Fighting Biblical Illiteracy with Buzzers: An Interview with National Bible Bowl Director Josiah Gorman

The verdict is in: evangelicalism is full of people who don’t know the Bible and whose theology resembles heresy more than orthodoxy. However, in the midst of such a confused climate, National Bible Bowl is a Bible quizzing program which stands out for its desire to get young people into Scripture, the whole Scripture, and nothing but the Scripture.

Today, I talk with National Bible Bowl Executive Director Josiah Gorman about his organization.

Josiah, most of our readers will hear Bible Bowl and think some wacky youth group activity. What exactly is Bible Bowl?

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Josiah Gorman (r) poses for a photo with a student competitor.

Some may consider Bible Bowl a bit wacky, but I’ve never found a program more effective at teaching the Word of God to students. Bible Bowl is a program akin to the scholar bowl found in most high schools, but using Scripture, that uses competition to encourage students grades 3-12 to immerse themselves in God’s Word.

Geographically, where does National Bible Bowl have active teams?

Bible Bowl has teams as far west as Denver, CO and as far east as Jacksonville, FL. However, one of our goals is to grow so that Bible Bowl can be found coast to coast!

Josiah, you yourself are a former Bible Bowl player. How did your participation in Bible Bowl  impact your walk with Christ?

Bible Bowl is the single most impactful program I ever participated in when I was in high school or younger.

I grew up in the church, went to youth group, participated in AWANA, and attended Bible college. And I can safely say that I know more Scripture from my time in Bible Bowl than from all the others, probably combined. But it isn’t just an issue of knowledge, although that’s important, but of teaching. Through Bible Bowl I have seen God create hundreds of mentoring relationships. When you have a student learning Scripture under the tutelage of a faithful adult, whether laity or in vocational ministry, the Holy Spirit can’t help but move. The students will ask hard questions and have the wisdom of older generations to help guide them. For me that came in the form of my coach, Bill Thomas, who was also the lead minister of the church I attended.

I fully admit that when I studied the Scriptures in school I did not understand them as well as I do today, and God willing I’ll continue to understand them better and better the older I grow. But what Bible Bowl did was plant the seed in my heart. Bible Bowl is a planting ministry, not a harvesting ministry. And like the farmer who planted seed in Jesus’ parable, some will fall on hard ground, others is choked by thorns, and some are in shallow soil, but it is a miracle to watch the seed that fell on good soil: students who decided to go into missions, or vocational ministry, or those that want to bring Christ to the workforce.

All across the church-world people are talking about the steady increase in biblical illiteracy. How is Bible Bowl seeking to address this growing problem?

Bible Bowl seeks to deal the heart of the problem, which is the illiteracy itself. The simplest and most direct route to address this is to encourage kids to study the Scriptures, in their context.

When we study, we study whole books at a time. There is a time and place for survey level study of Scripture, but to combat Biblical illiteracy we need to know the whole story.

It’s good to know John 3:16, it’s better to know John 3, but to fully understand John 3:16 you need to know the whole book of John.

Some people may look at Bible Bowl and say “it’s all head knowledge.” How would you respond to that?

I could say, “You can’t apply what you don’t know.” Or I could argue that if we believe Scripture’s promises about itself (Isaiah 55:11, Psalm 119:11, Acts 17:11, 2 Timothy 3:16), then we know that the Holy Spirit moves through knowledge of the Word of God.

But I’m not going to do that.  Instead I want to show you.

  • I want to tell you about Anita Zutaut Hoch who went into the mission field in West Africa, to a country I can’t tell you about, in part because of her time in Bible Bowl.
  • Or Bill Thomas, my mentor, who credits Bible Bowl with being a key reason he entered preaching ministry.
  • Or maybe the Hurley’s, who met in Bible Bowl and now are missionaries in South America in part because of Bible Bowl.

When people study Scripture, they are moved to share it with others, and we have hundreds upon thousands of students who played Bible Bowl and then dedicated their lives to sharing God’s Word. 

Some of our readers may have some qualms about mixing competition and the Bible. After all, doesn’t the competition aspect make Scripture a means to an end and foster strife between believers?

Respectfully, no.

Competition is a vehicle to get students studying the Word of God. God made us competitive, we don’t believe that this is a disordered trait. And because of that, we don’t believe that competition must foster strife. Is it true that some people will compete with the wrong attitude? Probably. But we don’t expect perfection of our students. They will mess up, they will do dumb things. But we believe in the transforming power of learning God’s Word. There are many kids turned adults who will tell you that they are somewhat embarrassed by their behavior in Bible Bowl, but as a function of playing Bible Bowl they saw that those things were not the best way to behave. And in the end, Paul said he would become all things in order to win some for Christ.

In the end, we’ll do whatever it takes to get students to learn Scripture.

What do you say to someone who likes the idea of Bible Bowl but is daunted by the idea of memorizing so much material?

First, you don’t have to memorize it! Our goal is to get as many students as possible to learn Scripture. While I believe memorizing to be one of the best ways to learn, there are many others and we encourage students to study in any way they like! Second, memorizing is a skill like any other that can be strengthened and developed. This summer I had a parent tell me that if we had told them two years ago how much her student would be memorizing now, they never would have joined. You have more capacity to memorize than you give yourself, or your student, credit for.

Besides the obvious importance of knowing the Bible, what are some of the other benefits of joining the Bible Bowl community?

Eric, you touched on a big one in your question: community! There are very few other places where your student can find such an engaged community of young people and adults committed to studying Scripture together. Your student will make friends with high character young people, and likely find mentorship and learning under the tutelage of another Godly adult.

In addition to that, our students develop wonderful academic skills, such as: test taking skills, the discipline to study, increased capacity for memorizing, and the ability to quickly recall what they’ve learned. Touching on one of your previous questions, students also learn how to win and lose in a Christ-like manner. Many students come into Bible Bowl with their identity partially tied to how they perform in Bible Bowl and leave with their identity tied more firmly in Christ.

Can you cast a wide vision for how you would love to see Bible Bowl impact the church at large?

Like you previously mentioned, Biblical illiteracy is rampant in the world today, but not just the world, also our churches. Bible Bowl is the single best tool I’ve ever come across to combat Biblical illiteracy, and so I hope that Bible Bowl spreads to every single church in the country, regardless of denomination. I realize that it’s not likely to happen, but I believe Bible Bowl is that potent. And I believe that if the church in America would do so, we would see a revival in America as biblically literate leaders left our churches for Bible college, secular universities, the workforce, and vocational ministry.

What are some “next steps” for someone wanting to start a Bible Bowl team at their church?

We’d love to hear from anyone who wants to start Bible Bowl! Our website is: www.biblebowl.org, and you can email me at jgorman@biblebowl.org. Or, and this is my preference, feel free to give us a call! Our phone number is (321) 972-5390, we’d love to talk with you!

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