Guest: Dr. Jason Dees | Dr. Arnold interviews Dr. Dees about biblical literacy.
Topics of conversation include:
- The reason Bible knowledge is decreasing today
- How to define biblical literacy
- The importance of the preaching ministry in a church
- The role of catechizing in the church, and what that can look like
- A resource for growing in biblical literacy.
Dr. Jason Dees is the Senior Pastor of Christ Covenant Church in Atlanta, Georgia. He hold a PhD in Biblical Spirituality from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and has written articles for several publications, including The Gospel Coalition, 9Marks, and Radical.
Welcome to Faith Seeking Understanding, a podcast from Phoenix Seminary—helping Christians grow in their understanding of the faith, hosted by Dr. Brian Arnold, president of Phoenix Seminary.
Brian Arnold (00:16):
The journal The Economist estimates that there are 100 million Bibles sold or given away every year, and many more people are turning to their devices to read the Bible, with Youversion being one of the most popular Bible apps. In 2021, they reported that there were 55.8 billion chapters read, 8.2 billion audio chapters played, and 2.4 billion highlights, bookmarks and notes created, and 1.4 billion Bible plan days completed. So all these indications point to Christians devouring their Bibles like never before. But why is it that Christians seem to know less and less about Scripture? Basic Bible literacy is plummeting. I see this all the time as a seminary president. Our newer students come in with sparser knowledge of Scripture than they did in previous years. From not knowing the books of the Bible, to not knowing the 10 Commandments, to having very little amounts of Scripture memorized. There’s a famine in our churches for teaching people the Bible, and for Christians who are hungry enough to want it. Shallow preaching, a loss of Sunday schools or some other mechanism to teach people the faith, and the culture of immediate gratification that reduces attention span are all part of the problem. But the cost is high.
Brian Arnold (01:27):
We need to consider this seriously. So how can we combat the problem of biblical illiteracy? Well, here to help us understand that question today is Dr. Jason Dees. Dr. Dees is the senior pastor of Christ Covenant Church in Atlanta, Georgia. He earned a PhD in Biblical Spirituality from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and in addition to his years of pastoral experience, has written articles for publications like The Gospel Coalition, 9Marks, and Radical. Dr. Dees, welcome to the podcast.
Jason Dees (01:54):
Great to be here, Brian. Thanks for having me.
Brian Arnold (01:57):
So we always ask our guests one big question, today the question is—how do we grow the church in biblical literacy? So from your years of pastoral experience, how would you evaluate the level of biblical literacy of the average American Christian?
Jason Dees (02:12):
Well, you know, it’s interesting. Everything you brought up in your introduction there I think is fascinating, and it’s a great introduction. I mean, obviously, this is a setup question, and obviously the answer is—it’s lower. I mean, I see the same thing you’re seeing, at a seminary president level, we see in the local church. Now, it doesn’t surprise me though. I mean, I think that it’s interesting, you know, Bibles being sold. Well, just, I mean, like, look at book sales in the world right now. And I don’t…I wouldn’t say that we are a more, like, knowledgeable, or certainly, like, in tune with literary trends, or understanding of books like we have been in previous ages. I think some of those things just show that we are a more affluent culture than we’ve ever been, right?
Jason Dees (02:58):
And so people are able to buy more and more books. But they don’t really treasure them, and they don’t really love them. That’s certainly the case with their Bibles. Obviously there’s information everywhere. There’s sermon podcasts, there’s Bible listening apps. I mean, we do a lot of that here at Christ Covenant. And I think all of those things are good things, but I don’t know that you can really replace, Brian, the foundational mechanisms, if you will, of church catechesis, of being catechized through the preaching ministry, through the Sunday school or teaching ministry of a local church, through some sort of a training compartment in a local church. And then, of course, just the classic component of family worship. So the reason that I think that Bible knowledge has dropped off is I think that churches have kind of given up on Bible training in a way that they…that even was more readily available in my childhood.
