I’m a hoarder. Specifically, I hoard Bibles. It’s because of people like me that your local bookstore has dozens of different kinds of Bibles. There are multiple translations, each aiming to be more accurate or more readable than its predecessors. For nearly all of these translations, there are Bibles targeted at specific niche markets. There are children’s Bibles, teen Bibles, Bibles for women, Bibles for men, Bibles for illiterate babies. There are even Bibles with covers manufactured from duct tape that resist the gnawing of an orally stimulated toddler.
The options for purchasing one of these Bibles have never been greater. I grew up in the 1970s and 80s in a small, rural town in the Mississippi Delta. The nearest mall was more than two hours away. The town had a library, and my church had a library, but there was no bookstore, much less a Christian bookstore. Anything special like a Bible—any Bible—had to be ordered through a catalog. Today, thousands of Christian book stores dot the American landscape, the Internet is clogged with free versions, and online retailers might soon use drones to drop your new Bible at your doorstep.
Yet with so many Bibles so easily available, biblical literacy in America may never have been worse. According to the 2014 “The State of the Bible” report by Barna Group and the American Bible Society, a majority of U.S. adults (81 percent) said they consider themselves highly, moderately, or somewhat knowledgeable about the Bible. Yet less than half of participants (43 percent) were able to name its first five books. The survey also found that although most people own a Bible (or, like me, dozens of Bibles), just a little over a third (37 percent) of Americans read it once a week or more. Over a quarter (26 percent) of Americans never read the Bible.
Given the ease of access to God’s Word, we know that this is not the reason for biblical illiteracy in America, so what is keeping us from reading and comprehending the Bible? That list could be longer than some of the books in the Bible itself, but see if these resonate with you:
- Overwhelmed. The first day one of our foster sons went to school, he came home with more forms for me to fill out or read than I had to deal with in getting my last mortgage. I was completely overwhelmed, and I’m the nerdy type who loves filling out forms. Likewise, the Bible is a lengthy compilation of a variety of literary types written over thousands of years in three ancient languages. Most are well over 1,000 pages long. I like big Bibles (and I cannot lie), but could it be that just the thought of reading something so long and foreign is overwhelming to many?
- Irrelevance. Christians believe that the Bible is God’s authoritative Word to us, totally true and trustworthy. But it’s also old. Really old. A lot has happened over the last 2,000 years since it was finished. Can the Bible really speak to the issues our world is dealing with, like terrorism, evolution, and human cloning?
- Belief. When read and obeyed, the Bible promises to do some pretty radical stuff in our lives, which means one thing we all dread: change. The Bible promises to be “profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16). It is “able to judge the ideas and thoughts of the heart” (Heb. 4:12). Those are pretty invasive things, and we may not read the Bible because we believe it will actually do what it promises.
- Disbelief. The Bible also promises to do things in us and for us in ways that are very appealing. Psalm 1 states that one who meditates on the Bible is “like a tree planted beside streams of water that bears its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither. Whatever he does prospers” (Ps. 1:3). If we obey God’s Word, it will keep us pure and walking within the will of God (Ps. 119:9,105). Maybe we don’t read the Bible because we don’t believe it will do what it says.
- Sola Boot Strapa. “Sola Boot Strapa” is a made-up Latin phrase my preaching professor shared with me years ago. It’s a reference to the pride we all have in our own abilities. When we face trials, we almost always try to “pick ourselves up by our bootstraps.” Why would we turn to an incredibly ancient, hard-to-read compilation of books and letters when we’re convinced we can handle life just fine on our own?
- First things first. Everybody is busy. When I think through the responsibilities, expectations, and demands I face with my three jobs and four kids, I feel like my head is spinning. Many more have it worse. When my wife gets time away and leaves me with the house and kids, I sympathize with the many single moms and dads who live that way day in and day out. Who has time to read an archaic book when the basic demands of life are overwhelming as it is?
- Overexposure. One of the more disconcerting reasons we don’t read our Bibles is because we think we already know it. Ironically, it’s frequently those of us who have had tremendous exposure to the Bible that bank on that experience and believe we no longer need to read it. What else could we possibly need to know that we haven’t learned already?
- Dissatisfaction. We live in an experiential age. It seems that if we are to regard anything as true, we have to experience it personally. We prefer the heightened emotional state that comes our way through intense experiences and that feel authentic. Bible reading rubs against this cultural preference because when it comes to Bible reading, we don’t choose what will form us, how it will form us, and when; rather, the Bible forms us on its own terms.
As a small group leader, it helps to remember that any number of these excuses is at work in any number of your group members on any given Sunday. Let’s not assume anything about what our group members are consuming when it comes to God’s Word. Instead, let’s use our time together to encourage individual time in God’s Word.
Rob Tims has been married to Holly for nearly 15 years. They have four children: Trey (10), Jonathan (9), Abby (1), and Luke (born April 10). He has served in the local church for 20 years as a children’s pastor, student pastor, and senior pastor. He currently serves on a team at Lifeway Christian Resources that develops customized Bible studies for groups and teaches two classes for Liberty University School of Divinity Online. He is the author of the book Southern Fried Faith: Confusing Christ and Culture in the Bible Belt.