Overcoming Bible Illiteracy
About the Guest
Do you love God's Word? Are you eager to spend your time wandering through the pages of your Bible, soaking in God's truth? Bible teacher Jen Wilkin voices her concerns about Bible illiteracy among the body of Christ. Jen talks about the importance of seriously studying the Bible and watching God's Word transform the lives of its readers.
Do you love God’s Word? Bible teacher Jen Wilkin voices her concerns about Bible illiteracy among the body of Christ.
Overcoming Bible Illiteracy
Bob: Author and Bible study leader, Jen Wilkin, remembers the day that she realized she needed to start taking Bible study more seriously and start approaching her Bible study in a whole new way.
Jen: I had my first child. I think it’s a time when, for a lot of women, you suddenly see the extent of your need. You realize: “I don’t know the Bible like I need to. Not only do I not know it well enough to sustain me through all of the interesting portions of new motherhood, but now I’m supposed to hand this spiritual legacy over to another human being. If I don’t own it, how can I ask anybody else to?”
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Monday, March 9th. Our host is the President of FamilyLife®, Dennis Rainey, and I’m Bob Lepine. We’ll talk today to Jen Wilkin. She believes that it’s time for women’s ministry leaders to start leading women into a deeper understanding of God’s Word. Stay tuned.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. We’re going to be talking today to people who love God’s Word but don’t take it seriously.
Dennis: Why don’t you cut to the chase on the broadcast; huh?
Bob: I thought we could. There are folks who really do love the Bible but don’t take it as seriously as they ought to.
Dennis: And we’re going to equip them to know how to take it seriously—and even better—to know how to allow it to live inside you and through you to reach a lost world. We have Jen Wilkin joining us on FamilyLife Today. Jen—welcome to the broadcast.
Jen: Thank you for having me.
Dennis: She’s written a book called Women of the Word. There’s a reason why she’s written this book. It’s subtitled How to Study the Bible with Both Our Hearts and Our Minds. She has led a number of Bible studies. How many do you suppose you have led, in terms of teaching women to study the Scriptures?
Jen: I have probably been teaching for almost 15 years now. It started as a women’s Sunday school class, at my last church, before we moved up to the Dallas area.
So I was teaching that weekly and, then, started teaching weekday Bible studies as well. I don’t know if I can count how many. I’ve probably written 10 or 11 curriculums—if not more than that—just constantly feeding the content needs of the Bible studies.
Dennis: There are a lot of men, listening right now, who are thinking, “Oh this is going to be a program for how women can study the Bible.” Let me tell you something—you will benefit if you’ll listen to what Jen has done here. Now, she and her husband have been married for 21 years. They have four children, and they live in the giant city of Flower Mound, Texas.
Jen: Yes. [Laughing]
Dennis: I love it—I love it—it’s great. You begin the book by talking about a mountain to climb—that you were climbing a mountain, as a young lady. Explain what you meant by that to our listeners.
Jen: Well, I mention in the book how, at first, I wasn’t even aware that the mountain was there. I was a child of many denominations, growing up.
We went around from church to church during my childhood and, then, even into my early adult years. And so I was in many different environments, and heard many people speaking from the platform with authority, and realizing that they weren’t all saying the same things.
And then I had the blessing of being in a Bible church, when I was in late elementary towards middle school, and was actually given some tools to read and study on my own and began to realize that, if we don’t know just what the Bible says, then we’re not going to be able to discern between who is speaking truth and who is speaking error.
Bob: There are a lot of people today, though, who you would say fit that exact description—people who have been in the church their whole lives. They may know a lot of verses—
Bob: —or a lot of principles, but they don’t understand the Bible.
Dennis: Yes. You call it biblical illiteracy.
Dennis: That’s a tough statement—
Dennis: —but it’s true; isn’t it?
Jen: Well, you know, Bible illiteracy lives within a bigger issue that we have. We don’t just have a Bible literacy crisis. You could argue we have a literacy crisis that then compounds issues that we have within the church. I think we’re losing, collectively, our value for being literate in general; and it is impacting the church, which says that we hold to a book as our standard of truth.
So it’s not just always an issue of building Bible literacy. It’s just a flat-out literacy issue. I talk about that in the book some—that many of the things that I want women to understand are good and right to do with your Bible are things that we should have learned in high school English, but many of us didn’t.
Bob: When did this click for you? When did you start to say, “I need to read my Bible differently than the way I’ve been reading it all through my growing up years”?