Jason Dees (03:58):
So it’s not like it’s that long ago. But I think that the drop off began during my childhood. And then, of course, just the classical practice of family worship. And again, I think that’s oftentimes related to—there’s more entertainment options, there’s more sports options, there’s more activity options. And so families sitting around talking about the Word of God together, reading the Word of God together—which would not have been an abstract thing in a Christian home, you know, even just one generation ago—now, is almost something that seems strange in a Christian home. So I think that those two things—the lack of catechesis in the local church and in the home—are leading to this heavy drop in Bible knowledge, Bible literacy, that you and I are both seeing.
Brian Arnold (04:45):
Absolutely. So I want to go back to something you said, kind of at the beginning, which is—we’re more affluent. We buy Bibles. Our houses all have Bibles, multiple Bibles. I have a whole shelf at home that’s nothing but different versions of the Bible. I mean, I probably have 20 Bibles at home, but many people’s are kind of covered with dust. It reminds me—and I may lose half my audience on this one—but of on “The Office,” where Michael Scott is asked if he has a certain book. He goes—”Read it? I own it! But no, I haven’t read it.” <laugh>. And I think that’s a lot of Christians. Like, have Bibles? Of course I have a Bible! And they would even say—I think the Bible’s important for my life. I base my life on the Bible. And yet, they don’t know the Bible. So let’s define some things. How would you define biblical literacy?
Jason Dees (05:30):
The most helpful definition for me is this idea of—you will understand your life through some sort of narrative. And so I would say that a person is biblically literate when the story of the Bible is the primary narrative by which they understand and view their own life. And so, I mean, obviously in American culture, you know, even things like “I don’t want to split the baby,” or, you know, I’m just trying to think of, you know, other, like, biblical kind of terms, where they’re so, you know, they’re so prevalent that would just come up…like biblical narrative, biblical themes that just come up in conversation. Well that happens because, largely, we, you know, have had a culture that is understanding the world through the story of Scripture. In fact, Paige and I were just watching the Ken Burns documentary on the national parks. Have you ever seen that?
Brian Arnold (06:30):
I have, yeah. We were watching through with our kids.
Jason Dees (06:33):
Being a good Arizonan out there, with all the natural wonders of the west. Yeah, I’m sure y’all have watched that. But, you know, there’s this like Mark Twain passage that they’re reading, and he’s describing something as the, you know, “the fire leading the Israelites through the wilderness.” Well, okay, so here’s just Mark Twain, you know, not a Christian author, per se, but he’s using biblical imagery to describe something. Why? Because the narrative of Scripture, the story of the Bible was familiar enough to the populace at the time that that’s just how they understood things. They would think about things fundamentally, primarily, through a biblical lens. So I think that really is what biblical literacy is. When you begin to see the world, you understand your life, you understand the story of your life, through a biblical story lens. And I think, again, that’s just totally…not maybe totally, but has been dramatically lost from where we were, you know, certainly a hundred years ago, but even 50 years ago.
Brian Arnold (07:36):
And even just like basic Bible knowledge. And I don’t mean like playing Bible trivia, or something like that. I think people could misconstrue what we’re saying, that we just want them to know kind of facts about the Bible or something. But it’s not less than that. And I get concerned when I have students at the seminary who come in, who have not been trained well in their local church, but they feel called to ministry. And there’s just some real basic elements of that story that have just been missing now. And I think you even said this—what, 50 years ago, it wouldn’t have been true. Scripture was still such a common part of society that these metaphors would’ve been readily available. Kind of in the mental furniture that they had constructed in their worldview house, if you will. And that…now that’s declining.
Brian Arnold (08:23):
And what I find—I don’t know if you see this as well—but there’s a lot of pastors out there who are saying—you know what, if I talk about these things, I’m just going to lose people. Because they don’t understand it. So they keep lowering the bar, and lowering the bar, till pretty soon it’s just kind of emotionalism running the faith. And it doesn’t take much for another worldview to come in and say—hey, we’ve thought more about this, so why don’t you abandon your lowbrow Christianity, and come over here? Do you understand? I mean, do you see what I’m saying?
