woman at desk studies the Bible on laptop to increase biblical literacy

Biblical Literacy: What It Is & How to Reverse the Decline

The Bible is more accessible today than in any generation to date. We can read it anywhere—on our phones through apps, on our laptops, over audio—or in a traditional printed copy. But having access to a Bible and actually reading and understanding it aren’t the same thing. 

Even though 87% of adult households in the United States own a Bible, a recent Lifeway Research survey revealed Americans do not prioritize reading their Bible, saying they “don’t have time.” Only 11% of those surveyed said they’ve read all of the Bible once, while 30% said they’ve only read a few passages or stories.

The biblical literacy crisis

Many Christians simply don’t know what to do with their Bibles or where to start reading. Or they may consult their Bibles on occasion—like when searching for a verse on a particular topic or an answer to a problem they are facing—but often end up reading verses out of context and applying them to completely unrelated situations. 

Church leaders striving to equip their congregations and invite them into the work of ministry are finding people ill-prepared with the Word—which means they aren’t prepared for ministry at all.

It’s no wonder church leaders are concerned about biblical literacy. As the world around us continues to change, our hope must be rooted in the God who is the same “yesterday, today, and forever” (Heb 13:8) and has given us his promises “as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul” (Heb 6:19). Where is our foundation if not in God’s unchanging Word? Yet many of us are letting our Bibles collect dust, treating the Bible (Kenneth Briggs says) like “a museum exhibit, hallowed as a treasure but enigmatic and untouched.” 

But it’s not all bad news. In fact, the state of biblical literacy in the West has created a huge opportunity to impact Bible engagement—but the time to act is now. The church must remain the voice of truth in a dark world. 

Keep reading to learn more about the biblical illiteracy epidemic in the church. Feel free to skip around to the sections that interest you most. Otherwise, read along from the top to learn more about how you can turn the tide of biblical illiteracy in your congregation.

The decline of biblical literacy has been abrupt and pervasive. . . . The decline affects intellectuals and non-intellectuals, the religious and the non-religious, those inside the churches and those outside, clergy and laity. —George Lindbeck

What is biblical literacy?

To understand what biblical literacy is, let’s first talk about what it is not.

  1. Biblical literacy is not factual knowledge.
    Being able to rattle off the name of Adam and Eve’s third son or who collected the Israelites’ gold jewelry to make the golden calf does not make one biblically literate. Nor does being able to explain Christian terms like sanctification or efficacy of the gospel. That’s knowledge—and though knowledge is important, biblical literacy goes beyond storing up lists of facts and trivia about the Bible or regurgitating Bible stories. As Rick Dubose writes, “You cannot demonstrate biblical literacy simply by passing a test.” 
  2. Biblical literacy is not church attendance.
    Though drawing people into a church building is not a bad thing, sitting through a church service each week does not guarantee a person will go home with a better understanding of the book they dutifully carry to church—or the God whose Word it is.

Biblical literacy involves a deeper awareness of the meaning of what’s in the Bible—how God’s grand narrative unfolds from the first words in Genesis 1, “In the beginning . . . ,” to the very last words of Revelation. How there’s one common thread that knits the whole thing together. That there is meaning behind every word and every story God chose to include in his book of instruction. 

It’s the ability to rightly read and understand the Bible by using the proper tools of study to become better acquainted with its essential nature and content and then apply discerned meaning to life. It requires personal interaction—and approaching the Bible for what it is: alive and active, God’s living Word (Heb 4:12).

Explore resources to help your church grow in their
understanding of the Bible.

What the Bible Really Tells Us: The Essential Guide to Biblical Literacy

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4 critical questions to answer about biblical literacy

1. Why is biblical literacy crucial today?

The Bible answers the most fundamental questions about who God is, who we are, and why we need Jesus. The answers to these questions impact how we live our everyday lives—the choices we make (and don’t make) and how we spend our time—but apart from Scripture, those answers will always be lacking. That’s precisely why biblical literacy is a must. 

Who is God?

