How Pandemic ‘Zoom Church’ Revealed Long-Brewing Bible Illiteracy
Did Bible illiteracy help lead to the video church services we dislike so much? Though we’re grudgingly thankful for the technology that allows us to “be together” over this last year, my informal stats indicate that few of us have enjoyed “Zoom church” or church on Facebook Live. We all know that we weren’t actually together, and we have the awkward living room sing-along worship to prove it. It’s as if we had been coopted by a massive fake-it-until-we-make-it church worship movement via video-conferencing. In fact, the church in America has been bleeding something that would have made each home a capable site of worship in the meantime of COVID: basic Bible understanding.
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To see the contrast, imagine the pandemic without technology. What if we didn’t have video broadcasting at every local church? What would we have done then? I don’t have the definitive answer, but I was encouraged to hear about some churches that immediately put together worship training for families in their own homes. Employing the “priesthood of all believers” model, they eschewed Zoom church and instead helped their parishioners learn to lead worship (including Bible study) wherever they were gathered. My own family converted to a home worship service, and this experience has organically re-shaped our views of worship, making us much more curious about and focused on Scripture, prayer, and the Lord’s Supper.
But as COVID lockdowns produced socially distanced hybrid gatherings, I more often saw churches morph into broadcast studios. Every Sunday service became an episode. I couldn’t believe how quickly and uncritically we improvised e-worship, as if our homes were mere satellites of a mothership. And yet, that’s what I saw many churches doing. I know that most of those elders and pastors didn’t want it to be that way, but what else could they do?
We all acted as if either Zoom church or government-defying church gatherings were the only and inevitable options. What if families and friend groups would have said to the local church, “We got this, for now”? This made me wonder why we didn’t mostly move to home church as a temporary accommodation. Underground churches around the world lead each other in the prayers and teaching of Scripture, communion, and even baptism. Some did switch to lay-led worship at home; most didn’t. As one colleague lamented to me, church leaders trust families to pray, eat, and sing together, but what we really need the church for is preaching Scripture. If there’s truth to that, then something is wrong.
Church leaders might respond, “This is exactly why small groups are so important.” Whether formal or informal, small groups would have been perfectly situated to receive and support home worship in the meantime. But small, cell, and accountability groups can’t make up for that basic Bible literacy that has leaked out of our churches over the decades. How did many Christians become so dependent on pastors’ sermons to ground their individual and communal study of Scripture?
The Road to Zoom Church and the Present State of Bible Illiteracy
As a former full-time pastor, I offer this semi-autobiographical story about how some (mostly white) churches might have reached this point. This might help us think about how to crawl out of the hole we’ve dug.
As we all became less interested in and less capable with the biblical texts, we saw the rise of the “Bible priesthood” among pastors in the evangelical traditions. Young men, myself included, and some women entered theological training with less and less Bible literacy. (Although many seminaries no longer track incoming Bible knowledge, professors and presidents have anecdotally told me that it has steadily declined since the 1980s.) These mostly white men (and a few women) trained under exceptionally talented Bible scholars and went into their churches excited to share the insights that had blown our minds in seminary.
Our preaching betrayed all the insecurities of being relative newcomers to serious Bible reading in our churches. After all, our hoary-headed parishioners from “Greatest Generation” often knew large chunks of Scripture by heart through decades of dedicated reading and practice. Intimidated by the old-timers but enthusiastic about the biblical texts, we earnest young preachers said things like, “The key to understanding this passage is the Greek word [fill in the blank] . . .” (And, because we mostly preached from the New Testament, a Greek word typically did all the work for our sermons.) We never tired of deploying our knowledge of theological trends and biblical languages as a scare tactic. We had to show them how much the church needs us more than we wanted to clothe our leadership in humility. We treated our studies and offices as official sanctuaries of the executive priests of Bible and official keepers of theology.