Jason Dees (08:51):
One of the weaknesses of, like, evangelicalism…and again, I’m an evangelical, I’m proud to be an evangelical, so this is not, you know, a critique. But evangelicalism, by nature—okay—because it is a, you know…if you even just go to Bevington, because it is conversionistic, because it is, you know, centered on…I mean, obviously one of his quadrants is it’s Bible-centered. But I mean, because it’s conversionistic, because it’s related in, you know, kind of a born-again experience, or because it’s, you know, connected to an activism, you know, who’s out active—and that could include inviting your friends to church—it lends itself toward this kind of dumbed-down thing. It’s like, I can get people converted, and that might not even mean really converted, you know, making some sort of a decision. I can be active and get people coming to my church.
Jason Dees (09:47):
And those have become kind of like the benchmarks of it, the high marks of it, right? And so, again, that’s not what the evangelicals obviously would have desired, but that is kind of the weakness of a populist, if you will, church movement. Now, there’s a lot of strength to a populist church movement in America also, but there’s also this great weakness, to your point, to where the most important things in the church, you know, used to be like—we’ve got to teach the Bible to the next generation. We’ve got to teach the Bible to our children. We have to understand these things. We’ve got to be catechized. We’ve got to, you know, be discipled to a point of knowing these things about the Christian faith. It’s really just become—the most important thing now is that people are coming and giving. And we’ve created these mechanisms of…or these organizations, you know, of the church that really aren’t centered on Bible knowledge, or holiness, or any of these kinds of things.
Jason Dees (10:40):
And because of that, as you’re saying, you know, sermons have become incredibly hearer-centric, rather than God-centric. What do the hearers want to hear? What might tickle their ears? Things like church membership, being a part of a church—it’s become an incredibly low bar. In fact, most churches in the Atlanta area have given up on church membership. It didn’t mean anything, anyway, I think, in a lot of these churches. And so, why not? Why should we even have it? The important thing is that people are coming, that people are giving, and that people are getting some sort of spiritual high, enough to tell their friends about it. But that spiritual high may actually be just kind of a…it may just kind of be a secular moralism. It may be a secular kind of wisdom principles that also come from the Bible, not truly, as I said before, understanding the story of Scripture that we are called into as Christ followers.
Brian Arnold (11:36):
I heard one of our shared professors, Hershael York, once kind of described this as like “cotton candy preaching.” Where yeah, it tastes good in the moment, but there’s no sustenance there. It is not going to sustain your life. You will die on this, and people will spiritually die on bad preaching. Whereas we need more of the steak kind of option, right? We need to give people something that’s going to sustain their Christian life, week in and week out. The world is getting more difficult. That doesn’t mean we need worse sermons. It means we need thicker, juicier, heavier, substantive.
Jason Dees (12:12):
A hundred percent agree.
Brian Arnold (12:13):
And so you’ve used this word a couple times of catechizing. So what does that even mean? I think there’s…that word has fallen so much out of vogue in our society today, and in our church society particularly, that I don’t know that people even have a category for that. So what does that mean, and what does that look like? How have you implemented that in your church, and also in your family?
Jason Dees (12:33):
I want to answer your…say one thing to the preaching thing, and then I want to come back to catechism. So, and I know that there’s a limited amount of time, but I just want to make sure I say this. The preaching ministry—and I don’t know if it’s, you know, mostly pastors that are listening, you know, to this show, you know, or seminary students—but the preaching ministry of your church, okay? The preaching ministry of your church being rooted in the Bible, being…boldly proclaiming the full counsel of God’s Word, is the most important ministry of your church. And if it’s not…if it’s not doing its job, right, if it’s not pointing people to a deeper understanding, a deeper love for the Bible and for God’s Word, then no other ministry in your church will be able to successfully do it.
