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Five Decades of Decline

Five Decades of Decline


 


We cannot assume any biblical knowledge on the part of our


hearers at all: the most elementary Bible stories are completely unknown.     Furthermore, the situation is getting worse. 


D. A. CARSON


 


 


 


Have you had opportunity to watch one of the late night theologians?  David Letterman and Jay Leno have gone head-to-head for years in the late-night TV wars.  And while they both can be tasteless or hilarious, Jay Leno does a piece on The Tonight Show called "Jaywalking" that is a scream. 


 


He goes out on the street, sticks a microphone under the nose of passersby and asks them questions.  Now, granted, the producers choose the dumbest answers for airing; that's what makes for good comedy.  But when Bible questions are asked, the answers aren't hilarious; they're pathetic.


 


Leno will ask, "Name 1 of the 10 Commandments" and the most popular answer is, "God helps those who help themselves."  With a smile Leno continues, "Name any one of the apostles."  No answer.  "Can you name any of the Beatles?" brings the immediate response, "John, Paul, George and Ringo.  Undeterred, Leno asks, "Who was swallowed by a great fish?" and the confident answer comes back, "Pinocchio."


          Okay.  Let's be honest.  This is southern California.  It is The Tonight Show.  The producers do choose the looniest respondents.  But the obvious lack of familiarity with Bible stories and characters is not just a symptom on television; it's also a symptom of American life.


 


POST-WORLD WAR II CHANGES


Old America's knowledge of the Bible remained fairly strong for the first 170 or so years from the Continental Congress.  Abraham Lincoln was perhaps America's most "biblical" president."  Historian William Wolf noted that no president has ever had the detailed knowledge of the Bible that Lincoln had.  Woodrow Wilson, another intensely biblical president, spoke in biblical terms when he took America into the First World War--on behalf of freedom.  Even after the end of World War II knowledge of the Bible, and dependence on it as a shaper and molder of American destiny was strong.


The 1950s


Business and industry expanded rapidly after the war.  All the energy put into the war effort was now turned inward to build America's infrastructure. Cities began to expand and grow.  A great interstate highway system was envisioned by General Dwight D. Eisenhower and was eventually built.  The post-World War II decade was also full of religious vitality, with rapid growth in church membership, especially in the booming new suburbs.  



 


Post World War II church attendance was at 74%                                  among Catholics and 42% among Protestants.


 


The 1960s


In the 1960s Americans experienced major change and upheaval.  There were the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Robert Kennedy.  War protests and the beginnings of the women's liberation movement were fed by strong anti-establishment feelings.  Those feelings may have carried over to organized religion because both Bible reading and weekly church attendance started to slide among Protestants and Catholics. By 1969, church attendance was down 11 points from 1955 among Catholics, and 5 points among Protestants.


The 1970s


The activism of the 1960s gave way to pessimism, cynicism and disillusionment in the 1970s.  Americans were unsure about everything, questioned everything, including the Bible.  There was growing pessimism about the prospects for peace in the world, the plight of the poor, the possibility of social justice.  God was seen as distant and His Word was becoming more distant as well.  Catholic attendance at Mass continued to slip during this decade -- from 60% in 1970 to 52% in 1979.  Protestants' weekly attendance showed little change.


The 1980s


The 1980s were far more upbeat than the previous decade.  The economy began to grow, dabbling in investments became a way of life, optimism for the future increased.  There was still a cold war going on and a nuclear threat, but Americans were far less apprehensive about the immediate future than they had been in the previous decade.  Still, that confidence seemed to replace a need to depend on God and Bible reading suffered as a result.  Catholic Church attendance seemed to change very little during this decade, hovering between 51% and 53%.  Protestant church attendance was static as well.


The 1990s


During the 1990s America was flying high.  The economy was good, deficits were down, expendable income was up, what could be better?  But the 1990s were not a good decade for the Bible or morality.  The Clinton administration was under fire and the president under impeachment.  The first scandals about sexual abuse from Catholic priests began to hit the newsstand.  The Bible seemed to be out of touch, and therefore, out of sight, with the way Americans chose to live their lives.  Catholic Church attendance declined slightly.  Meanwhile the megachurch movement was bolstering church attendance among Protestants.


The 2000s


 Attendance at Catholic churches has experienced some ups and downs during the first few years of the 21st century, but nowhere near the declines that occurred between the 1950s and the 1980s. In March 2002, Protestants reported attending church more frequently on average than Catholics for the first time in nearly a half-century of Gallup Poll data collection. Protestants' levels of church attendance have remained higher than that of Catholics since then.  But Bible literacy has suffered among all Christians.  The decline in Bible understanding has never been lower in America than it is as you read this.



