In an extended interview, SGM Lifewords’ Programme Director Danielle Welch talks to Krish Kandiah, Evangelical Alliance’s Executive Director for chuches in mission and Chair of the Biblefresh Executive…
Danielle: What’s the story behind the Biblefresh campaign? How did it come about?
Krish: 2011 marks the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible, and as we thought about celebrating this landmark, we realised that the UK church isn’t doing particularly well with handling its story. Some research, called Taking the Pulse, was carried out last year and suggested that people seem to lack both confidence in and appetite for the Bible. Atheists like Richard Dawkins have undermined people’s ability to read the Old Testament in particular. There’s a lot of talk about “toxic texts” – those bits of the Bible that just don’t seem to connect with the way people think. In addition to this the research found that there seems to be a lack appetite for reading the Bible – it’s really rare for a Christian to open a Bible outside of a church meeting.
So we looked for a way we could mark the anniversary, but also work with different organisations to create some momentum around engaging with the Scriptures. The Biblefresh campaign is about celebrating the Bible’s place in and shaping of our culture, and helping the church to reengage with the story.
Is that picture of disengagement something you think church leaders recognise?
Definitely. Every church leader I’ve spoken to recognises that people are increasingly struggling to read, apply, and engage with the Bible on any kind of basis. The more we talk to people, the more we realise that. I was chatting to Phyllis Thompson, who’s the Education Director for the New Testament Church of God, a church that has managed to instil an ability – particularly in their young people – to read the Bible and pray every day. I asked, what are you guys doing right that we can learn from? And she talked about how they’ve created a culture where it’s normal to do this. But she is also aware of whether their reading is really impacting their living – are they developing a Christian lifestyle through their study of Scripture? Have they developed a Christian worldview? We, together with other churches, hope that we can start to address some of these issues, learning from one another’s strengths and weaknesses.
You use the term “Bible confidence” – how does this fit in our culture, which doesn’t have a lot of time for modernist arguments about truth and fact, and which is more connected to the idea of “story”?
“Bible confidence” and the idea of “story” are related. If we don’t think the story is any good or true, then it’s not going to shape us, either as individuals or as a culture. If it’s just a story among many then why pick a difficult story like a gospel that talks about loving enemies and sacrifice? Why pick that story rather than a consumer story that says “you’re here to enjoy yourself and to fill your life with as many experiences as possible”? I don’t think it’s a modern–postmodern thing. I think it’s more about needing to know for sure that the events of the Bible really took place, that it isn’t a fairytale. We need to know that this story is relevant for daily life. So even if we change the language to talk about story-based truth rather than propositional truth we still need to have confidence that it’s real.
The 400th anniversary of the King James Bible is a reminder to us that the Bible has shaped UK culture in the past. Are you hopeful that the Bible can shape our culture today and into the future?
My hope is that, looking back at the ways the Bible did shape our culture, people will realise that some of the things we treasure the most actually have a biblical foundation. People place a high value on things like purpose, meaning, some sense of moral framework, the rights of the individual, the ability to choose, and equality, but they don’t know where these principles come from. Francis Schaeffer used to talk about an approach to demonstrating the truth of the Gospel, which he described as “taking the roof off”, showing people that they’re living under the shelter of the Christian worldview, even though they don’t accept the premise of the Christian faith. So we need to take the roof off – show people what happens if you remove the Christian worldview. I’m hoping that through Biblefresh, people will recognise that the Bible has shaped our culture at a foundational level. We want to show people what Christianity has given our culture. Not just things like the phrases that are in our language –“skin of your teeth” or “apple of your eye” – all that’s brilliant but this is about more than just trivia, it’s actually the foundational stuff of our culture. And I hope that as we take the Bible, and show its true glory, maybe those beyond the church will want to listen to the story that’s shaped us.
I know that Biblefresh is about much more than Bible literacy – and the term “Bible engagement” gets used a lot. What do we mean by Bible engagement?
In this campaign, my focus is on the church’s engagement with the Bible. We’re called to live the story out, to indwell it. If we don’t know the story, how are we supposed to live? So my focus is helping the church engage with the Bible in different ways. And reading is one way. I guess what I’m trying to encourage is a communal approach to Bible reading – often it’s “go and have your quiet time”, it’s about you as an individual. Is there a way that we can encourage people to read together? I often use the illustration of WeightWatchers – on the face of it it’s just a group of people who happen to weigh themselves together. But the fact that they’re doing it in community means there’s encouragement, there’s accountability. So I’m trying to encourage a more communal approach. What can we do collectively with the Bible? That might be reading the Bible in a year, or texting parts of the Bible that particularly mean something to each other every day, or getting a youth group reading the Bible and blogging about it. It doesn’t have to be in book format – people could be listening to it or tweeting it or reading it on iPhones. But if they’re doing it together, I think there’s more chance of sustainability.
There’s a lot of guilt associated with people feeling that they don’t read the Bible and they ought to do. Do you think we’re honest enough about some of the difficulties that we encounter?