Jason Dees (13:18):
Now, I believe in a lot of different ministries in the church, and that’s what we’ll get into the catechesis that I’ve been talking about. But if you’re not doing it from the pulpit, if the pastor’s not doing it from the pulpit, then it’s just not going to trickle out in an effective way, in a hunger-creating kind of way, to the rest of your church. And I want to be very clear here, too. I mean, obviously, somebody might critique what we’re talking about and say, you know—oh, there you go, there you evangelicals go again. You’re worshiping the Bible and knowledge of the Bible. It’s, you know, Father, Son and Holy Scripture, right? Well, no. Okay? The purpose of all of this is we want to love God and know God. So, I mean, Brian—and I know I can speak for Brian—like, that’s the purpose.
Jason Dees (13:58):
We don’t want people just to know things, or know things about the Bible. But you cannot love a God that you do not know. And so you have to know what God has revealed about himself, and that’s namely in Holy Scripture. You have to know what God has revealed about himself in order to love him. So the end of all of this, of course, is love for God. But you can’t love someone or something that you don’t know. And that is the purpose of this. And if it’s not happening in the pulpit first, it won’t be happening outside of the pulpit. You know, Andy Stanley—and I’m just going to mention his name. I mean, he has said, and I’m not saying this disparagingly of him, but he has said—”there’s some things we talk about in rows, and some things that we talk about in circles.”
Jason Dees (14:40):
And his implication there is we talk about the weightier things in circles, and we talk about the, you know, we keep it a little more light and fluffy—and he may not use the word fluffy—but we keep it a little lighter in the rows. And I’m not trying to misrepresent him. My critique of that, because there’s many good things that I’ve learned from him, but my critique of that would be—what you talk about in the rows is what they will talk about in the circles. You can’t expect the small group ministry of your church to outpace the pulpit preaching ministry of your church. In fact, I would actually argue—it’s the opposite. It will always be a little behind the preaching ministry of your church. So if the preaching ministry is not setting the bar, the rest of this stuff is kind of pointless.
Jason Dees (15:24):
But in terms of catechizing your church, I mean, really–what do we mean by that? Is teaching your church to have a base kind of understanding of…and you know, I like some of the work that J. T. English has done on this. I know he is a mutual friend, but I like the idea of—Christian story, Christian doctrine, and then Christian life, right? So we want to have a basic understanding of Old Testament, New Testament studies. We want to have a basic understanding of Christian doctrine, systematic biblical theology, how the…doctrines that are essential for the Christian life. And then, of course, like, a basic understanding of Christian life. Like, how do you read your Bible? How do you share your faith? How do you pray? I mean, what are these basic kind of Christian behaviors that are so essential to Christianity, and to the Christian life?
Jason Dees (16:07):
So those kind of ideas, that’s really what we’re talking about when we’re saying “catechizing.” And at Christ Covenant, that happens in…obviously, there’s many different arenas for that. We have a Covenant Institute, where we’re teaching classes at a more formal level, along the lines of the specifics I just outlined. We certainly have a groups ministry. We’re trying to lead them along, to teach and to reflect along those lines—what does this teach us about the story of the Bible? What does this teach about Christian doctrine? How does this apply to our lives? And then, obviously, during our kids ministry and student ministry, we’ve actually written a Christ Covenant catechism. And it’s fun. I mean, it’s got hand motions, it’s all one sentence. And we, of course would recommend other catechisms. But we actually said—okay, these are the most important things that we want our children to have at least some sort of robust understanding about. And we’ve written that over kind of a God, man, Jesus, response template that we have given to parents to teach their kids. And, obviously, in turn, parents are getting a greater understanding of this as they teach it. So that’s just a couple of examples. Obviously, it’s a big part of everything we’re doing.