And as the aging and Bible-literate folks died off, the daily-devotional-spiritualist generation took their place. Habituated in the animated climates of revivals, evangelistic crusades, and Jesus-fervor, our congregations grew into a new piety with a boutique approach to Scripture: small-dose and individualized consumption of the Bible a few verses a day for spiritual growth—what is often meant by “doing my morning devotion.” The old-timers used to meditate on small doses of Scripture too, but they typically understood the paragraphs before and after their passage of the day. They were using small doses to synthesize their vast understanding of Scripture.
In a sad twist for this next generation, the small doses became their full understanding. The spiritualist just needed Jesus and the verses that made him real every day. Their burgeoning Bible illiteracy soon formed the foundation of their impoverished theologies.
As we young preachers aged, we realized the problem. Our sermons felt more and more like a book club rant where we were the only one reading the book! As we grew out of the habit of merely regurgitating the insights of seminary professors, we gained our own sure footing in the Bible. The sophisticated simplicity of the biblical texts enchanted us over and over as we prepared sermons and Bible studies. At the same time, our parishioners couldn’t follow us on our theological odysseys through the Bible—which they received only piecemeal at best, in short spurts on Sunday mornings. The chasm widened. Through a love for the biblical authors, we sometimes confused folks who were accustomed to micro-dosing Scripture for its supposed immediate spiritual effects.
The spiritualists taught their children the habits of daily Scripture micro-dosing as the proper Christian life, and it worked its way into the ritual lives of most evangelical traditions. Many of the spiritualists’ children gave up reading Scripture altogether when careers, relationships, or children entered the scene. Some might have felt guilty for abandoning their short daily devotional while consuming mass quantities of American films and television shows. A few of them would eventually be lured back by a Bible-in-a-year reading plan only to ditch it somewhere early in February and Leviticus.
Sometimes, the pastor went the other way with weekly sermons. Instead of fighting a losing battle to enchant the church with Scripture’s accessible profundity, they crafted elegant talks with clearly signposted logical flow; hip illustrations accumulated from constant contact with films, books, and music; and folksy second-person rhetoric. People loved the sermons, even if they couldn’t ever tell you what the last one was about. TED Talk entrepreneurs took note and built a separate industry inspired by these contemporary sermons. As the next generation arose and Sunday School programs inconvenienced the busy Sunday schedules of church attendees, the pew-sitters understood less and less about the Bible.
These folks grew up in good Christian homes. They micro-dosed Scripture until they gave it up altogether. They trusted Christ for the personal salvation of their soul. They liked the church’s preaching, or at least the preacher, even when they didn’t know how the preaching, the Bible, and their lives connected beyond broad moralisms. At the same time, they could not articulate what “trusting Christ for their salvation” means outside of an individualistic and internal gnostic belief in God. They became increasingly frustrated every time they tried to read a Bible that was inflexible to their traditional Christian beliefs—a Bible that impossibly taught violent, communitarian, loving, and judgmental things as if they all somehow fit together.
Standing in front of a congregation largely estranged from a lived and communitarian understanding of the Bible, the now middle-aged pastor has one 30-minute opportunity per week to excite them about the ancient Semitic “book”—a collection of texts that few of them have read with care or curiosity. In practice, the pastor has become the worst kind of Levite, the sole priest of the sacred text. Weekly, he packages a passage impenetrable to his congregants in usable bits aimed at relieving the text’s perplexing elements, getting them to Christ’s salvation, and assigning them spiritual homework for the week. That brings us close enough to the present.
And then a virus started going around. What’s a pastor to do? I’m no longer a pastor of a church, so I didn’t have to make these difficult decisions. But I suspect a slippery slope of decisions often led many churches to their broadcasting destinies. Since many churches had already adopted a screen over paper hymnals, a Scripture app over paper Bibles, and a video recording system for those who missed the service, the answer was obvious if not seemingly inevitable.
How Else Could Some Churches Have Handled the Pandemic?
