42% of the population in Maine is functionally illiterate. I heard that statistic from Keith Lawrence last night at a Southern Maine Church Planting meeting. That statistic hit me pretty hard. If we assume a population of 1.3M people in Maine, we end up with a staggering 546,000 people in Maine that will not comprehend what we teach, whether from the pulpit or in living rooms across the state. I would also make the bold statement that most pastors don’t care based on their actions. Let me make a case for a second.
A typical sermon includes 5-10 minutes of introduction where an illustration is used or a word is explained etc, to get the people ready to hear the message. This could be a witty little story about the CEO of a company who prayed before every meeting or a quick run down of the ways in which we misuse the word love. This would be followed by a verse by verse or even word by word explanation of the text. We explain the text for 15 minutes or so making sure we pull out the nuance of the Greek or Hebrew word used only once in this very verse. We follow all of this up with the climax of application where we give examples of what we can all do differently as a result. At the end of the service the pastor dutifully stands at the door of the church listening to all the people ooh and aah about the sermon. Most weeks however, there are always a few people who seem to never “get it.” Sometimes it comes out as a simple, “That one didn’t speak to me.” A more common explanation is, “I just don’t get much out of it.”
What is the first reaction? I know what mine was/is. “Well, they just don’t get it.”
EXACTLY! They don’t get it. And instead of figuring out why, we do more of the same with better illustrations teaching them more about Winston Churchill or Football than Jesus.
There are four levels of literacy accepted by most countries. Level 1 is the inability to read or write. This would be described as being illiterate. Level 2 is the ability to read very basic groups of words such as medicine doses and States/cities. Level 3 is the ability to fill out forms with a basic understanding of vocabulary. The ability to fill out a job application or other similar type of forms. These two levels are considered functionally illiterate. Level 4 is reading and writing comprehension. There are levels of reading comprehension however, and the basic rule is that a level 4 literate person could pick up a book written at an 8th grade level and understand it. This is the level at which most pastors in Maine preach at. Listen to sermons from all over the state and you will hear level 4 sermons. Sermons based on the information gleaned from not only research/theology books, but the very version of Scripture we read. What grade is your version written at?
If 42% of Maine is level 3 or below then you are correct, they DON’T get it. If 42% of Maine CAN NOT read at an 8th grade level, then why are we surprised when we hand them a Bible but they don’t seem to read it? I have been known to whack a bee’s nest or two in my day so it won’t come as a surprise for me to ask, “If the KJV is written at a 12th grade level, how many people are we saying that we don’t care about in our KJV only churches?”
So what needs to change? If we are going to try to reach the people of Maine by planting churches, what are we going to do about the 42% of people who will automatically be left out. I don’t want to shoot off a few flares then run away so my first answer is this.
When was the last time you told the gospel as a story? Was it the last time you substitute taught in Sunday School? When was the last time you started your entire sermon by just telling the story of the text in 5-10 minutes BEFORE you dig into the significance of each individual word. I am 100% guilty of this. I have preached to those seminary students in the seats while ignoring those who want to learn but just don’t get it.
I am not advocating that we simplify everything and go with felt boards every week, but I do wonder if we could take 30 minutes out of our week and craft a section of our sermon in order to reach more than 52% of the people who could walk into a service on any given Sunday. ( That was a long sentence but I’m not cutting it in 2 Tracy! ) Another reaction of yours could be similar to mine when I assumed, “I bet that number is lower than 42% in my church.” I bet I’m right, and I bet you are too! We designed it that way. We preach in a way to keep the 42% out.
Please take this information and be challenged to reach more people. This new information has certainly altered my mindset. I am note sure how it will end up playing out in my life specifically but if we truly want to reach Maine with the Gospel, we might need to rethink our delivery.