Regardless of a person’s religious belief or background, most people have pondered who this all-powerful, divine being called “God” is. One way God chose to help us understand who he is is through language—the Bible. And although some aspects of him will remain a mystery, reading the Bible helps people learn about and understand who he is by learning about his attributes—what he is like. 

Through Scripture, we learn God is perfect, merciful, gracious, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, forgiving, and just (Exod 34:6–7). We learn that he is wise, that he “founded the earth by his wisdom” and “by understanding established the heavens” (Prov 3:19). We learn that it is through him that we “live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). The more biblically literate a person becomes, the more they begin to grasp this truth of who God is—and how complex.

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Who is Jesus?

But the Bible also describes God’s wisdom as a person—according to BibleProject, a “coworker through whom God architected the universe.” God is more than the printed words within our Bibles. John 1:1–2 refers to Jesus as the Word; he was present at creation, is with God, is equivalent to God, and is that which all things were made through. He is the author and sustainer of creation—and new creation.

The book of Hebrews says that God “speaks” to us by his Son, who is “the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Heb 1:3). Ultimately, we learn through Scripture that Jesus is Savior—the only one sufficient to pay the penalty for the sins of the world so that those who were once far from God could be brought near (Eph 2:13). When we consider the nature, character, and life of Jesus, we better understand who God is.

Who are we? 

Biblical literacy also helps people understand who they are in relation to God. The Bible calls those who receive Jesus and believe in his name “God’s children” (John 1:12), Jesus’ friend (John 15:15), justified and redeemed (Rom 3:24), no longer a slave to sin (Rom 6:6), and joined with God and one in spirit with him (1 Cor 6:17). As such, they are a reflection of God and his nature to a lost world and intended to bear “fruit” (John 15:1, 5). 

The more biblically literate a person becomes, the more they understand their identity in Christ, how God views them, and their purpose in his plan of redemption.

Ultimately, biblical literacy helps people understand the gospel, know their Creator, discover why they exist and need a Savior—and why it’s important to disciple others toward understanding these truths. When people delight in God’s Word more than the things of this world, Psalm 1:3 says they are like “a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season” (Psalm 1:3). They will impact the world rather than allowing the world to impact them. 

2. How does biblical literacy differ from Bible study?

Though they overlap, biblical literacy and Bible study have different intentions.

Biblical literacy involves a person’s ability to read the Bible with enough understanding to explain its basic meaning.

Bible study is more rigorous and detail-focused. It involves research-focused intention, interpretation (known as “exegesis”—in Greek, “to lead out”), and application for real life. Rather than reading for meaning, Bible study focuses on the world behind the text, analyzing such things as

  • Ancient biblical culture and context 
  • Archaeology and geography that corroborate biblical information
  • Social issues and pivotal events at the time the writers penned the text 

Plus, Bible study drills down into the lexical (linguistic) heart of the text through word studies, rhetorical analysis, textual criticism, and more.

Although more intensive, studying the Bible naturally leads to increased biblical literacy.

3. When should biblical literacy be taught?

Kids are growing up in a world where everything is being questioned—from marriage to gender to the existence of truth. They need a plumbline for how to navigate their world just as much as adults do. If they don’t have a biblical framework to process this life with, their peers, media, and culture will become the voice they listen to.

That’s why biblical literacy must start early. And though pastors have a crucial role in modeling and encouraging Bible engagement among all ages, biblical literacy begins in the home.

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The Bible affirms this in Deuteronomy 6:4–9:

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

The goal for parents is to help their children be comfortable with the Bible—to see it as a source of truth amid a confusing world, a source of comfort and joy.

Biblical literacy is the foundation of Christian development, but it’s also a way of life—and we want this for our kids. They must be steeped in the Bible from a young age so when they enter the battlefield of the world, they have the proper armor and weapons (Eph 6:10–17). 

