She knocked on the dorm room door with fuzzy Sponge Bob pajama pants and a bowl of cereal in hand, looking for a little milk. Her hallmate, the student leader with whom I was co-hosting a small group Bible study, shared some milk and invited her to sit in on our study. The dynamic in the room immediately changed for the better. Curiosity grew. We wondered how she would respond to our discussion, and she wondered about us and why we gathered in a tiny dorm room, crammed on the extra-long twin, flopped over a desk chair, and covering the overly fuzzy carpet with crisscrossed legs and cups of hot chocolate. We could squeeze in one more.
I scooted to the end of the bed, and she pressed in next to me. Other than the cereal crunching in my ear, it was a perfect fit. Shoulder to shoulder, she peered over the pages of my Bible as one of the other students read our passage again. Her Sponge Bob legs and slipper socks ran parallel to my denim and black ballet flats. I pointed to the exact spot in my Bible so she could follow along. The group continued to discuss the passage, sharing observations, asking questions, pointing out things previously overlooked, making connections between this passage and others, all the components of a good inductive Bible study. Sponge Bob listened quietly, as if she absorbed every word spoken.
Just before I asked for prayer requests, she spoke up. She had finished her cereal and asked to get a closer look at my Bible. She wondered why there were so many small numbers and what the big numbers meant. Why were some words bold but most weren’t? Who wrote this? Are there many shorter books within this one bigger book? How come she had never looked at this before? Was this the same Bible her grandmother had under the coffee table? She heard the Bible was all gloom and doom, but noticed this part seemed hopeful. With her last word turning upward as if her statement were more of a question.
I live for moments like this.
Breath prayers are good for these situations. Breathing in, my heart prayed “God help me to not screw this up.” I tried my best to keep my Bible nerd from showing. Then, I gave the most concise, easy to understand overview of the Bible that has ever come out of my mouth, what the numbers and bold words mean, and how to read it well. I wish I had recorded the words. I know they weren’t mine. Sponge Bob was satisfied. Her belly filled and her mind intrigued.
I never saw her again.
Some may say my time with her was wasted. I am certain it wasn’t. In addition to opening her heart and mind to how the Bible works and introducing her to the story of God and his people, I was given the opportunity to model for the other young ladies in the room how to teach someone else. Because of the words which I believe God spoke through me, the students heard a clear and simple overview of God’s plan to redeem his people. They had never wondered about verse and chapter numbers and about why their Bible’s headings were a little different than someone else’s translation. All the eyes in the room were big.
Nurturing Biblical Literacy
You see, although most of them were Christians and felt somewhat familiar with their Bibles, we are finding most Christians we meet are rather biblically illiterate. They don’t know the difference between the Old and New Testaments, why some books of the Bible feel disjointed, why some places feel like a story and others feel like a list of instructions. Their Bibles are like old, distant relatives whom they hear about from time to time yet have only shared a few, polite conversations with over the years.
Other than the obvious problem with a lack of Bible knowledge, the other difficulty is how little they can filter life through the lens of Scripture. Or, to put it another way, they have a kindergarten-level theology. Kindergarten Sunday School lessons are perfect for the 6-year-old. They are bright, happy, colorful and fun. However, an elementary understanding of the things of God will never stand up to the adult-sized problems our young people face. We must help them mature their theological thinking, so they can continue to see their grown-up life through the lens of scripture and trust God’s wisdom to lead them through.
Part of my job as a campus missionary is to deepen students’ wells of Bible knowledge, provide healthy theology that will withstand the test of time, and invite them into a personal relationship with Jesus. On campus, we do this through small-group Bible studies that are meaty and purposeful, pointing out how this applies to their lives in real time, by asking really hard questions, offering basic theology 101-type discussions, and allowing them to see and hear how all this Bible stuff applies in our personal lives.
Part of my job as a mom is to offer the same thing for my children. We squish in, cereal bowls in hand, fuzzy PJ pants, and messy bed head flopping over the couch, and we talk. We don’t always get it right, but we do our best to intentionally take God’s command to teach our children diligently, talking of God’s ways wearing our pjs and when driving down the road in the minivan, when we rest and when we rise (Deuteronomy 6:7). Young people–both in age and in faith–can understand so much more than we expect. And, knowing the world in which they will live, they desperately need to be prepared with the deepest wells of God’s Word, hearty theology, and an ever-so-close relationship with Jesus.
According to the Institute for Bible Reading, (1) more important than biblical literacy is Bible engagement. As leaders in churches and ministries, we can increase engagement with the Bible by helping our listeners orient themselves in Scripture and see the whole Bible as the story of God. We can give fly-over style explanations of a passage, then zoom in for more detail. In what other story do we give section and line orienteering? When we want to discuss a particular part in any other story, we usually orient our listener with phrases like, “remember what happened right after Jo’s sister burned her handwritten manuscript? Yeah, Jo slugged her!” or “remember that, after the third ghost–yeah, the one from Christmas future–visited Scrooge, he finally figured out how to give to others?” What would happen if we began to talk about the moments Jesus had with people similarly? With time, our listeners would construct a mental timeline of God’s story and, just maybe begin to see themselves somewhere along the same timeline. Without knowing it, we would be modeling the very first exegetical skill of reading a passage within its context.
Maybe I will see Sponge Bob again one day, but if I don’t, I will remain thankful I scooted over and paused our discussion long enough to explain the basics of the Bible to her, introducing a new friend to an old friend. She moved from no knowledge of the Bible toward knowing the Bible a bit more.
1. Institute for Bible Reading, The Bible Reset Podcast, “Why Bible Literacy Isn’t the Right Goal,” Episode 19