 


The biggest decline in belief that the Bible is true and to                          be taken literally was in the late 1960s and early 1970s.


 


 


Pollster George Gallup and Michael Lindsay wrote a book that documents the shallowness of American Christianity over the last five decades. Two of the underlying themes suggested by their findings are "the glaring lack of knowledge about the Bible, basic doctrines, and the traditions of one's church .... [and] the superficiality of faith, with many people not knowing what they believe, or why"[1]


Decades of decline


 


Gallup reports,  "In broad terms, there was, first, a post-World War II surge of interest in religion, characterized by increased church membership and attendance, a growth in Bible reading, increased giving to churches, and extensive church building. . . . The surge lasted until the late 1950s or early 1960s, when it was replaced by a decline in religious interest and involvement in the 1960s and 1970s.  Finally, the 1980s saw a  "bottoming out" of certain indicators, if not a reversal of some of the decline."[2]


 


Gallup reports, "The proportion of Americans who believe the Bible is literally true fell by half in a quarter of a century.  In 1963, 65 percent of Americans believed the Bible was literally true.  This figure fell to 38 percent by 1978."[3]  Obviously the turbulent decade of the 60s took a toll both on reading the Bible and confidence in the Bible. 


 


BIBLES, BIBLES EVERYWHERE


Still, the Bible remains the unrivaled world's all-time best seller.  Check into to almost any hotel in the world, and the Gideons have been there before you.  Gideons International distributes 1 million copies of the Word of God every 7 days, more than one every second.  


The Bible seems to be just about everywhere.  The President of the United States places his hand on a Bible as he takes the oath of office.  Brides often carry a white Bible down the aisle on the most important day of their life.  Street preachers stand on corners or in parks, wave a Bible, and preach their fiery message.  I have never attended a funeral in which a pastor, priest or rabbi failed to read a portion of the Bible to comfort the family and friends of the deceased.  The Bible is ubiquitous.


Choices and Challenges


Research released recently by The Barna Group of Ventura, California, demonstrates the way American feel about the Bible.  Most Americans (85%) consider their religious faith very important to their life, and generally feel strongly about their religious beliefs.[4]  And, Americans own Bibles-do they ever.  



 


Ninety-two percent of Americans own at least one Bible;                       the average household has three.


 


I went on-line the other day to Amazon.com to check out how many choices I had to buy a Bible.  Do you want to guess how many there were?  One thousand and thirty-five.  Unbelievable.  You have more than a thousand choices of Bibles to purchase on-line.  There are black Bibles, burgundy Bibles, blue Bibles, and Bibles with flowered covers.  You can choose a devotional Bible, a study Bible, an inspirational Bible or an annotated Bible.  Take you're pick between a literal translation, a dynamic equivalent translation, a word-for-word translation, or a paraphrase. 


 


And then there's the version question.  Do you want the KJV, NIV, ESV, NKJV, NLT, NASB, CEV, GNB, NIRV, RSV, NRSV, HCSB, TNIV, the Amplified Bible or the Message?  And there are dozens more.   Do you want imitation leather, bonded leather, leatherflex, cowhide or water buffalo calfskin?  And what about a Bible printed just for you.  Do you need a family Bible, couples Bible, singles Bible, teen Bible, men's Bible, women's Bible, recovery Bible?


 


There a Bible for Catholics, Charismatics or Calvinists.   What about the Holy Spirit Encounter Bible or maybe the Woman Thou Art Loosed  Bible, the Sports Devotional Bible or even the Precious Moments Bible.  And if you get a study Bible, which one will it be?  There's The Life Application Bible, The Ryrie Study Bible, The Nelson Study Bible, The Open Bible , The Quest Study Bible, The Full Life Study Bible, and a host of others.  And which size is right for you-personal size, pocket size, compact size?  Do you want the cover of your Bible to have a zipper, snap or strap?  It's enough to make your head spin.


 


It's obvious that availability is not our problem.  And readability isn't our problem either.  There are Bibles for all reading levels.  There is even an Idiot's Guides to the Bible and a Bible for Dummies. 


          Boom and Bust


Check the bottom line for any publisher of Bibles and you'll see that Bible sales are booming, up 50% over the past few years at some publishing houses. 


          But while Bible sales are booming, there is no evidence there is a boom in Bible knowledge.  In fact, Americans appear to be buying Bibles in droves but never reading the ones the buy.  There has been an absolute bust in Bible reading during the last half century. 