Those who haven’t been taught biblical literacy from childhood need not be discouraged. Following Jesus is a journey, whether that journey starts as a child or as an adult. God desires that all his children “call out to insight and lift [their] voice to understanding” and seek out his wisdom as if searching for a hidden treasure (Prov 2:4–5) regardless of how long they’ve been reading their Bibles. When someone grows in biblical literacy is not as important as is making it a priority. The best time to start is now!

4. What role should the church play in combating biblical illiteracy?

Quite simply, a big one.

Sadly, many churches today are too busy or distracted to prioritize biblical literacy. In his article “The Scandal of Biblical Literacy,” Dr. Albert Mohler says Christians who lack biblical understanding “are the products of churches that marginalize biblical knowledge.” Though that stings, it’s a point we shouldn’t cast aside. Acts 2:41–42 tells us what the early church “looked” like:

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and prayers. And every day in the temple and from house to house they did not cease teaching and preaching that Jesus is the Christ. (Emphasis added)

Our churches should look no different today. They have a critical role in developing disciples who are mature, have a clear understanding of their Bibles, and can rightly handle the word of truth (2 Tim 2:15). 

As Mohler emphatically states, they must “recover the centrality and urgency of biblical teaching and preaching and refuse to sideline the teaching ministry of the preacher.”

What key biblical concepts should every believer know?

Click each heading to read more about important biblical concepts for Christians to know.

The story of the Bible

Trinity Evangelical Divinity School Professor of Theology Kevin Vanhoozer says the biggest sign of biblical illiteracy is that people aren’t organizing their lives by the Bible’s story—even if they attend a church. They don’t know the content of the Bible, and as a result, don’t know the story of the Bible—or why it matters.

The story of the Bible is more than a list of key biblical events. It’s the broader narrative (often called a “metanarrative”) of humanity’s attempt to define good and evil on its own terms and God’s plan from eternity past to redeem it. However, to understand that plan, we need to see how key events fit into the master story—and what happens afterward as we move toward the consummation of all things. 

Some key events include:

  • Creation, the fall, and the flood
  • God’s covenant with Abraham
  • Israel’s captivity in Egypt and release
  • God’s covenant with Israel (Mosaic), the wilderness wanderings, and Israel’s entry into the promised land
  • Israel’s kings, judges, divided kingdom, Babylonian captivity, and return to Jerusalem under Ezra
  • Jesus’ birth, life, death, and resurrection
  • The giving of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and the inclusion of the gentiles
  • The promise of Jesus’ return and future reign on Earth

Stringing these key events together is like working on a jigsaw puzzle. Most people start with the corner pieces, then fill in chunks in the middle, maybe the outside of the puzzle that forms a frame. As more pieces and more pieces are connected, chunks of one area to chunks of another, a beautiful picture begins to emerge.

In the same way, as we begin to understand the overarching story of the Bible and the significance of God’s purpose and plan established from the beginning of time, and as we begin to find meaning in each part of that story—whether a verse, passage, or book of the Bible—we start to see how the pieces connect to the whole. And that it’s a living text, very much alive and active, and like Rick Dubose says, “designed to be our spiritual sustenance, our daily bread.” 

Connecting these events to the master story will start to illuminate threads that run throughout the Bible and tie it all together. It’s the following matters (excerpted from Gordon Fee’s How to Read the Bible Book by Book) that “make the whole story hold together as one story” about God’s plan of salvation: 

  • God’s covenants with his people
  • God’s faithfulness to them despite their repeated unfaithfulness to him
  • God’s choice of the lesser and the unfavored ones—his choosing the “weak to shame the strong” (1 Cor 1:27)
  • God’s redeeming his people from slavery to make them his own
  • God’s dwelling among them in tabernacle and temple as the gift of his renewed presence on Earth (lost in the fall) 
  • God’s gift of the law to reshape them into his own likeness
  • God’s provision of a sacrificial system—the “red thread” of blood poured out for the life of another—as his way of offering forgiveness
  • God’s choice of a king from Judah who would represent him on Earth and thus prepare the way for his own coming in the person of Jesus 

And the beautiful thing? When a person begins to understand the meaning of God’s Word and see their Bibles as God’s blueprint of salvation over all time, the natural, organic result is a life devoted to him.

