Have I Failed as a Pastor if My Students Don’t Quote Scripture?

“Bible with Cross Shadow,” David Campbell, Flickr C.C.

It’s a question that’s been haunting me throughout my campus ministry career. What do I need to teach my students so that when they share their testimony, they can quote an adequate number of scriptures and check enough doctrinal boxes to prove that my ministry is sufficiently “biblical”? As a Christian pastor who cannot stop being evangelical, that’s my ingrained rubric for determining whether I’ve taught my students anything. And when my students talk in ways that don’t sound sufficiently “biblical” to me, I’m worried that I’m failing.

I’m not sure what I could be doing differently. We read something from the Bible every Sunday evening at our weekly worship dinner and have a conversation about it. Only a few of our students are willing to come out for a second activity each week like a small group Bible study. When we’ve had enough students to actually have a viable small group, it usually involves reading the Bible and discussing it.

It seems like there are two things that I need to disentangle. On the one hand, the Bible is an important resource for Christian discipleship that would greatly benefit my students in their spiritual lives. I’ve tried to model biblical interpretation for them. I’ve tried to offer them different approaches to reading scripture like lectio divina and using the psalms as prayers. The Bible has a terrible reputation because of the way that evangelicals have weaponized it for their culture wars, but it really can provide a foundation for a rich spiritual life, so helping my students open their minds to scripture is a worthy goal.

But the other reality is that the evangelicalism in which I was raised is a very performative version of Christianity. We are trained to say biblically correct speech and we listen for others to hear whether they are saying biblically correct speech. There’s a certain terminology that’s considered “biblical.” It’s not even a question of whether we quote the Bible or not, but whether we use the unofficially correct catchphrases and idioms.

I’ll never forget the evening that my evangelical worship leader at my last church invited his megachurch musician friends to play for our service. When they were “joking around” backstage, even their banter was a calculated performance of Bible speech. It’s analogous to the way that liberal woketivists perform political correctness for each other.

Having grown up in this culture, certain things have been hardwired into me. f I’m talking to a Christian who can’t say anything of more substance about their faith than vague statements about God’s unconditional love or inclusivity, then a judgmental voice in my head gets triggered. So when my students are talking about their faith and they speak in vague generalities, the judgmental voice turns on me, because if I were a good pastor, they would use the right terminology.

They would say something about how God “delivered” them from “sin” and “the enemy” and how they were “discerning” their “call” and “trusting God to provide.” I know this terminology; it’s my terminology; but I don’t remember how I was taught to speak this way. I just can’t remember my youth pastor or evangelical campus ministry leaders sitting me down with a chart of words and telling them to pepper my speech with them or a chart of Bible verses that I ought to memorize. It just feels like it all happened through an intangible and unreproducible osmosis.

To what degree is being theologically articulate important to Christian discipleship? In my experience, for evangelicals, theological articulation IS Christian discipleship. Doctrine is the whole game, because the assumption is that if you have the right doctrine, you will be motivated to do the right things for the right reasons. If you’re just a liberal do-gooder without any theology, then you might as well not be a Christian. If the way you talk and think about God is just a sort of fuzzy spiritual default, why go to church?

How important is it for my students to understand a phrase like “justification by faith” and use it in their everyday speech at least occasionally? I don’t want for it to be important. I want it to be enough for me to simply live out God’s grace before them and show them grace in our relationships so that they will become gracious people, and have that be what discipleship looks like for us. But there’s something in me that’s very nervous about the thought of a doctrine-less discipleship.

Another part of my reality is that philosophically I’m shaped in a way that may undermine my ability to teach, at least in the way my evangelical side thinks I’m supposed to. I’ve somehow developed the conviction that theology should be an egalitarian conversation instead of a lecture in which everyone is understood to have a word from God to share. For that reason, I don’t preach sermons at my campus ministry gatherings. We have conversations. When I lead my men’s small group, I don’t tell them this is what you need to believe; we all discuss what we believe and why. I participate as a discussion facilitator: one perspective at the table among many.

Though I’m stubbornly holding onto this basic conviction, I have wondered if I should start preaching again. Part of this is very selfish. Preaching is the one thing I do that proves to me every time that God is real and actively performs miracles in our world. When I’m preaching, my week is built around the synthesis of a theological vision that will be unleashed as the climactic event of the week. When I’m not preaching, there’s a certain kind of inspiration that I seem to lack as a leader.

Conversations are great, but I fear that our students are walking away without anything they can grasp. If I asked them to name one thing they remember from our dinner worship conversations, I’m not sure they would be able to answer. It’s possible that they wouldn’t be able to remember sermons either.

In any case, I received an answer as I was looking at Facebook this morning. My friend was commenting on the situation in Israel where so many Christians are calling the relocation of the US Embassy to Jerusalem the “fulfillment of biblical prophecy” (it’s actually a sign of the failure of biblical prophecy). My friend was complaining about the biblical illiteracy (among white evangelicals) that makes such a sloppy statement possible and calling on pastors to actually teach their congregations how to read the Bible.

So it helped me realize that the reason my students need to be biblically literate is not because I need them to perform “biblical-ness” adequately enough to get a thumbs up from my evangelical inner critics, but because people who are actually biblically illiterate are controlling what “biblical” is allowed to mean in our world. Yes, my students need the Bible for their personal spiritual growth. They also need to rescue the Bible from the people who are abusing it.

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