Jen: I think it started, for me, when I hit motherhood. I had my first child. I think it’s a time when, for a lot of women, you suddenly see the extent of your need. You realize: “I don’t know the Bible like I need to.
“Not only do I not know it well enough to sustain me through all of the interesting portions of new motherhood but, now, I’m supposed to hand this spiritual legacy over to another human being. And if I don’t own it, how can I ask anybody else to?”
So then, I went to a women’s Bible study at my church. Honestly, a lot of it was just that I needed to get out of the house and actually clothe myself and be in my right mind for a few hours. I went and began to be exposed to the anomaly that is women’s Bible study in the evangelical church. I had some positive experiences; and then I had some experiences where I thought: “Maybe I’m just not good at this,” or “I don’t understand what women’s Bible study is supposed to do.”
Over a course of time, I came to be the Women’s Ministry Director at my previous church. One of my jobs was to vet curriculum for about 13 different Bible studies at any given semester.
It was then that I really became alarmed because there were so many things that we were calling a Bible study that were actually a study of a book that someone had written about the Bible—which is fine / we need those kinds of things / we need topical studies that are going to integrate broad concepts for us—but I began to recognize, more and more, that the environments where we were simply learning God’s Word, line upon line / going through a book from the beginning to the end—that those environments were, in many cases, vanishing from churches.
Dennis: Jen, you may not know this—but FamilyLife was actually started because of engaged couples or single folks, who were thinking about marriage and didn’t have the biblical blueprints. They didn’t have the big picture of marriage in mind. So, we created a ministry that was a marriage preparation conference—that was about really taking the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, and laying out the big picture, from Scripture, of what God had in mind when He made marriage and the family.
Taking a step back from it all, there are really two key points in our lifetimes, where we become—and you just described them—when we become incredibly teachable. One is when we say, “I do.”
Dennis: Okay?—because, now, reality is commencing but then reality, exponentially, increases when they place a baby in your arms.
Bob: A live human being—
Bob: —of your own making.
Dennis: It’s like: “You, Jen,”—or in our case—“You, Barbara and Dennis, are responsible for the spiritual well-being—to nurture, to train, to disciple,”—at that moment, people become very teachable. For me, the guy who whetted my appetite for Bible study was Dr. Howard Hendricks. He taught a Bible study class called “Bible Study Methods.” Now, you’d think that would be the driest course imaginable.
Bob: This was at seminary—for seminary students on how to study the Bible; right?
Dennis: That’s right, and yet it was one of the—if not the most popular class because, here, he took a bunch of seminary students and he taught an entire semester in how to approach the book—but do it within context, understand the bigger picture, and then begin to apply it.
When we started our ministry, Dr. Hendricks made a statement that is, now, I think, included at the beginning of all our Weekend to Remember® marriage conference manuals. He made a statement—he said, “The body of Christ is suffering from vitamin A deficiency. It is knowing the Bible and applying it—vitamin A.” He didn’t just study the Bible or train us to study the Bible for head knowledge—he actually challenged us to move our knowledge to our feet and make it an application. That’s what you’re doing in your book, Women of the Word.
Jen: Yes. I would nuance it a little further because I think that what I saw, as I was looking at women’s curricula, is that so often we would rush to the application piece before we had tried to understand what the text was trying to say and what the text meant. I think it’s not unique just to women’s resources. I think that you see that other places as well. Life moves fast. We’re like: “Give me what I need for the day.” I think that we have lapsed into taking a very short-term approach to the way that we spend time in the Word.
Bob: You said, “You’ve got to eat your veggies before you get to the dessert”; right?
Jen: Yes. Also, you need to read the label to see what the nutritional content is of what it is that you’re eating. I think that we have become maybe not as discriminatory as we ought to be about the way that we are approaching Scripture and the tools that we’re using to get into it.
Dennis: Well, in light of approaching the Bible in a fresh way—you said that, as we study the Bible, there are two approaches that people make when it comes to studying the Scriptures.
Jen: Yes. I think often, when we get two things backwards: First, what we tend to do—and it’s related to that issue of wanting to rush to application—is that we approach the Bible as though it is a book that is about us. We ask the wrong question of it—we ask it: “What should I do?” or “Who should I be?” These are good questions that the Bible does want to answer, but the Bible answers them only through the lens of telling us who God is.