Brian Arnold (17:11):
I love the full diet that you’re talking about here is—it’s not just theology, it’s not just New Testament. There’s a lot that Christians have to learn. I was recently doing a podcast with Stephen Presley, who teaches at Southern in Church History, and he’s a patristics guy. He’s written a book on cultural engagement in the Church Fathers and how we can use that for today. And he brought up that Hippolytus, in the Apostolic Tradition said that before you could be baptized, you had three years of catechesis. And now we’re rushing kind of people into baptism. And we may not need three years, but people want as little bit as possible, oftentimes, in order to come into the faith, and then to live out their faith. I want to make sure I can make it to heaven, but I don’t really care how much I know about it on my road there. Do you see that attitude?
Jason Dees (18:03):
Yeah, I was going to say, I published an article with you guys about, I don’t know, two years ago maybe. And we have this little covenant wheel, I don’t know if you saw that or read that. But basically we’re saying—there’s convictions that we have, there’s values that we hold to as Christians, and then there’s behaviors. And you know, a lot of those behaviors are…they’re basic things that you and I would desire. We have nine behaviors that we ask of the Christian life, and you know, it’s corporate worship, family worship, personal devotion, which is, you know, some sort of time in prayer and Bible study. And obviously we’ve defined all of these. Relational discipleship, I’m in relationship with other believers, what we call “support the church,” which is, obviously, kind of the giving, you know, generosity ministry of the church, serving the church, personal evangelism, blessing the city, which is kind of our mercy ministry, and reaching the world, which is our global kind of outreach or church planting efforts.
Jason Dees (18:53):
So we’ve just said—look, these nine things should be kind of somewhere on every Christian’s radar. And, obviously, you know, not all of those are necessarily, like, directed to Bible study. Many of them are. But yeah, I think that we have to think about this in a holistic way. We’re trying to lead people to be disciples. That is our job. And so, as a church, if we don’t define what faithful disciples look like, what a faithful disciple is, then, you know, our church is really going to be lost. They’re going to be wandering around, and they’re never really going to have an arc of growth to where they can really become disciple makers. So I think spending time to do this—and again, it doesn’t have to be hard—but just creating some practical tools that you as a church can use to evaluate where you are, to communicate to your members of where you desire for them to go, in order to grow together as disciples is so essential to church leadership.
Brian Arnold (19:48):
And Jason, let me ask you, I don’t remember. How long has Christ Covenant been in existence? You planted this church in Atlanta. What year was that?
Jason Dees (19:57):
It was…it’s five years. So September of 2017 is our first service.
Brian Arnold (20:04):
And you even have a couple COVID years in there, right? Which is like the lost years. But I want to brag on you for a minute, for listeners who may not know you. I got to visit Jason’s church recently, just a couple weeks ago, for an event. And one of the things that really stood out to me, was really impressive, is how many young men and women you have in that church who are hungry to grow. They want to know their Bibles, they are leaning in—those nine characteristics that you gave are things that I could tell—they would want all of that. And so even people who are saying—I’m not called to go into ministry, I’m called into other vocation, but I want more of Christ in my life, and I want to be discipled by the preaching ministry of this church, I want to be discipled by the teaching ministry of the church, and the outreach of the church. It’s been really exciting to watch what the Lord has done through your ministry, where it’s actually lived out. So people are listening, they’re saying—well, that sounds nice, but it’s kind of a bit of a pipe dream. It really isn’t. I got to witness it firsthand. And so let me just commend you on that, and just celebrate with you what the Lord’s doing in your church.
Jason Dees (21:06):
Well, thank you for that. And man, I’m just so proud of you, too. And, you know, Brian and I have known each other for, you know, 10 plus years. We were in the same PhD program, and…or same—maybe not program, but had some crossover seminars. And it’s just awesome to see what’s going on at Phoenix, and I know how the Lord’s using you. And I was so encouraged by your time here, it was great to be with you a few weeks ago. But I just echo what you’re saying. And again, I mean, for those of you who are in churches and trying to think through these things, I mean, you know, Barna had a study that recently came out that said millennial church attendance is actually outpacing what it was before the pandemic. And so, you know, everybody’s always kind of up in arms about how Christianity is this lost thing.