Central biblical or theological themes

In addition to understanding the Bible’s key events, people need to know some of the main biblical themes present throughout the Word of God:

  • God. In a culture where God is whatever or whoever a person makes him, believers must know the true identity of the God of the Bible, including such topics as his glory, holiness, sovereignty, and infallibility.
  • Scripture. All of Scripture testifies about Jesus (John 5:39). But the Bible also compares the Word of God to water. It’s what cleanses us from “wrinkles and spots” so that we might be presented to God a glorious church (Eph 5:25–27). Understanding this cleansing theme is essential for how we approach and interact with our Bibles.
  • Church. Many Christians do not understand that the church is not a building but the people (Matt 18:20). These “called-out ones” are those Jews and gentiles who believe in Jesus for their salvation (John 3:16). Paul calls the church “a profound mystery” (Eph 5:32).
  • Creation. The Bible begins and ends with creation—and the theme runs throughout Scripture. God creates a nation from Abraham, Jesus resurrects after three days in the tomb as a new creation (as are believers; see 1 Cor 15; 2 Cor 5:17), and one day, the new Jerusalem will come down out of heaven (Rev 21:2)—all illustrating God’s creative, redemptive power.
  • Sin. Adam’s first act of disobedience brought not only punishment but also “a propensity to sin that would affect all mankind, save Christ” (Rom 5:12; Lexham Bible Dictionary). This theme runs throughout Scripture, and understanding the severe consequences of sin is what propels a person to see their need for a savior.
  • Salvation. The theme of salvation carries with it the idea of protection from danger or suffering. Scripture says our sin separates us from God, but when we trust Jesus, we are saved from God’s wrath—his fair judgment of sin (Rom 5:9). 
  • Jesus. Jesus, whose very name means “God saves,” is active throughout the entire Bible—not just in the New Testament. He is present at creation, in the shadow of the tabernacle and the sacrificial system—even in the book of Daniel in the fiery furnace (Dan 3:24–27). The entire Old Testament points to Jesus as God, our promised Savior and soon-coming King.
  • Last things. In our troubled world, we can look forward to Christ’s return and his future reign. Jesus outlined the signs of the last days so that we would be watchful, live our life with that “blessed hope” front of mind (Titus 2:13), and exemplify God’s love for the lost.

And because the story has not ended (as Fee says, “the final chapter is still being written”), consummation is an essential theme that mustn’t be ignored. That’s where we find hope in God’s promises that whoever “lives and believes in me shall never die” (John 11:26).

As people begin to connect these themes to key events and then to the bigger narrative, their Bibles will go from black and white to technicolor. They’ll start to grasp who God is and how vast his incredible love for his people—and hold dear this story of grace, mercy, and forgiveness that is also their own. 

Who wrote the books of the Bible and when

Scripture tells us that the Bible was “breathed out by God” (2 Tim 3:16), the ultimate author. But approximately 40 human writers—over 1,500 years and through Holy Spirit’s leading (2 Pet 1:21)—wrote what God inspired. Each writer offers a unique perspective and brings a different background, writing style, and culture to their work: some were prophets, others priests. David was a shepherd and king, and Luke, a doctor. Yet there are no errors or contradictions. Their messages connect to the Bible’s metanarrative and bring a part to the whole that God intended for us to know and understand.

Hebrew scribes meticulously copied the biblical writings, affirming traditional beliefs about Old Testament books, their authorship, and their reliability. 

Israel, tasked by God with preserving the Hebrews Scriptures (Deut 31:24–26; Rom 3:2, 9:4), embraced them as God’s inspired Word. Jesus also affirmed their credibility and inspired authorship, telling his disciples shortly after his resurrection that “everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled” (Luke 24:44). As the church expanded and the gospel message spread, the Spirit authorized men to write to congregations and followers of Jesus to exhort, redirect, and teach them how to live out their faith—and these men equated each others’ writing with the authority of the Old Testament (2 Pet 3:15–16). 