It’s easy to see why our churches went down the digital road. As they scrambled to organize their broadcasts, we sat in our houses and tuned in to the episodes as faithfully as we could. Yet, we could not miss the faint undertone of “hey guys, you still need us” baked into every broadcast. Of course, we all knew that our churches had bills to pay. Leaders openly worried about finances as did many others who were laid off from work.
What should we have done? First, we should pour charity on church leaders who faced genuinely tough decisions. Second, let’s think instead about the future. What if the video technology all went away tomorrow? What would it look like for us to prepare our churches for such a crisis? How do we create mature folks tempered by a curious and careful understanding of Scripture and the life experience to lead others? Can we pivot away from delivering messages and toward encouraging and training families and bubbles gathering to read, examine, eat the Lord’s meal, and preach to themselves? Of course, some churches did this. And for some traditions, the Eucharist and not the sermon functions as the central sacrament of worship. For some traditions, the Lord’s Supper has theological complications that made it tricky to share at home without the priest’s involvement.
I did not see a church prepared to pivot. Instead, I witnessed an increasingly Bible illiterate congregation get physically cut off from the goods of church community. And their church? It went online to deliver the only goods they still had to offer: a near-professional worship engine and a priest of the mysterious texts of Scripture. They reminded us with every move they made: “You need us.”
We do need our pastors, elders, deacons, small group leaders, prayers, comforters, Bible teachers, and all of Christ’s body parts. We need the congregation gathered. We do need its shared meals, unexpected conversations, comfort for the dying and their survivors, prayers through the laying on of hands, and the ability to befriend and serve our communities. We have also desperately needed a widespread wisdom discovered only by time and inquisitiveness in Scripture: discovering what the biblical authors actually said and then doggedly pursuing why they said it that way. Though there is a hunger for understanding Scripture, is Bible literacy ever going to be on the table again for the American church?1COVID seems to have stirred up a hunger for Scripture, and not just among Protestants likely to know the BibleProject videos. A podcast featuring a Roman Catholic priest reading and explaining large chunks of the Bible (the weekly lectionary) rose to the number one spot podcast on Apple’s iTunes ranking. A podcast that simply reads Scripture out loud and offers light explanation beat out the usual top podcasts: New York Times, Ben Shapiro, Joe Rogan, and the like.
This COVID, it too is passing. But in the meantime, we can all prepare to handle worship out of bounds. We could all become exiles who sing both kinds of psalms in our homes: “by the rivers of Babylon” and “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of Yahweh.’”
Many of us are re-thinking the structure and purpose of our churches. In those discussions, can we imagine a call back to careful and deep wrestling with Scripture? Can we relieve pastors from feeling like they must be the sole experts of the biblical texts? Can we rebuild church communities that aim to struggle through and be perplexed by the Bible to appreciate and practice its simple sophistication?
This might mean changing the nature, length, and tone of the sermon. It might require precise and timely feedback on how well the sermon is understood (something which many preachers stay willfully blind to week by week). It might even require asking questions and expecting answers from the congregation on the spot. Deep learning cannot be had through passive consumption. It might mean singing Scripture during worship (for instance: psalms as songs). It might mean starting Scripture reading clubs that focus on the community actually practicing the Bible’s clear instructions and re-reading it in light of experience.
It didn’t have to be this way, but now that it is, let’s find a better way back to the only literature through which God speaks and to which we are obliged to respond. “The hidden things are to Yahweh our God, but the revealed things are to us and our children forever that we may do all the words of this instruction” (Deut 29:29).
1. COVID seems to have stirred up a hunger for Scripture, and not just among Protestants likely to know the BibleProject videos. A podcast featuring a Roman Catholic priest reading and explaining large chunks of the Bible (the weekly lectionary) rose to the number one spot podcast on Apple’s iTunes ranking. A podcast that simply reads Scripture out loud and offers light explanation beat out the usual top podcasts: New York Times, Ben Shapiro, Joe Rogan, and the like.
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