Bible Verse Memorization is Bad for You

I once had a Sunday School teacher who underestimated me. He was trying convince me and my classmates to memorize Bible verses but wasn't having much success. Finally, he got an idea: he vowed to give each of us one dollar for every verse we memorized that fall. With a small class of half a dozen fifth-grade boys, I don't think he expected to spend much more than ten or fifteen dollars total.

But I was never one to shrink back from an intellectual challenge. More importantly, money equaled Lego's. So I cleaned him out of thirty bucks in less than a month. In a sense, his incentive worked. We all tried harder, in varying degrees of enterprise, to memorize Scripture. But the downside is I don't remember a single Bible verse that I memorized as a child.

I'd feel bad about that if I thought I was the only one. A recent Barna study revealed that while 82% of Americans think they know their Bibles, 43% couldn't even name its first five books. Clearly, the past methodologies have been largely unsuccessful. More than that, I think Bible verse memorization has contributed to our society's growing biblical illiteracy.

What I mean is that past generations made America the most "Christian" it's ever been. For better or worse, Christianity had the ear of the White House, our pastors had bestsellers, our churches had thousands of members, and our culture had Bible colleges, conferences and programs as household names. It was into this Awana-soaked world my generation was raised. So if biblical illiteracy actually worsened during this era, that means we did something wrong.

This should be obvious if you look at what most memorization actually entails. As a mainstream practice, Bible verse memorization is not a methodical ingestion of a passage or story; it is a haphazard variety pack of unrelated human experiences. It's an ADHD hermeneutic whose mother is prooftexting and whose daughter is sound byte theology.

Illiteracy and misunderstanding begin to make sense when we realize that most kids are expected to memorize Ephesians 2:8-9 but not verse 10:
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
When individual verses are untethered from their contexts, they lose their meaning and their power. And our knowledge of the Bible will soon deteriorate into distant memories and ancient platitudes.

That's not to say that I've chosen to rely on an app instead of hiding the word in my heart. To the contrary, I can quickly recall many verses like Matthew 12:36 or 1 Corinthians 9:22. The difference is I didn't study these verses and repeat them one word at a time multiple times. I remember them because I need them.

We all do this. If it's important to us, we'll remember it. Think through the memories you have and you'll find a carefully selected array of experiences that have shaped who you are. Then in the darkest corners of your mind, where you need a giant spotlight to see, you'll find the memories that haven't changed your life--and all of those verses you memorized for Lego's, class credit, or reputation.

This is no place for Scripture. So stop filling up your attic with unlabeled boxes of yard sale material. The things that we memorize may have a place in our minds, but it's the things on which we meditate that matter.


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photo credit: Isaiah 43:2-3 via photopin (license)