For people to trust that the Bible is reliable and combat skepticism that God does not exist or that the Bible is a human invention, they must understand its origins.

What prophecy is and why it’s important

The Lexham Bible Dictionary defines prophecy as “An oral, divine message mediated through an individual that is directed at a person or people group and intended to elicit a specific response.” Second Peter 1:2 says the Old Testament prophets spoke from God “as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet 1:2). 

Those prophets spoke for God and offered warnings we would do well to heed today; as Gordon Fee writes in How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, “God’s Word for us today is first of all precisely what his Word was to them.” 

Because one-third of the Bible is prophecy (18 of the Bible’s sixty-six books are considered prophetic literature), Christians need an accurate understanding of what it is and should know how to approach those books (like Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel). All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful (2 Tim 3:16), even though some parts, like prophecy, might be at first intimidating. 

The setting of the Bible

Often readers approach the Bible through a modern-day western lens, filtering what they are learning through today’s culture and context. Yet the backdrop for the Bible is the Ancient Near East. Understanding that this was the stage God chose to set his story impacts our understanding of what the writers were communicating.

It’s essential to have a grasp of the geographical, historical, cultural, economic, and political world of the Bible, which includes what we know today as Israel, Syria, Arabia, modern-day Iran and Iraq, Lebanon, Turkey, and surrounding areas just past those country’s borders. It’s the land God chose to unfold his story that involved real people in a real place. Reading the Bible with this front of mind will help people determine the author’s intended meaning and its purpose in the broader narrative.

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5 tips to increase biblical literacy in your church

Start at the pulpit

Most pastors would agree that biblical literacy is essential for a believer’s growth, but too often, a rift exists between affirming that belief and encouraging it among their people. 

In 1 Timothy 4:13, Paul instructed Timothy on how to handle the church in Ephesus until Paul returned: “Give your attention to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching” (NIV). So should you—and here’s a few ways how:

  • Preach the story—often. In the course Preaching Biblical Narrative, J. Kent Edwards says pastors should preach the stories of Scripture because “it’s the way God prefers to communicate to people.” The Bible itself is narrative, so communicating it narratively respects how God inspired it. 
  • Preach expositionally from the Bible. Expositional preaching explains Scripture within its historical and grammatical context to help people (1) know God’s intended meaning and (2) see its relevance today. And it’s biblical. In Nehemiah 8:8, the Levites read through the rediscovered book of the Law of Moses and “explained the meaning of what was being read, helping the people understand each passage” (NLT; see also 2 Tim 4:2). 
  • Preach from all of the Bible. Don’t shy away from the obscure books—teach everything from Leviticus to John to Revelation. The apostle Paul modeled this, telling the church at Ephesus he didn’t have blood on his hands because he had proclaimed “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:26–27).
  • Preach through a book of the Bible once a year. This follows from the previous point. Preaching through a book of the Bible is not only biblical but over time, it will expose your people to the whole Bible. Plus, as Gordon Fee says in How to Read the Bible Book by Book, they’ll begin to connect the various threads that hold the larger narrative together.

Ideally we want people to feed themselves, but they often look to their pastor to push them along their spiritual journey. If their pastor doesn’t open the Bible each week, it’s not likely they’ll go home and follow suit. Modeling biblical literacy from up front will help your people see how vital it is—that all Scripture is breathed out by God (2 Tim:3:15) and points to Jesus (John 5:36).

However you do it, the end-goal is the same. As Edwards says, it’s to figure out how to “take God’s Word, preserve its meaning, and pass it on to those who desperately need to hear it.”

Encourage Bible reading

Ed Stetzer writes, “Reading the Bible won’t make us a Christian, but it helps us to grow as one.” In short, biblical literacy has to begin with reading

One way to encourage this is to have an online hub where members can interact over Bible readings. Start by posting a daily Bible reading plan to get the whole church reading the Bible together. You can then use the group to: 

  • Ask specific questions about the reading
  • Post a verse or passage and ask what people are learning about it from their studies
  • Ask what the reading teaches us about God (or Jesus, or the Holy Spirit or people)
  • Post one thing that takes the reading deeper, such as the meaning of a Hebrew or Greek word or a cultural concept from the biblical world
  • Post prayer suggestions that tie in with the reading

You or another leader can use the hub to start some good conversation around the Word, periodically jump in the conversation, offer guidance, and even set times to video chat about a reading plan.

