripture? Is it overall understanding of the greater message of the Bible and how it impacts children personally?
“Biblical literacy has been too often defined as some kind of mastery of biblical trivia—names, places, books, and so on. Part of the reason older kids, and then young adults, lose interest in the Bible is that they associate the Bible with this kind of knowledge,” says Glenn Paauw, executive director of Biblica Institute for Bible Reading. “I’d love to see our communities regain an interest in passing on a more holistic understanding of the Bible to our children. By ‘holistic’ I mean a sense of the overall shape of the larger message of the Bible. We need to reprioritize an understanding of the connections between people and events in the Bible, a sense of where the whole thing goes.” Experts agree that an accurate definition of biblical literacy includes a combination of knowledge, regular study and discussion, experience and age, understanding, and emotional connection to the Bible.
Dr. Colleen Derr, associate professor of congregational spiritual formation and Christian ministries at Wesley Seminary and lead professor in Wesley Seminary’s M.A. in child, youth, and family ministry, adds: “Biblical literacy today is a child’s ability to be ‘at home’ with Scripture—to be comfortable using it; to be able to find his or her way around it; to see it as a source of comfort, joy, and insight. Most importantly, biblical literacy is to see the Bible as God’s story, and because they are God’s children, it’s their story too.”
There is a broad tendency to view biblical literacy as the ability to repeat rote facts and data.
As children’s ministers, it’s critical to ask what’s a true indicator for kids: knowledge of the Bible or a relationship with it as God’s living Word? “Memorizing Scripture does have an important role in how children engage with God’s Word,” notes MacDowall, “but nothing beats that transaction that occurs when a child can read and understand what the living Word of God is saying to them.” Paauw largely agrees. “I’d much rather see children gain the big picture first,” he says. “Detail can be filled in as kids grow older. We too often present Bible passages as stand-alone presentations of spiritual truths. But the Bible itself is almost always interested in how one event carries the bigger message along. All the lessons of the Bible make their best sense when they find their rightful place in the big message. If we teach a passage in the larger-narrative context, kids will still pick up the details, but it comes with context.”
BEST PRACTICES FOR BIBLICAL LITERACY
What are the most effective ways to help children gain true understanding of the Bible? Consider these recommended best practices as you work with kids to dig into God’s Word together.
- Let kids know the Bible is timeless. “Knowing God’s Word is living and active, not just an historical account of God in the past, but of him working in their lives today, really leads to kids’ understanding of it,” says MacDowall.
- Teach with precision. “Don’t teach kids wrong ideas about the Bible that have to be undone later. We can’t teach them everything at younger ages, but we can make sure we don’t create problems.” (For instance, referring to people from the Bible as “characters,” implying they’re fictional.)
- Encourage kids to make the Bible part of everyday life. “Understanding of God’s Word can only happen in the hearts and minds of kids through the work of the Holy Spirit,” says Paauw. “We can be instruments of that through impressing on their hearts and minds as suggested in Deuteronomy 6—through loving God with our hearts, minds, souls, and strengths, and loving the kids like we love ourselves; through having the Word firmly planted in our own hearts; through talking about God’s Word every day in the everydayness of life.”
- Avoid treating the Bible as a reference book. “Many of our Bible practices are based on this view of the Bible. One of the main things we need to rethink is how we can present the Bible to kids (to everyone!) in the more natural ways it was originally inspired. The Bible is lots of things! Stories, yes, but also songs, short proverbs of practical wisdom, parables (a special kind of story), letters, visions, and more! Do our kids know this? We can engage all the elements of human creativity and imagination to present the Bible in all kinds of ways,” says Paauw.
The image of kids’ biblical literacy today may not be picture perfect, but it’s also not black and white. There are many ways to assess whether kids’ knowledge and understanding of the Bible is growing, and that assessment depends on many factors—kids’ age, developmental abilities, experience with the Bible, family faith environment, children’s ministry efforts, and more. Certainly, there is work to do. But, fortunately, we do have the manual for it. Derr sums it up this way: “God’s Word is a tremendous gift. If we want children to love God, follow Jesus, and be guided by the Holy Spirit and ultimately have faith that’s personal and profound, then we must equip them to grow and thrive beyond our ministry time. That requires in part a comfort, respect, and grasp of God’s Word. Love God, love the kids, love his Word, and help them catch the love of it, too.”
Jennifer Hooks is managing editor for Children’s Ministry Magazine.