Has the Bible Become So Common that People Don’t Go to Church for It?

One of the questions I raised in my review of John Fea’s book on the American Bible Society was whether making the book so widely available, even more common than Wifi, has undermined its uniqueness:

What happens when you take something that is special and make it ubiquitous? In other words, to what degree did ABS operations render a holy book trivial? Hollywood, after all, lost its glamour when Americans could watch movies not only in palatial theaters but also on television in their living rooms. Perhaps, as well, this riddle is connected to the nationalistic dimensions of ABS history. By linking the Bible’s greatness to American exceptionalism, the American Bible Society was attempting to counter how ordinary the Bible would become through over-distribution.

The recent Pew survey on what people look for in going to church underscores this point. Do people go to church to understand God’s word — because it is in Scripture that he reveals himself — or are they looking for ways to be a better Christian that may or may not involve understanding Scripture? They may say that look for a church with good preaching, but the content of that preaching is not in view in the survey:

“Of the country’s largest religious traditions, evangelical Protestants are among the most likely to say they have looked for a new congregation,” Pew wrote. “For Catholics, this may reflect that choosing a new congregation (after a move, for example) can be as straightforward as determining which Catholic parish they reside in, removing the need for a more extensive search. Members of the historically black Protestant tradition move to new communities less often than other Protestants, which may be one reason they also are less likely to have ever looked for a new congregation.”

When evaluating a new church, top-quality sermons are the most important thing both evangelicals (94%) and historically black Protestants (92%) are looking for. They also want to feel welcomed by leaders (82%).

Evangelicals put slightly more emphasis than historically black Protestants in the style of worship services (80% vs. 76%) and location (69% vs. 62%).

Is that preaching or ministering God’s word or merely the pastor’s thought about religious matters in a sermon?

But if Glenn Paauw thinks Christians need to encounter bigger passages of Scripture than the McNuggets they generally read for personal edification, wouldn’t a worship service or two on Sunday with exposition of Scripture be a good place to start?

First of all, I mean it literally; we need to increase the size of our Bible readings. Start reading the words around your cherry-picked passages. Then you’re immediately confronted with context. If you’re reading in Philippians—“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me”—then you’ll start reading about the situation that Paul was in when he wrote those words. You’ll get a better understanding about the kinds of things he may be able to do in this situation. You won’t take it as an absolute promise about any endeavor you can envision, like winning a football game. So read bigger passages. I’m a big fan of reading entire books of the Bible.

We have a diminished view of Scripture in another way, especially in the West. We see the story as this individualistic, go-to-heaven-when-I-die story instead of a restorative story about the renewal of all creation and my place within that larger narrative. That’s the bigger, glorious vision that the Scriptures give us.

Going to church for the word read and preached is a two-fer — worship your maker and hear his word.

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11 thoughts on “Has the Bible Become So Common that People Don’t Go to Church for It?

  1. First time my dad (40+ years a Methodist) came to church with me (PCA at the time) the two (positive) things he pointed out about the service were how the confession of sin doesn’t make you feel very good about yourself, and secondly, that we read the Bible a lot during the service.

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  2. What if people aren’t really reading their Bibles on their own, even though the Bible is ubiquitous these days. Does that (or should it) change the way Pastors preach (or what they preach)? I find it hard to believe people stop going to church because they have their own copy of the Bible on the shelf at home. But, I’m not like most people, so I have no clue what the hell goes on in people’s brains these days.

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  3. When evaluating a new church, top-quality sermons are the most important thing both evangelicals (94%) and historically black Protestants (92%) are looking for. They also want to feel welcomed by leaders (82%).

    I would be fascinated to know what “leader” means. In many Evangelical churches, the population is so high there is no way they are rubbing elbows with the pastors/elders frequently, if at all. That makes me think they are not thinking of “leaders” as pastors. Perhaps I’m wrong, but that would correspond to my experience.

    Increasingly more churches downplay the role of the ordained ministry (in the PCA and Evangelicalism in general) in the preaching of the word and life of the church. The more important office seems to be that of “community/life/cell/new-trendy-word group leader.” I’ve heard these people described as the de facto ministers over their members as people “do life together.” Such ecclesial reorganization shifts focus from the preached word and communal worship because as you open the Word and meet in your small group, that is really where you are “fed spiritually.”

    Such developments recast worship, Scripture, the Church, and piety. For the merit small groups possess in the modern world, I’m becoming more and more concerned about the lazy adoption of them as a vehicle for spiritual growth. Their rise to prominence is decentralizing the means of grace as the primary vehicle of spiritual nourishment. That’s sad…and disconcerting.

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  4. “…a restorative story about the renewal of all creation …” I still don’t get such lines no matter the N.T. Wrights tut tut about. A new earth is built at The End, in Revelation. Before then, God is building his Church. And he does that by saving souls, not environmental outreach. But I think the internet is as much to blame as Bible distribution for an diminishing interest in church. Just like it is for less interest in libraries.

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  5. Brandon…that’s right. People go to church to join a social group, find a clique, maybe get a little therapy. No matter what fancy name you give those small groups that’s what it’s about. The creed can be reduced to: I believe in Jesus and the fellowship of the saints. Amen.

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  6. Don”t really get these either/ors (anymore). How bout they were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer Acts 2:42 why? Everyone kept feeling a sense of awe ; still amazed the Lord speaks and yet we live; that we have Him and His word as a lamp shining in dark places (even on Mon-Sat) drowning out the words of the world

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  7. My experience in a PCA church is there exists a tension between the primacy of corporate worship (Word, Sacrament, Prayer) and the stress on small groups with its lay leadership providing the backbone of community life in the church. It’s not sustainable, and corporate worship will be the one to suffer, I fear.

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  8. Not that this thread is about small groups, but it seems many churches are doubling down on the small group model, i.e., “this is not an on the side ministry but an integral part of discipleship.” Also I wouldn’t be surprised to hear people say small groups are the primary means of discipleship. Like the “Sunday morning is for ‘the gospel’ and unbelievers while small groups are for going deeper” model which normally means, “Sunday morning is for the music and pop-culture sermon illustrations and small groups are for reading a Francis Chan book (Piper/Keller if you’re lucky).”

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  9. This is an interesting thought. I’ve always thought more of the reluctance relies in the religious aspect. That new comers may not feel that they fit in with a religious crowd, which is unfortunate. Thankfully my church has a warm and welcoming environment for believers and non believers.

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