As theological debates on sexuality and marriage become more and more central, many Christian denominations are being asked to clarify their views.
“Many people never read big chunks of the Bible at all, they just return again and again to the bits they experience as inspiring or comforting”, says researcher Ruth Perrin.
How do young people relate to the Bible nowadays? This is one of the questions Ruth Perrin, Leech Research fellow at St. John’s College (Durham, UK), has been trying to respond in the last years.
More than 1 in 5 young Christians rarely or never read the Bible and only engage Scripture in a church context, she found. Sermons are the main source of biblical knowledge.
Some 50 years ago, church leaders “could assume people knew what Easter and Christmas were about, or had heard of Daniel in the lions’ den or David and Goliath. That’s not true now so churches have to start a lot further back with real Bible basics”, she says.
In this context, how should churches teach the Bible to Millennials?
Ruth Perrin responded to questions of Evangelical Focus in the following interview.
Question. One of the stats from your study shows that 89% of those between the ages of 18 and 30 say their biblical knowledge mainly comes from being taught (e.g. sermons, Bible studies). What could be done to encourage people to really read their Bible at home and not depend only on Sunday's message?
Answer. That’s the million dollar question! I think we need to inspire people to understand how interesting the Bible can be - how beautiful and clever the literature is. Passion for Scripture is contagious and so preachers being enthusiastic and creative is a good start.
Creating a collaborative environment – in small groups or the such like - where people are encouraged to share, speak out, learn together rather than expecting an expert to bestow ‘the answer’ is also life giving. I do think people are often a bit boggled by parts of the Bible – especially by the Old Testament. An overview to give perspective of how it fits together is something I’ve seen really help people.
Essentially people need to meet God in his word not just read out of duty. I’ve got a website which aims to help people find points of identification with characters from scripture in an endeavour to inspire them to read for themselves more often.
Q. Most of your work has been qualitative, you sat down with dozens of people to learn about their Christian life. What has surprised you most (both positively and negatively) in these conversations?
A. My work has used a mixture of methods: questionnaires, focus groups and interviews. The project I’m currently working on is all individual interviews although the current website articles are largely based on focus group conversations.
What has been most surprising with interviews is just how much personal information people are willing to share with a complete stranger. It’s a genuine honour to hear people’s stories and at times feels like a form of pastoral ministry, just giving people time to talk and really be heard.
Q. Many were told (even in Sunday school songs) to “read you Bible every day”. The reality is that a minority does so. From what you have found, what are the main obstacles?
A. Busyness. Many of us run at a crazy speed or are plugged into screens 24/7. It’s a genuine discipline to carve out time for Bible reading.
A lot of people I’ve spoken to are starting to listen to audio versions on their commute or while doing practical tasks. Others are reading together with a spouse or friend which seems helpful.
Especially for those with young children it’s an up-hill struggle. There’s a tension to hold between carving out intentional time to be with God on a regular basis (even if it’s not daily) and remembering we worship a God of Grace who does understand our life stages.
Q. Do you believe churches generally in the UK tend to substitute the Bible for other Christian discipleship resources in their youth group meetings?
A. I really can’t comment on youth work in the UK- it’s been a long time since I was involved and I’ve got no data on it.
Dr Melody Briggs has done some interesting work on reading the Bible with Children. It’s published as part of the grove biblical series B81 Interpreting Bible Stories with Children and Young Teens.
What I would say is that developmentally teens need to see the relevance to their own situation in what they are taught. The ability to handle abstract concepts continues to develop throughout young adulthood (the human brain is still developing to the age of 25!) So, whatever youth leaders do their young people probably need it to feel directly relevant in order to make sense of it.
Q. You say: “Many churches have a ‘Canon within the Canon’”. Do you believe in the past (i.e. 50 years ago) churches preached on a bigger diversity of Bible passages?
A. The idea of a ‘Canon within the Canon’ is well established in scholarship. It means that although Christians say they hold the whole Canon of Scripture as God’s authoritative word, there are portions that, in reality, they consider most important and focus their attention on - often to the exclusion of others.
It’s why many people know the New Testament so much better than the Old, and theologically there’s a case to be made for an emphasis on writings about Jesus. However even within that, different traditions tend to emphasise different portions of the New Testament.
For example: Reformed evangelicals often put a heavy emphasis on the epistle to the Romans; those interested in social action may well emphasises Luke’s gospel; Charismatics and Pentecostals will often spend a lot of time reading Acts. It takes a brave church to take on Jeremiah (other than a few happy chapters), or Chronicles, or Leviticus! The effect though is that many people just never read big chunks of the Bible at all, they just return again and again to the bits they experience as inspiring or comforting.
With regards to what preachers did 50 years ago I’m not sure I’m in a place to comment. It is clear though (according to Bible society research) that in the UK people used to have a greater base line of biblical knowledge so one could assume people knew what Easter and Christmas were about, or had heard of Daniel in the lions’ den or David and Goliath. That’s not true now so churches have to start a lot further back with real Bible basics.
Q. You found most women say they are not used to be taught about female biblical role models. What negative effects can this have on the way they see the Bible?
A. Again, there’s a vast body of literature and discussion around the effects of the Bible on women. Some have rejected Scripture entirely as ‘irredeemably patriarchal’, others work hard to try and redeem interpretations and find new life giving ones for women.
Some scholars argue that the idea of a ‘great cloud of witnesses’ is particularly important to women, who are often very relationally oriented. And I do think that we may unconsciously deter women from finding the role models they long for in scripture.
Telling an elderly lady to emulate the Apostle Paul or a self-conscious 13 year old girl to be like Moses may not be all that helpful or inspiring for them. There are wonderful, brave, godly women in Scripture but often they get neglected because they are minor characters in the text. I’ve written on this in a Grove Booklet B42, Inspiring Women.
Q. Finally, why did you start the Discipleship Research blog? How do you hope it becomes a useful tool?
A. All my research is driven by the ministry question, “What difference does what I/we do actually make to people’s faith?”
I know many ministers ask the same thing but are busy people and so doing their own research or finding time to sit down with academic books or journal articles is not realistic. Discipleship Research aims to present just a few thoughts to ponder each month that might help people reflect on what they are doing in the light of research data rather than just anecdote.
We’re starting with my research but hoping to include other contributors who’ve done postgraduate level research in due course. The aim is to provide insights into what is going on beneath the surface of the Church in a way that informs ministry practise by creating generous conversation and swapping of ideas.
ABOUT RUTH PERRIN
Ruth is the Leech Research fellow at St. John’s College (Durham, UK) and associate staff member at King’s Church.
She has 20 years of ministry experience; preaching, training and mentoring in church and para-church contexts with a particular (but not exclusive) interest in the faith of young adults.
Perrin shares her findings in the blog Discipleship Research.