I’m hoping that through things like the Biblefresh website, through the Biblefresh handbook, and the tours, we’ll be able to get down to some of these questions. So instead of shying away from the difficult passages in the Old Testament, or even some of Jesus’ phrases about hell, or the book of Revelation we need to face them head on. I’m really keen that we move away from guilt and from telling people “you should do better”. Instead I want to think about how we can help people to think about the Bible as nourishment, as something that’s going to give them life and health and vitality? Our approach is showing the benefits of the Bible. One of the campaigns we’re running is where Christians have a photo taken of them with a sign about what the Bible’s done for them. A friend of mine organises a running group which she uses to connect with her community and bless people. Her sign is: “now I can go the extra mile.” Another lady is a cook, and is passionate about serving God by providing food and doing it to the best of her ability. Her sign reads “now I can taste the difference.” Another friend of mine had his photograph taken sat next to a bin. His sign says: “now I know I’m worth something.” I’d love to see groups doing it: “now we can make a difference in our community” or “now we’ve got hope for the future”. We want to show people, this is what the Bible does for you, this is how it helps you, this is how it blesses you. It’s an invitation to reading Scripture and living Scripture.
If people were to do an audit of Biblefresh, what are you hoping they’ll see? What’s the measure of success?
We’re asking churches that engage with Biblefresh to make pledges in four different areas. The first is about Bible reading: we as a church will do more in terms of reading the Bible. So – one measurement would be: did the church do it? Were people supporting and encouraging each other? Did the whole church engage in a project that got people reading or listening to the Bible in a new way?
The second pledge is that a church is to invest in training. Firstly, if preachers aren’t excited about the Bible, or aren’t properly equipped to handle and teach it, those they teach and work with are unlikely to want to engage with it either. So there is a trickle down effect. Did preachers go on refresher courses? Did they attempt to preach on different parts of the Bible that they’ve never touched before? Or tough parts? Or present a Bible overview? But we also recognise that people that teach the Bible are not just the preachers. There are Sunday School teachers, house group leaders, youth workers that often have these roles – we want to add those skills to them too? So did they go on training courses? Did they download a book from our website? Did they watch a video stream? Has the level of handling Scripture increased? Finally, in Paul’s final letter in Timothy it talks about how Timothy came to faith – it was through the Bible teaching of two godly women, his mother and his grandmother. This shows that, in terms of handling the Bible, we all need to be skilled if we’re going to pass it on. So, have people gone to a conference like Keswick or Spring Harvest or Summer Madness? (In 2011 these events are going to focus on raising the skill level of people handling the Bible.) So let’s build on the skills of our preachers, and work on equipping other leaders within the church. And let’s encourage our congregations to engage with Scripture too.
The third pledge concerns Bible translation. We want to encourage churches to commit to raising money to help a translation project in somewhere like Burkina Faso. We’ve had the Bible in our culture for 400 years. What a fitting celebration to be able to give that gift to people who have never had the Bible in their language. So, another question will be did we raise any money? My hope is that churches engage with this not by taking money out of a pot that would’ve gone to supporting other missionaries, but that actually they raise new money. We’d like to encourage church leaders to send the congregation home after a Sunday service and ask families to go and find every Bible they have in the house, put them on the table, and see how high the stack is. Could families, for each Bible they have, give £1 to make the Bible available elsewhere? And hopefully that will also be an exercise in appreciating the richness of the resources we have. So, another measure of success would be: does that happen?
And the final area that people make a pledge on is Bible experiences. So, when we look back, the question will be – did people engage with the Bible in a fresh way? Did they run exhibitions or art competitions? Did they gather together for weeks of Bible teaching? Did they invite a theatre company to come and talk them through the Bible in an hour? Or take part in a Bible read-a-thon? Did more happen as a result of this year?
If we believe our own rhetoric about the Bible being transformative, then as well as the activity around Biblefresh do you hope to see a church that’s reinvigorated with a sense of the story it lives out, and that’s ready to make a difference in the world?
I’m a passionate evangelist and to me the problem seems to be if we don’t know our story, we can’t share it. So my prayer would be that, as a church, we become more confident in the Scriptures; we’d see life through the lens of Scripture. And that we’d grow in confidence in sharing these things, in practically living them out in our communities – and actually talking about Jesus and what he’s done for us. I think without Bible confidence there’ll be more silence when it comes to sharing our faith.
How can we be praying for Biblefresh over the coming couple of years?
My prayer is twofold – firstly, that the church grows in confidence and therefore knows our Bible, shares God’s Word. But the second part is around unity. There are hundreds of Bible agencies, there are thousands of different types of churches around the world, and in towns and cities there are all sorts of different flavours of church, and yet we all agree there’s only one book that we share. So I pray that in getting the whole of the Church for the whole year engaged in the whole of the Bible, we’ll be drawn together in unity – we will literally be on the same page.
Photography by Kris Calver