So, a fundamental thing that I am always asking women to do is—to go back to understanding that we read the Bible, first, to discover who it tells us God is and, then, we see ourselves in relation to what it tells us about God. This is how we begin to be transformed because, as long as I can just see myself in relation to other people—like as long as I’m looking at Bob and trying to be more righteous than Bob—I can maybe feel pretty good about myself; right, Bob?
Bob: You can—trust me.
Jen: Yes. But, as soon as I’m looking into Scripture and seeing what it means that God is just—then my definition of myself, as a person who is either just or unjust, is now thrown into sharp relief. That’s when I begin to see the distance between who I am and who I would be if I were more conformed to the image of God. My heart breaks over the distance, and then I’m transformed—I begin to long for the better thing instead of longing to just be better than Bob—I long to be more like my Heavenly Father and, then, I begin to be changed.
Bob: You know, there are people, though, who say: “You’re talking about theology. Theology is dry, and it’s boring, and it’s dusty. I don’t want just a bunch of head knowledge. I want something that lives.”
Jen: Right. I totally agree. I think it was R.C. Sproul, who said, “Everyone is a theologian.” So, you are a theologian whether you acknowledge that you are or not.
I think you’ve reached to the second thing that we tend to get backwards, and that is that our first approach to Scripture ought to be with our hearts / it ought to be with our emotions.
I always want to be really careful when I talk about this. My intent is never to tell people that “Your approach to Scripture should be unemotional.” I actually don’t think that. I think, just as Howard Hendricks taught your class and you were deeply moved and invigorated by the way that he presented Scripture, that that’s what Bible study ought to do for us. It ought to make our emotions come alive.
But I want us to return to an understanding of how transformation happens. If you look at Romans 12:2, it says, “Don’t be conformed any longer to the pattern of this world,”—which we want.
Jen: We don’t want to conform. What do we all want?—we want to be transformed. That’s what it tells us about—“by the renewing of your—
Jen: —“mind,”—not your heart. It doesn’t mean that your heart isn’t a part of the process, but it means that the path to a changed heart is through the mind. So the way I usually articulate that is—that the heart cannot love what the mind does not know. We may profess that we love God—and for women, in particular / it’s probably the same for men—we want to feel deeply our love for the Lord.
We gauge the strength of our faith on how strongly we feel about Him. We speak about feeling like He’s far away or He’s near. It can be a roller coaster ride—particularly when you hit a crisis point; right?—because then you’re looking to your emotions to give you a reliable gauge of what reality is. No; you can’t—they’re all over the map.
It’s when you’re in crisis, in particular, that you recognize how much your faith is grounded in the fact of who God says He is, or in the feelings that you have for Him; of course, the two are related. My contention is that the more that we know God / the more we behold Him in His Word, the more we will love Him. Those emotions will increase, because He is eminently loveable.
Dennis: Yes; and once you get to know Him—
Dennis: —and find out who He is, and how He loves—
Dennis: I’ll never forget, to your point, a comment in class one day. Dr. Hendricks was amazing in this class. He was so motivational to get you in the book.
He said, “Gentlemen,”—this was back when Dallas Seminary only had men / today, they have men and women—but he said, “Gentlemen, I want to dust your minds with itching powder.” [Laughter] You’re sitting out there—and just the picture of that—of him walking around the class with a shaker / a salt shaker, dusting you with itching powder, wanting you to hunger more—for more knowledge of who God was and an experience of God—not just to leave it in the head but, as you’ve just said, to move it to the heart and to make it an experience of God. That’s what all of us went to seminary for.
Bob: It’s interesting because I’ve heard Tim Keller, the pastor at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York, say that, ultimately, as a preacher, what he’s aiming for is a person’s will.
Bob: He wants you to be living differently.
Bob: But he says the only way to get to the will is by touching both mind and heart to get there.
Bob: He said if all you’re doing is touching heart, there is no rootedness that’s going to last. If all you’re doing is touching mind, and the emotions don’t get engaged, then there’s no motivation for it. So, you have to have mind and heart, fully engaged, in order for the will to be transformed.
Jen: Right. You just learn to want the better thing. I compare it to how nobody is wrong to think that Cheetos are delicious—Cheetos are delicious!
Bob: Put it up, sister—right here. Put it up—I’m with you.
Jen: Yes. High five to you—okay. Preach; right? [Laughter] So, Cheetos taste fantastic! It’s not until someone sits us down and says, “Have you actually read what’s in Cheetos?”
Bob: Let’s not go there! [Laughter]
Jen: And then what happens?
