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Thinking Out Loud

Interpreting the Bible with the Nones

by Michael Jinkins | Jul 14, 2015


Tim McNinchEditor’s note: Today’s blog is guest-written by Timothy McNinch, a second-year Master of Divinity student at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and co-author of People of the Book: Inviting Communities Into Biblical Interpretation (Wipf & Stock, 2012).

In May, the Pew Research Center published their landmark study confirming that the “nones,” the segment of the American population claiming no particular religious affiliation, have risen dramatically (from 16% in 2007 to a whopping 23% in 2014), while Christian identity among my millennial generation has steadily waned.1 Many Christian denominations are on the edge of panic about dwindling membership and are at a loss for effective strategies to draw in newcomers. At this critical moment in the history of American Christianity, I find myself situated in (of all places) seminary, joyfully up to my ears in biblical Hebrew and Greek. But I sometimes wonder if any of my study to become a professional Bible expert will be relevant to modern churchgoers, and especially to the growing population of unaffiliated “nones” who couldn’t care less about Hebrew participles. It seems as likely as not that when I graduate with a master’s degree in divinity, fellow millennials will look at me and my so-called inspired Scriptures and respond with an apathetic, “Meh.” In such a context, how can we engage this generation with the ancient text?

I have become convinced that the current religious climate calls for a reevaluation of the role of professional church leadership, not least in our approach to biblical expertise. I think part of the problem is that in our individualized age, we have forgotten that the Bible is a communal document—from communities for communities—and we have outsourced the work of interpretation to expert individuals: scholars, preachers and curricula writers. Laypeople are called upon to live out the implications of Scripture, yet the interpretation of Scripture itself is typically entrusted to the professionals. But what if we were to resurrect the ancient communal nature of the biblical texts, and interpret them together as whole church communities rather than making preachers the bottleneck for dissemination of the Word of God?

For one thing, balancing our familiar lecture-style sermons with opportunities for scholars, clergy and laity to wrestle together with the task of interpretation would enliven our congregations as people of the Book. We’d begin to see the Bible come to life in the spiritual formation of church members in a way that reliance upon sermons and pre-fab study curricula simply cannot replicate.

But beyond the benefits for existing individual members, my conviction and experience is that when a church makes a communal-interpretive approach to the Bible part of their collective ethos, this is surprisingly attractive to secular, postmodern, post-Christendom communities like the “nones.” Remember, these friends are often suspicious of the Bible not because they have read it and judged it, but because they have judged the use of the Bible by Christians as a tool to oppress others and sidestep responsibility for their own opinions (“I wish I didn’t have to be a bigot … but it’s the clear teaching of Scripture.”). In this environment, communities that invite open-ended conversation around the Bible, allowing and encouraging questions (even the taboo ones), and taking time to note the insightful input of novices and outsiders—these communities are a breath of fresh air, a wind of spiritual life. When I’ve debriefed such conversations, my secular friends tell me they’ve never before encountered churches that were interested to hear what they think about anything, let alone their take on the sacred texts. I think there is potential in this subtle shift of church culture to create an ethos that is more attractive and authentically engaging for millennial “nones” than attempts at flashy multimedia and lite rock worship music (both of which I appreciate to a degree).

Where does this leave me here at seminary in my preparation to become a biblical expert? Well, I think this means that in addition to my own Scriptural fluency (a gift I can certainly bring to the table as a pastor), I will need to develop another set of skills for gathering people of diverse backgrounds and diverse biblical experience around the ancient texts. My job is not simply to proclaim the Word, but to train congregations to utilize the tools for interpreting the Scriptures together as a hermeneutical community. Cultivating these leadership skills is both faithful to the communal nature of the Bible itself and essential to the fruitful discipleship of our present generation.

1Pew Research Center. America's Changing Religious Landscape. http://www.pewforum.org/2015/05/12/americas-changing-religious-landscape.

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