A National Bible Week survey prepared by Zondervan Publishing House, the world's largest publisher of Bibles, indicated that 64 percent of Americans don't read the Bible because they're too busy. The other big obstacles seem to be the daunting size of the Bible and its dense language.  More on this in the next chapter. A large majority -- 80 percent -- say the Bible is confusing.  Most of the time people read the King James Version, still the favorite Bible by 41% of American Bible owners, even though it is written in Shakespearean-era language.[5] 


The most widely read contemporary translation, the New International Version, representing almost half of all Bibles sold today, is written at a seventh-grade reading level.  I remember when we used to blame our failure to read the Bible on poor old King James of England.  We excuse ourselves by saying, "I'd read my Bible, but the language of King James is just to hard to understand.  If I had a modern translation, then I'd read my Bible."  But with the NIV and dozens of other modern English translations and paraphrases available, Bible understanding has nose-dived over the past five decades.  Apparently we can't blame King James after all.


 


AMERICANS READILY ADMIT TO BIBLE ILLITERACY


          How little Americans know about the Bible is no surprise to us.  We readily admit it.  For some, it's no big deal.  They don't believe in God; they don't believe the Bible is God's Word; it's a non-issue.  For others who do believe in God and trust His Word, it's a major issue. 


Both the Gallup Organization and the Barna Group have done extensive research on the religious beliefs of Americans.  The results of those polls do not hide the growing plague of Bible illiteracy in America.


Bible Knowledge Ranks Lowest


In a 2005 Barna poll, Americans were asked to rate their maturity in relation to seven dimensions of their spiritual life.  The dimension in which the largest percentage of respondents considered themselves to be above average was in "maintaining healthy relationships." Among adults who claim to be Christian, almost half (48%) rated themselves above average in their ability both to create and to maintain a healthy relationship with others.  Obviously they have received much instruction from the pulpit and from the books they read on how to build relationships.


One-third of adults (36%) also believed they are highly developed in the area of worship.  This is another area which the church has emphasized.


But here's the stinger.  The two facets of spiritual life people most readily admitted they struggle with were "sharing your faith with others" (23% above average, 23% below average, with 53% average) and "Bible knowledge" (21% above average, 25% below average, 53% average).  



 


Of the seven dimensions in which Americans were asked to                     rate their faith maturity, Bible knowledge ranked dead last.


 


Those categories where people felt they were not too mature or not at all mature in Barna's seven dimension were:  maintaining healthy relationships (5%); consistently living your faith principles (7%);  serving people (8%); worship (14%); spiritually leading your family (14%); sharing your faith with others (23%); and Bible knowledge (25%).


Down deep inside, we know we are not as literate in the Bible as we should be.[6]  The question is what will we do about it?


We Want to Know the Bible Better


This is not to say that Americans are pleased with their lack of intimacy with the Word.  They are not.  In fact, most Americans secretly wish they knew more Bible content and practiced it in their lives more fully.


In the Barna survey each respondent was asked to identify that dimension of their faith they would most like to improve. The list was dominated by "No particular dimension," but the most common responses were a desire to strengthen their personal commitment to their faith (13%) and to increase their knowledge of the Bible (12%).  Only these responses reached double figures.


Those areas of needed improvement mentioned least frequently were:  upgrading their prayer life (7%), building healthier relationships (4%); understanding Christianity more completely (4%); sharing their faith (4%); and attending church more consistently (3%).  Interestingly enough, three percent said there was no dimension of their faith life they needed to improve, and one-quarter of the sample (25%) said they had no idea what needed to improve.


Whether it reflects reality or not, most Americans believe they are doing well at relationships and faith principles but doing poorly in reading and understanding the Bible. 


If Bible literacy is a perceived weakness, wouldn't it make sense for the church and Christian community to address this weakness?  Why have we been so silent so long?  And will we remain silent in the future?


 


 






[1]  George Gallup Jr. and D. Michael Lindsay, Surveying the Religious Landscape: Trends in U.S. Beliefs  (* * *City, 1999), 4.


 



[2] George Gallup, Jr. and Jim Castelli, The People's Religion.  New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1989, p. 5.


 



[3]  Ibid., p. 61.


 



[4]  The Barna Update, "Americans' Bible Knowledge Is In the Ballpark, But Often Off Base," July 12, 2000.


 



[5]  The Gallup Organization, June 18, 2002.


 



[6]  The Barna Update, "Christians Say They Do Best At Relationships, Worst In Bible Knowledge," June 14, 2005.


 


 


 


 



 

 


Read more in:


TAKING BACK THE GOOD BOOK


How America Forgot the Bible and Why It Matters To You


(Crossway Books)


                            Check it out at yur local Christian bookstore or                           


go online at backtothebible.org or call 1-800-759-2425