I’m convinced that a major reason the American church faces decline is because, in many places, the stories of God’s steadfast love for humanity are no longer being told or explained. Study after study has shown that church-going Americans are more biblically illiterate than ever. Fewer than half spend more than once a week reading their Bible, and many can’t correctly identify simple facts from basic stories of the Bible.
Yet when we look at the preaching of the early church in Acts, believers constantly refer back to the Hebrew Scriptures in order to explain who God is, God’s promises to the people of Israel (and ultimately the rest of the world), and the ways God has brought those promises to fulfillment through Jesus Christ. For example, when Luke describes the events leading up to the death of the first Christian martyr, Stephen, he includes a lengthy speech in which Stephen explains the ways God has been at work throughout history: in the lives of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Joshua, David, and Solomon. The speech underscores God’s continual faithfulness and Israel’s frequent rejection of God’s provision and plans. It helps to frame the response that follows: the Jewish leaders’ rejection of their messiah, which results in Stephen’s death.
Somehow in our modern church culture, however, we have truncated this story and compacted the message into “Jesus loves you,” and little else. Take, for example, the popular History Channel series, The Bible. In the scene where Stephen is stoned to death, his message is simply, “Be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. You can all be baptized for the forgiveness of your sins.” Then the film portrays a confrontation between Stephen and Saul, in which Saul convinces the marketplace crowd to stone Stephen to death for blasphemy. (Of course, this completely changes Luke’s portrayal of Stephen arguing in front of the Sanhedrin.) During the confrontation, Stephen proclaims that Jesus is the savior, crucified and risen from the dead, and calls him a true prophet and the messiah. He makes a vague reference to knowing the Scriptures, but none of these passages are brought into the dialogue. Thus, in this portrayal, Jesus becomes little more than a vending-machine God: place your dollar of faith in the vending machine of Christian religion, and out pops the sweet forgiveness of sins. But the actual mechanism of forgiveness — a loving God who has been faithful throughout history, despite long periods of rejection by God’s own people — disappears as simplistic explanations win the day.
The power of the gospel comes from understanding the story of God’s love for humanity — but this isn’t a story that begins and ends with Jesus. If it were, the story wouldn’t make much sense. Why would God send his only son to die for humanity’s sins? Why does God even care about humanity? How do we know Jesus was God’s Son? Why did Jesus have to die? What comes next?
Only when we tell the stories of humanity’s relationship with God will people gain a sense of the depth of God’s love and patience for humanity:
- In the story of our first parents, we learn that God not only gives curses as a consequence for sin, but God also gives hope for the future (Gen 3:15) and cares enough to cover the shame of man and woman by providing animal skins (the first sacrifice, Gen 3:21).
- In the story of Abraham and Sarah, we learn that God graciously chooses a dysfunctional family to become the unlikely parents of a nation dedicated to God.
- In the story of Joseph, we learn how God transforms sibling rivalry and hatred into an opportunity for forgiveness and deliverance.
- In the story of Moses, we learn how God confronts the powers of this world and uses an outcast to provide freedom for a suffering people.
- In the story of Israel’s desert wanderings, we learn that God desires for us to live in right relationship with God and one another.
- In the story of Rahab, we learn how God’s great reputation leads a woman of ill-repute to trust God, which leads to the salvation of her family.
- In the story of David, we learn that God doesn’t choose leaders according to cultural standards, but God looks upon the heart (1 Sam 16:7).
- In the stories of the prophets, we learn that God doesn’t take sin lightly, and that God won’t be angry forever.
- In the prophets, we also learn that God promises to give us the very spirit of God to empower our walk with the Lord (Ezek 36:26-27; Joel 2:28-29).
And so when we come to the NT and Jesus arrives on the scene, we can begin to understand that God must deal with the sins that continually mar our relationship with a loving Creator. We aren’t surprised when God uses unexpected people like fishermen, tax collectors, and women to further the kingdom. We recognize that Jesus doesn’t present new teaching when he calls us to love God and neighbor, but he calls us to live in the way that God had always intended. And we look forward to the empowering of the Spirit that enables us to live faithfully.
It is only through understanding the history of God’s faithfulness that any of this makes sense. And that’s why biblical illiteracy and church decline go hand in hand. Without knowing the stories of a faithful God, we struggle to make sense of the new life that God has promised, and our spiritual lives wither. But when we remember God’s love and faithfulness across the generations, we are emboldened to experience it anew ourselves.