The Twin Challenges of Gospel Renewal


Every fall since 1998, Tom McBride and Ron Nief of Beloit College in Wisconsin have released their Mindset List to "look at the cultural touchstones that shape the lives of students entering college." The list originated as a way to remind teachers to make sure their cultural references connect with students in the classroom.

For example, they explain that the incoming college class of 2016:

was born the year of the professional baseball strike and the last year for NFL football in Los Angeles. They have spent much of their lives helping parents understand that you don’t take pictures on "film" and that CDs and DVDs are not "tapes." In these students’ lifetimes, with MP3 players and iPods, they seldom listen to the car radio. A quarter of the entering students already have suffered some hearing loss. Since they’ve been born, the United States has measured progress by a 2 percent jump in unemployment and a 16-cent rise in the price of a first class postage stamp.

And here are some of the 75 thought-provoking things that this year’s 18-year-olds "know," according to McBride and Nief:

  • They have always lived in cyberspace, addicted to a new generation of "electronic narcotics."
  • Robert De Niro is thought of as Greg Focker’s long-suffering father-in-law, not as Vito Corleone or Jimmy Conway.
  • They have never seen an airplane "ticket."
  • They have lived in an era of instant stardom and self-proclaimed celebrities, famous for being famous.
  • There have always been blue M&Ms, but no tan ones.
  • Mr. Burns has replaced J. R. Ewing as the most shot-at man on American television.
  • Chronic Fatigue Syndrome has always been officially recognized with clinical guidelines.
  • They watch television everywhere but on a television.

As always, this list provides a fascinating look at the fast pace of cultural change, but one item in particular ought to arrest your attention—No. 3: "The biblical sources of terms such as ‘Forbidden Fruit,’ ‘The writing on the wall,’ ‘Good Samaritan,’ and ‘The Promised Land’ are unknown to most of them."

Rising Tide of Illiteracy

As the school year starts up, particularly for those of us who enjoy regular contact with today’s students, that last item is worth pondering. Even if we work at evangelical redoubts such as Wheaton, Moody, Biola, or Taylor, the rising tide of biblical illiteracy ought to concern us. And it certainly isn’t just college freshmen who know so little about the Bible. Gallup has labeled the United States as "a nation of biblical illiterates." Time notes, "Only half of U.S. adults know the title of even one Gospel. Most can’t name the Bible’s first book. The trend extends even to evangelicals."

I have mixed feelings about "The American Bible Challenge," the new game show hosted by Jeff Foxworthy. While I’m thankful for this somewhat quirky attempt to spread Bible knowledge in our increasingly fragmented culture, I’m concerned that we’ll learn just how few of us can pass the challenge. I expect that most students entering Wheaton or other CCCU schools will score better than the average biblically literate American, and our institutions will do their usual excellent job of filling in the scriptural gaps. But the main point of this article is not to get us to wring our hands. It’s to open our minds. To what?

Only this: We who seek to be agents of gospel renewal have twin challenges. We must not only know God’s Word ourselves, but we must also know our audience. We must be able not just to exegete and interpret Scripture, but apply it to the hearts and minds of our hearers. And we should take nothing for granted.

The latest Mindset List reminds us how cultures influence people’s thoughts, assumptions, and worldviews. We need to not only get into our books, but into their cultures. What moves them, excites them, interests them, and bores them? What do they know, and what don’t they know? How do we translate the Bible into terms they can understand? It is the Spirit’s job to open hearts to the gospel, and he doesn’t need our help. But we have no excuse for intellectual laziness.

I have been blessed to sit under powerful, biblically astute preaching for many years in several churches. But we have all heard preachers who seemed to use the same dusty illustrations they used in seminary decades before, or who referenced television shows or technologies long "gone with the wind" (and if you didn’t get that reference, you may well be a member of the class of 2016!).

So as we get back into the autumn swing—whether at church, school, or another place of our vocation, here’s a friendly reminder to expend some holy energy on getting to know those whom we hope to win for the kingdom. Because while technology and cultural references may change, our calling to gospel witness remains the same.

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