Jason Dees (21:49):
And I think the churches that are most effectively growing—and that’s certainly true of us—they’re the churches that are most serious about God’s work. In a secular age, people are looking for not fluff, not easy Christianity, but a Christianity that will stand, a Christianity that actually makes sense. And, of course, God has revealed all this to us in his Scripture, as you come to know the Bible, it doesn’t make less sense of the world. It’s not something that’s hard to believe. It actually helps you understand the world rightly, and in a full way, and in a beautiful way. And so I totally agree. I mean, don’t be afraid of these things. Now, I do think, Brian, like, this conversation can be mistaken to some sort of, like—self righteous, we’re going to make our church really hard. We’re going to make our church, like, really serious.
Jason Dees (22:38):
We’re, you know…and then you can only have, like, a small church full of like very strict and staunch Christians. I think what we are saying is—no, we want people that actually love God. And if you actually love God, you’ll actually want other people to love God. Not just come to your church, not just, you know, attend, but to know and love God. And I think all of this is anchored in your love of God, and your desire for others to love the Lord. So this is so basic, and so fundamental, and so essential for what the church is. So I think you couldn’t be talking about a better thing.
Brian Arnold (23:14):
Well, and I think…yeah. I’m glad you gave that word of caution. Because it’s not just like some frozen chosen, small, “we’re the really gung-ho people.” You know, I didn’t say this before, but to again celebrate what the Lord’s doing in your area. I think, what—1700 people or something like that are at your church? I saw hundreds of young twenties coming into the church, late at night, to get a lecture on culture and, like, what’s happening in this world today. They want it. And you’re right—those who have been changed by God, want God. And they want to to know him. And these are smart people. They’re doing AP Chemistry in high school, a lot of them. They’re going to college. Like, they can understand the Bible. We need to set those standards rightly.
Jason Dees (23:54):
These are, I mean, these are Ivy League people. I mean, and again, I mean, obviously, not every church is in a context, like—we’re right in the heart of Atlanta. There’s a lot of very educated people here. But, I mean, the truth of the matter is, you know, I’ve served in other contexts too. And when people start to realize—wait a second, little old me, you know, I mean, I always think of this all the time. Like, little old me from Alabama can actually know God. You know, I mean, just that idea. It’s something that controls my whole life. Like, I can actually know God. And if that invitation is out there, and when people grab ahold of that invitation, they will want to dive deeper into the knowledge of God. And that’s our job as pastors, as deacons, as group leaders, as elders in a church, to lead them to that. And so I, you know, I just would encourage any of your listeners that is in a leadership role at your church, be it, you know, you’re a lay leader, you’re a pastoral leader. Like, when people realize they can know God, they will want to know God. So let’s teach God. Let’s point people to God in the most faithful way we can.
Brian Arnold (24:58):
Well, amen to that. Well, we are out of time, and I just want to mention one book that you had brought up earlier, and that’s J. T. English wrote a book called Deep Discipleship, which can really help people grow in their biblical literacy, and it would be great for churches to implement. Well, Jason, thanks so much for the time and the conversation today.
Jason Dees (25:14):
Brian, thanks for having me. Grateful for you, buddy.
Thank you for listening to Faith Seeking Understanding. It means so much to us that this content is helping you grow in your understanding of the faith. I want to take a moment to tell you about our new online learning experience at Phoenix Seminary. Over the last year, we’ve been creating what we believe to be the highest quality of online courses for ministry training. If you’re called to train for a lifetime of faithful service, but can’t join us on campus, I’d like you to invite you to join us online. Take courses featuring some of the guests you’ve heard on Faith Seeking Understanding, including Wayne Grudem, Mike Thigpen, Steve Duby, myself, and more. Learn more about Phoenix seminary online, and even access the entire online lecture content for my church history course at ps.edu/online.