Recovering Scripture Memorization

September 6th, 2012

Biblical literacy and Bible study aren’t where they need to be. You can turn it around.

The results are not encouraging for church leaders: Only about two-thirds of Christians have heard of spiritual gifts—and only a third can name one, according to a 2009 report from Barna. Also consider that only about half of Christians are confident that the Bible is reliable in the principles it teaches.

Or consider this: “Only 4% believe that poverty is an issue that is primarily the responsibility of the Church,” according to Barna. This, despite the fact that the Bible has more than 400 promises to those who will minister to the poor.

According to Barna’s report, “Bible reading has become the religious equivalent of sound-bite journalism. When people read from the Bible they typically open it, read a brief passage without much regard for the context, and consider the primary thought or feeling that the passage provided. If they are comfortable with it, they accept it; otherwise, they deem it interesting but irrelevant to their life, and move on.”

The research—along with anecdotal evidence gleaned from a quarter century as a local church pastor and from thousands of conversations with thousands of pastors—is not comforting. Bible study, and biblical literacy, is simply too low.

Recently, while listening to our seven-year-old grandson quote from memory an entire chapter of the book of Psalms, I realized how few adults give thought to, much less are intentional about, the discipline of Scripture memorization.

It’s been said, if God says something through His Word once, pay attention. If He says it twice, really pay attention. And if He says it more than twice, it’s really, really important that YOU PAY ATTENTION.

Consider the Psalmist’s words: Your word I have hidden in my heart, that I might not sin against You! (Psalm 119:11).

Or consider, instead Moses’ instructions to the people of Israel, Therefore you shall lay up these words of mine in your heart and in your soul… You shall teach them to your children, speaking of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down and when you rise up. (Deuteronomy 11:18a, 19)

Or, what I like to call the Joshua Code, taken from Joshua 1:8. This book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate in it day and night, that you may observe to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success.

So, if God clearly wants us to memorize and apply His Word — to have a proper “Wordview” — why do so few of our people seem to take it seriously? Can we convince them to embark on a journey to build biblical literacy in our congregations? I believe we can.

Scripture memorization enables us to take God’s Word with us anywhere and everywhere without carrying our Bibles. It enables us to receive the Word into our hearts, retain it in our minds, and recite it with our mouths that we might speak it with power. This is exactly what our Lord did during His days of temptation in the wilderness of Judea. With each temptation Satan brought Jesus’ way in Matthew 4, Jesus answered with, “It is written…” The Word received and retained in our hearts and minds overcomes temptations when recited with our mouths.

Likely, since you are reading this on a ministry-related website, I’m preaching to the choir a bit here. Certainly, most of us in ministry, from Sunday school teachers to small group leaders to ministers and senior pastors, need to, ourselves, be even more diligent in the way we approach Bible study, and thus build our own biblical literacy.

But how do we instill that into the people we’ve been called to shepherd or serve? I think there are three steps we should consider undertaking. We should lead by example, lead with encouragement, and lead with enthusiasm.

Lead by Example

One of my “fathers in the ministry” was W. Fred Swank, who for 40 faithful years pastored the Sagamore Hill Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas. He reminded me many times as a young man, “Never use your people to build your own ministry. Use the ministry God has given you to build your people.” Dr. Swank understood something that I applied throughout my ministry: I couldn’t ask the people I serve to do something that I, myself, was unwilling to do.

Church leader, let me ask you a pointed question: How much Scripture have you memorized this year? Here we are, three-fourths of the way through this calendar. How much of God’s word have you hidden in your heart that you might not sin against Him?

When I authored my most recent book, The Joshua Code: 52 Scripture Verses Every Believer Should Know, I highlighted the 52 verses I felt believers should commit to their hearts and minds. I have heard from many pastors who are using it as a guide to grow their own Scripture memory and using it to help guide their congregations through a deeper commitment to God’s Word through memorization.

Do you want to grow the biblical understanding and literacy of your congregation? Lead by example.

Lead with Encouragement

Many consistent Bible readers today seem to think it is the volume of Scripture they can devour daily that is most important. Certainly, there is a great benefit to reading through the entire Bible in some set period of time, say one year. However, that requires a daunting number of pages and passages to devour, and many times, Scripture memory takes a back seat.

What habits do you employ to make Scripture memory work for you? When memorizing Scripture, I have found it helpful to write it out in my own handwriting, phrase by phrase on a small note card. I keep the card in my pocket throughout the week, and numerous times during the day—while at my desk, at a stoplight in the car, or on other such occasions—I simply review it until the first phrase is memorized, then the second, and so on. Encourage your people to take time to really, truly, meditate on a passage and to commit it to memory, maybe even in addition to the devotional time they are already enjoying.

I remember in my early ministry, when the offering envelopes we would use in our churches included little checkboxes, “I brought my Bible,” “I shared the Gospel this week,” “I memorized my memory verse.” Those days have long since passed; many of our people have no heritage of Scripture memory. Encourage them. Enlighten them. Enthrall them. Show them as you lead by example, and lead with encouragement so they’ll continue to study and increase their biblical knowledge.

Lead with Enthusiasm

My own life was dramatically transformed when, as a seventeen-year-old man, I came to know Christ as my own personal Savior and Lord. I could count on one hand the number of times I could recall being in a church service, and I did not even know Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John were books of the Bible. The first week of my Christian experience, someone handed me a slip of paper with 1 Corinthians 10:13 written on it and then, looking me squarely in the face, said, “You better memorize this because you will need it!” Thus began a journey of Scripture memorization that has served to lead me every day since. That verse says, No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it. Only God knows how many times across the years I have arrived at temptation’s corner and this verse, hidden in my heart and mind, came out of my mouth and kept me on the right path.

Fleeing temptation because the Lord calls a simple verse to mind: That fact should cause us to be enthusiastic! A more biblically literate congregation or small group, that has hidden God’s word in their individual hearts, is able to face the challenges and frustrations of the day in a Christ-exalting manner. Fellow laborer, that’s a journey worth getting excited about.

I hope it’s a journey that you are embarking on and leading those you serve to follow you on, too.

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