Offer a church-wide online Bible study

Gone are the days of midweek services where the people would gather at church for discussion-based classes that were an effective way to get an entire church body growing in biblical literacy. 

Yet people still need to study God’s Word, and according to Dr. R. Albert Mohler, President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, churches need to lead the charge: “Christians who lack biblical knowledge are the products of churches that marginalize biblical knowledge.” He says Bible teaching often accounts for a fraction of the local congregation’s time and attention, and though the sway toward small group ministry has increased opportunities for fellowship, many groups never get beyond a surface exploration of the Scripture.

One solution is to start a church-wide online Bible study.

Find an online community space to help your church gather around God’s Word. (Usually you can adjust privacy settings according to the group.) You can post curriculum in the group—like a follow-up study guide to Sunday’s sermon or video-driven studies—host online discussions, and offer supplemental content like the free Bible-based content from BibleProject.

Equip your church to study the Bible on their own

Most importantly, you want your church to be able to study God’s Word without you holding their hand, and in this digital age, Bible study software is key. It allows people to dig deep into the Bible, study the original languages, and find cross-references. It will open the world of the Bible to your church by providing information on the culture and context of when it was written so they’ll be better equipped when they read their Bibles to properly identify God’s intended meaning in the narrative.

Look for Bible software you can share with your church that includes resources like commentaries, dictionaries, Bibles, books on theological topics—even tools for your church to dabble in doing Greek and Hebrew word studies

Empower parents with resources

As stated earlier, we want to raise kids who think and act biblically, and the best place to begin is at home. However, parents—especially newer believers—are often at a loss for where to start.

Your job is to guide families to not only grow together spiritually but equip parents to be able to be the primary spiritual leaders in their kids’ lives. Kids can learn the same Bible literacy skills you are teaching your adults to understand God’s “big-picture story.” 

Here’s just four ideas you can share with parents to cultivate an understanding of God’s Word in their children:

  1. Listen to the Bible as a family. A great audiobook is the Dramatized Audio Bible, which includes a true-to-text dramatization of God’s Word set to music. 
  2. Memorize Bible verses.
  3. Watch BibleProject summary videos together. 
  4. Work through Bible Engagement Project’s Listen curriculum, which offers fantastic instruction for children of all ages.

How to know your biblical literacy initiative is working

You can take all the steps outlined above but not be sure whether your people understand their Bibles more than they did three, six, nine months, or a year ago. That’s why a critical step to your plan must be to check in with people often to ensure growth.

You can do this in a few ways:

  • Conduct occasional surveys and polls to see how your congregation is growing
  • Create leadership training pathways that people can join
  • Pay attention to the questions and struggles of small group leaders
  • Keep track of how many people are participating in Bible reading plans 
  • Make room for people to ask questions about what they’re reading in the Bible (and listen to their questions)

Ultimately, though, if biblical literacy is improving in your church, you’ll know it. People will be excited about the Bible, talk about what God is doing in their church, their community, and their lives, and want to do whatever they can to bring others along. 

If you call out for insight and raise your voice for understanding, if you seek it like silver and search for it as for hidden treasures, then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God. (Prov 2:2–5)


It’s time to reverse the trend. 

Church leaders must “transition from ‘survival’ mode back into ‘discipleship’ mode” and establish confidence in their people that they can read and understand their Bible. Biblical literacy is non-negotiable for your congregation’s spiritual health in any season—not just during crises. It will take time and a bit of innovation—but you can start the process now.

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Written by
Karen Engle

Karen Engle is a copy editor for Faithlife. She has a master's in biblical studies and theology from Western Seminary and frequently takes groups to Israel.

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Written by Karen Engle