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Does what you do matter to others? Are you relevant?

While I as attending a church growth workshop in 2005, I heard a leader tell attendees to place greeters at their church doors that represented the kind of person that they wanted their church to attract. If that’s 90 year-old men, then that’s okay.

Now, who do you think that literacy-oriented pastors or Bible study teachers or witnesses using tracts attract?

Did you hear about the two studies that were released in 2011? One was by the University of Nebraska and the other was by the American Sociological Association. It showed that whites in America with high school educations declined in their frequency of church attendance, while those with college degrees were the most frequent attenders today.

Churches across America – and maybe your church, too -- have attracted those who are like them. And our churches have a very literate worldview preference.

Almost everything that most believers typically are taught to do supports a literate worldview. Just think about it! We have projected scripture, reading verses from all over the Bible, using fill-in-the-blank handouts, summarizing biblical narratives, conducting word studies, and exegeting texts for others all create a non-reproducible environment by church members. All they can do it sit and get. There is a disconnect from the general population who do not have a literate preference by church leaders who have a remarkably high literate worldview! And pastors wonder why believers rarely attract people other than those who are like themselves.

And roughly half of everyone in the vast majority of American households struggle with literacy levels that are used in the Bible. That literacy statistic is from the U.S. Dept. of Education. They conducted adult literacy studies in 1993 and again in 2003. They didn’t continue because all the studies did was prove that literacy was declining despite millions of dollars invested in America’s educational system. Who knows what it is twenty years later! However, there is one truth that emerges from literacy according to a Georgia Baptist literacy worker. She told me that those who train adults to read find that if they become followers of Jesus that they want to read the Bible for themselves and worker harder at their lessons!

Training that relies on a purely literate approach produces believers that cannot easily pass along what they have learned. They often become irrelevant; they don’t matter. Meanwhile, I have heard complaints from the most highly educated pastors as I have traveled the globe that church members are just not witnessing as they should. The truth is that our church leaders have not been equipped with a model that is reproducible outside their stained glass windows. Instead, all that the rank and file church members can do is put in a good word for Jesus or invite people to church to hear the pastor, experience the music, or have a Bible study explained to them. No wonder so many churches have turned worship services into a show!

So the ways of learning, thinking, and communicating that are second nature to most homiletics professors are dependent on high levels of literacy. We have had literacy skills so long that we forget what it was like before we acquired them. So we seldom recognize the literateness of our homiletical methods. We expect our students to use these skills in preparing and presenting sermons, perhaps unwittingly to the detriment of their listeners.

– Grant Lovejoy, “‘But I Did Such Good Exposition’: Literate Preachers Confront Orality.” Journal of the Evangelical Homiletics Society 1 (December 2001): 22-32.

A pastor’s ability to explain the Bible to others is highly valued in seminaries and Bible training schools. However, is telling every detail of a passage the equivalent of a lawn sprinkler hoping some drops wet the random blade of grass?

Small groups that don’t lecture, but ask powerful open-ended questions do a great job at getting people to think. They interact with the text and can reproduce it orally in the workplace. Exegesis is not wrong, but it depends on who says it. If believers do the exegesis as the Holy Spirit leads them, then the church leader can do a better job of making disciples like Jesus did. And that matters.

Mark Snowden directs the Cincinnati Area Baptist Association.

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