Dennis: This is why I put cheese on it—it makes them healthy. [Laughter]
Jen: So good. We’re going to get along so great! Once you read the package, then, all of a sudden, you’re like, “Oh, no!”—right?
It hits your head; but it takes a while for that to translate into the way you feel about the Cheeto because you’ve loved the Cheeto for a long, long time, with a dedicated and strong love.
Bob: That’s right.
Jen: So then, it begins to hit your heart; and then what happens? Your decision-making changes. You choose the better thing, but it’s not just—
Bob: Not yet—not yet! [Laughter]
Jen: We’re in a hypothetical here. But it’s not just that you look at the Cheetos package and say “That’s not what I need to eat.” It’s that you read the ingredients on the mixed greens and you say, “This is the better thing.”
I think part of the problem that we run up against is just like with junk food—how, when you eat junk food, it satisfies your sense of hunger; but it doesn’t nourish you. I think that’s where we are, a lot of times, with women’s Bible study. We want the feeling of satisfaction, and we don’t care how we get it.
One of the things that I always push women on is that: “Don’t come to your quiet time or your Bible study asking that, by the end of it, you’re going to leave satisfied. Come to it hoping that, by the end of it, you’re going to actually have an increased hunger for what’s next.”
It’s a totally different approach.
Dennis: I want to spend some time on this on another broadcast, but I just want to dip into this for a second. We started this with what kind of brought you to your own “aha moment,” and that was becoming a mom—
Dennis: —and realizing these beady little eyes were looking up at you—and you had to have the real disease; alright? What would you just give a mom / and for that matter, a dad, right now, as they’re listening, as an exhortation as they think of their responsibility and the mantle of parenthood?
Jen: When I get asked about parenting advice, one of the most frequent questions that I get is, “How did you train your children to study the Bible?” That’s what people want to know. The way that it worked out in our home was it was modeled. It’s not that we never built any structure around it for the children—
—but far and away the biggest contributing factor to whether our children wanted to spend time in the Word or not was whether they saw their mom and their dad doing it and loving it and talking to each other about it in animated tones.
Not once did we ever say to the kids, “Okay, you’re at an age now where you need to sit down and have a personal quiet time.” I had some baggage around that—I’ll just be real up front—from my upbringing in the church. We wanted it to be organic, if at all possible—that’s very much our parenting style. I don’t lay that out for everyone, as an example; but our children do sit down and study the Word, and love it, and dialogue about it. I have to think that that example that was set / just the modeling—praise God that He gave us a desire for His Word and that the kids saw it.
Dennis: Yes. What you’ve reminded us is that the Bible is alive—it is a living book. Hebrews 4:12 says:
“For the Word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of the soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”
I mean, the Bible—first you get it in you and then it begins to work within you and change your life. It becomes what you feed off of, all day long, in making your decisions, and knowing how to trust God / walk by faith, and how to handle circumstances, where you may not know what to do. The Scriptures—if they’re there / if you do have some literacy in the Bible—will guide you.
This is—frankly, what you’re talking about here is one of our biggest concerns, here at FamilyLife—is that we have a generation of young families that are starting.
This Bible literacy issue is going to cost them—not only in their marriage but also in their family, and their children, and their grandchildren—if this isn’t addressed. I just encourage any woman, who is sensing a need to grow and to know Him more intimately, to get a copy of your book. Maybe dig into it with some other women—
Dennis: —and then start doing it together—what you’re talking about—and your life will never be the same.
Bob: It could just be that you’ve never been taught how to study the Bible. When we understand how to study it, it’s a whole different book. Jen, that’s what you’re doing in your book, Women of the Word, which, by the way, I have recommended to so many folks. In fact, I’ve recommended to pastors—that they need to have both men and women in their congregation read this book—because you really do a great job of helping get us oriented on how we are to approach God’s Word.
We have the book in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center. Our listeners can go to FamilyLifeToday.com. Click the link in the upper left-hand corner that says “GO DEEPER.” You will see a block there for Jen’s book. You can click on that and order, online, if you’d like. Again, the website: FamilyLifeToday.com. Click the link in the upper left corner that says, “GO DEEPER.” Then click on for information about Jen Wilkin’s book. You can order it, online, if you’d like; or you can order by calling 1-800-FL-TODAY—1-800-358-6329; that’s 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then, the word, “TODAY.”
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And I hope you can join us back tomorrow. Jen Wilkin is going to be here again. We’re going to talk more about how women can go deeper in God’s Word. I hope you can tune in for that.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, along with some help from Mark Ramey. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I'm Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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