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Part 2: The three types of students


Note: An earlier version of this story contained some formatting errors that may have led to confusion over results of the questions.

In the last article, I shared the three kinds of students I have discovered over seven years of teaching Bible survey classes at Shorter University. The three groups are:

  • Uncompromising – these students are passionate, active Christians raised in the church.
  • Unsure – these students were raised in Christianity but are now unsure of their faith.
  • Unchurched – these students are passionate pagans who know or care very little for the Bible and did not want to take a Bible class. While Shorter University is a Christian university, students do not have to be a Christian to attend Shorter, which explains the number of the “unchurched” in my classes.

At the beginning of each Bible survey course, I give a Bible literacy pretest which I described in Part 1. My evaluation of the pretests of over 1,600 students over the past seven years have revealed two startling discoveries.

Knowledge of the Bible among students is very low.

It is one thing to read about the low Bible literacy rates among teens today, but it is another thing to see it firsthand. How did each group of my college students score on the pretest? Not as well as I had hoped as can be seen the following chart:

Uncompromising Unsure Unchurched Group Pretest Average Group Posttest Average
45% 36% 19% 33% 85%

Note that the class average was 33%, meaning the class only got about one-third of the questions right. When we look at the three groups of students, the average score of Uncompromising students was only 45%, slightly better than the class average of 33%, but below fifty percent of correct answers. The average score of Unsure students was a 36% while the average score of Unchurched students was 19%. These numbers have been consistent over the years.

This 30-question Bible knowledge pretest is multiple choice with the correct answer right in front of the students. Yet the students consistently missed two-thirds of the questions, even those students who were raised in church.

Anyone raised in church should have gotten most of these questions right. For example, one pretest question was who were the authors of the four Gospels? We must ponder how students who have been raised in church know so little about the Bible. Think of how many sermons, Sunday School lessons, and youth group teachings they heard over the years.

Trust in the Bible among students is very low.

The second discovery was an unpleasant epiphany for me. Into my pretests, I have carefully woven apologetic questions about God, the Bible, and Jesus. Let’s examine the answers students have given to the three questions about the Bible:

1. The Bible is ...

  1. A credible, historical document, accurately depicting its people, places, and events
  2. Somewhat credible in that the core story is true, but some parts have been added
  3. Not a credible document, in that it has been added to many times over the years

Uncompromising: A – 46%; B – 52%; C – 2%
Unsure: A – 6%; B – 51%; C – 43%
Unchurched: A – 4%; B – 9%; C – 87%

The first question was about inerrancy, which means that the Bible is credible and true, word for word. Less than half (46%) of the Uncompromising believed in the Bible’s inerrancy, but 52% of them did not. The majority of them believed that some parts of the Bible were true while other parts were not and had been added. Most (94%) of the Unsure did not believe the Bible was credible but had been added to, while 96% of the Unchurched did not believe the Bible was credible at all.

3. Who directed the writing of the Bible?

  1. The Apostle Paul
  2. King James
  3. The Church
  4. The Holy Spirit

Uncompromising: A – 0%; B – 12%; C – 43%; D – 45%
Unsure: A – 4%; B – 28%; C – 57%; D – 11%
Unchurched: A – 0%; B – 8%; C – 89%; D – 3%

The third question concerned inspiration, which means that the Bible is the word of God and not that of man. Nearly half (43%) of the Uncompromising believed the Bible was the product of church leaders, while 45% believed the Bible was the product of the Holy Spirit. Most (57%) of the Unsure believed the Bible was the product of men, while 89% of the Unchurched believed the same.

6. The New Testament is a record of:

  1. Stories of true people and true events
  2. Stories of mythical people and events
  3. Stories of true people but with embellished events

Uncompromising: A – 52%; B – 2%; C – 46%
A – 12%; B – 22%; C – 66%
A – 4%; B – 83%; C – 13%

The sixth question on the pretest was another about inerrancy. Most (52%) of the Uncompromising believed the Bible was true, but 46% believed it had been embellished over the years. Most of the Unsure (66%) believed the Bible had been embellished but 22% believed the Bible was mythical. The majority (83%) of the Unchurched believed the Bible was simply a mythical book.

Where did this perspective of the Bible come from? An Unsure student once said to me, “I believe the Bible is the Word of God but not God’s Word.” When I asked for clarification, she said she believed that God originally said and did the things in the Bible, but over the years of multiple translations, lost books, and additions and changes by the church, she could not believe the Bible was credible anymore.

That is a huge problem for us! If a college student believes the Bible is not credible, then it is not trustworthy. If it is not trustworthy, then it is not authoritative over her life. I see that attitude among many college students today. Note that her negative perspective of the Bible stemmed from not understanding the process of how the Bible came to be. I think her misunderstanding about the Bible is common among even adults in the church.

So now that we know how many of our high school graduates entering college know and view the Bible, what can we as parents, pastors, and the church do? In part three, I will share some positives I see as well as suggestions that I have seen work.


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