Biblical literacy: It’s All About Jesus
A look at biblical literacy and why it matters for kids…
If you are like me and try to keep up on the latest news and trends in the Church and Christianity as a whole, you’ve probably seen blog posts and news articles with dire predictions of the state of biblical literacy and Bible reading in America. The stats that get highlighted can be rather alarming, from the numbers of people who can’t name the four gospels or who think that Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife, to the staggering number of professing Christians who claim the Bible is important but admit to not reading much. We see the statistics and are left with the fear that in the coming generations, no one will know what the Bible really says because no one will be reading it.
While the studies and figures can certainly paint a bleak picture, those of us in the Church who are concerned about the state of biblical literacy in the coming generations need to be asking some important questions to shape how we are approaching the issue today: What does is look like to be biblically literate? Why does biblical literacy matter? And how can we teach our kids about the Bible in ways that lead to them becoming more biblically literate adults?
More than just the facts…
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines “literacy” as “knowledge that relates to a specified subject.” So obviously, we can infer that when we talk about biblical literacy, we mean knowledge about the Bible. Many people think of this in terms of knowing Biblical facts—the names of biblical figures, geography, timelines, super specific details in Bible stories, and more. But some would argue, and I would agree, that biblical literacy goes beyond just memorizing facts about the Bible. An important part of biblical literacy is to understand how all of the pieces of the Bible relate to one another—the stories, poems, laws and letters. It’s about making connections, and the connector is Jesus.
Luke 24:27: Then beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He [Jesus] explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures. (NASB)
This verse is from the gospel of Luke’s account of what happened on the Road to Emmaus. Two disciples of Jesus are headed from Jerusalem to the village of Emmaus when the resurrected Jesus himself appears to them. The disciples do not recognize Jesus and begin to fill Him in on the events of the last few days—Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion and the reports from the women that He is alive. Jesus then proceeds to explain to the disciples that these things were foretold, and He showed them how the Scriptures all pointed to Him.
So as we see from what happened on the road to Emmaus, Jesus himself points to the fact that He is the key to connecting all of the parts of the Bible. Being truly biblically literate means understanding where the parts of the Bible fit into the bigger picture of the story of Jesus. The Old Testament Stories lead up to His coming, as it tells how God is working to address the problem of sin in the world that began in the Garden. It involves a covenant between God and Abraham and his descendants that he would make them a great nation and bless the world through them. These descendants were freed from slavery in Egypt, given the Law of Moses and eventually became the nation of Israel. But the people continually turned from God and followed their own desires, and God sent prophets to tell how He would address the problem of sin another way, by sending His very own Son.
Then the New Testament opens with the coming of Jesus. The gospels tell of his life, ministry, death and resurrection. The rest of the New Testament tells of how the disciples and the early Church made sense of the world after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, and the last book of the Bible, Revelation, looks forward to His return. This overarching story of Jesus is the story of the Bible, and everything we read fits into this story somehow.
So why does it all matter?
So why is it important to connect what we are reading to Jesus, or to be biblically literate, for that matter? Well, for one thing, if we profess to be Christians, we are declaring that we are followers of Jesus Christ, and one of the main ways we are able to learn about Jesus is through the Bible. By understanding how the Bible connects to Jesus, we have a better understanding of Him, and we need to know Jesus if we are to follow him faithfully and to share the good news of the gospel with others. By following Jesus, we also become a part of the great Story of Scripture, since we are living in the time in between the Early Church and the return of Christ. Biblical literacy leads to better application of what we learn, so we can look more like Jesus in our everyday lives. And all of this isn’t just for adults; it applies to kids too!
Laying a foundation for biblical literacy
Middle schoolers were seated all around our living room, and the lesson time of our evening small group was underway. Each of the students had a paper where they would draw and take notes on the Old Testament Bible Story we were covering that evening. When they were finished, the paper would be added to a folder with the previous weeks’ stories in it, and a red piece of yarn would be threaded through holes punched in each of the papers. Their youth pastor, my husband, explained that the red yarn symbolized the connecting thread between the stories we were discussing. As he asked them about the connections between the stories, it became apparent that although some of them knew the characters and events of the stories very well, they had never considered how the stories were related to one another. It was after this experience, we decided that helping middle school students see connections in the Bible needed to be a major teaching goal in our church’s youth ministry.
While the middle school years are a great time to help kids start putting the pieces together, it’s never too early to begin. Oftentimes in children’s ministry, we can get so concerned with making sure kids learn the facts and basic stories of the Bible, we forget to help them make connections between the stories and to Jesus. Depending on what curriculum you are using, you might need to supplement story time to make connections. Some curriculum is great at doing this already, but others are structured more thematically and don’t tell chronological stories, so it might take a little extra work to make connections between different stories and to Jesus.
Here are some simple ways you, as a pastor, children’s ministry worker or volunteer, can help lay the foundation for biblical literacy for your kids :
- Review related stories. When you are telling a Bible story, remind kids of the stories that have come before or that are related. For example, if you are telling a story about King David, remind your students that King David is the same David who was the shepherd boy anointed as king, who fought the giant Goliath, and who was chased by the bad King Saul.
- Tell how the stories connect to Jesus. Always try to keep in mind how the story you are telling is a part of the story of Jesus. This might be easier to explain in some passages than others, but it should always be something you take into consideration. In our example from above, we can point out that God promised King David that a king from his family would always be on the throne of Israel. God keeps this promise in Jesus, who is descended from King David and rules as our Savior and king forever.
- As much as you can, tell groups of stories in chronological order. Often, telling stories in chronological order, rather than picking random stories scattered throughout the Bible, makes it easier for kids to see how stories connect to one another and how the narrative of Scripture is moving toward Jesus. If you use a Bible storybook to tell stories, it helps if your storybook is as complete as possible. A great example is Egermeier’s® Bible Storybook, which tells the compete narrative of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation. (Full disclosure: I work for the publisher, but it is still a personal favorite of mine.)
- Make sure you are prepared. When you are making your lesson plans or reviewing your curriculum, ask yourself, “How does this story connect to other stories in the Bible?” and “How does this story connect to Jesus?” You can also get extra practice by asking these questions as you do your own daily reading. You might just find you’re becoming more biblically literate yourself!
Looking at the future
As we look at the future of biblical literacy, let’s not get paralyzed by the scary statistics, and instead let’s focus on what we can do in our areas of influence. Some simple considerations in how we teach Bible stories to our kids can help them make connections that help increase their overall understanding of the Bible—and their biblical literacy. More importantly, an increase in their biblical literacy can help kids understand they are a part of the story of Jesus and see how they can follow Him more faithfully, and that is a connection that lasts a lifetime.
This article originally appeared in the January/February 2014 issue of Kidzmatter magazine.
Gwynne Watkins works for the Christian publishing and resource company Warner Press and has volunteered in youth ministry for more than 10 years and in children’s ministry since she was old enough to be a helper at Vacation Bible School. She and her husband Joe, a pastor, live in Dayton, Ohio with their son Micah, their overly friendly dog and their not-so-friendly cat.