7 Things Church Leaders Should Know about Illiteracy

March 6, 2017

Reading has profoundly impacted my life, and probably yours too. As church leaders, many of us are voracious readers, and nearly everyone we know reads at a high level. The problem of illiteracy never occurs to us.

But we’re living in a tiny ghetto of the highly educated. The fact is that 43 percent of adults in the United States—that’s maybe 139,000,000 people—read at a barely functional level or below.1

Which means there probably are people in your congregation who can’t read the sign on the restroom door.

1. Some of your people can’t read.

About 32 million people have low literacy, meaning that they cannot read well enough to fill out a job application, read a food label, or read a simple story to a child.2 Chances are good that a number of people in your congregation can’t read the song lyrics on the screen.

That helps explain why some people don’t read the announcements, the bulletin, or the weekly email blast. They simply can’t.

You may have many well-educated people in your church, but . . .

2. Illiterate people are good at faking it.

They avoid volunteering for task that involve reading. They always order a hamburger so they don’t have to read the menu. Some will carry a newspaper or magazine so people think they’ve been reading. Nobody will tell you they can’t read, and you may never notice.

If you want to know that people struggle with this, you must talk about it often and without judgment, giving them permission to come out of hiding.

Until then, realize that . . .

3. Low literacy holds people back financially.

People with the lowest literacy also have the highest rates of poverty, and 70 percent of adult welfare recipients have low literacy levels. If you can’t complete a job application or read email, it’s hard make a living wage.3

So this may be a problem with the chronically under-employed person in your church.

And that leads to another problem . . .

4. People who can’t read often wind up in jail.

Seventy-five percent of prison inmates did not complete high school or can be classified as low literate. However, inmates who gain an education are 43 percent less likely to return to prison.4

And, surprisingly . . .

5. The desire to read the Bible is a primary reason adults learn to read.

When people come out of the shadows and admit they can’t read, it’s usually either to earn more money, to help educate their children, or to read the Bible.

So teaching literacy is a way to help “the least of these” because . . .

6. People with low literacy are trapped in a tiny world marked by shame.

They can’t read the news. Can’t fill out a voter registration form. Can’t read the menu at McDonald’s. Can’t help their kids with homework. Can’t drive far because they can’t read street signs. Can’t read a phone bill. Can’t read a rental contract. Can’t do much of anything.

Many have undiagnosed learning disabilities, and nearly all of them feel ashamed of their inability to function as other adults do.

The good news is that . . .

7. You can attack this problem right now.

Frank Laubach, the father of the modern literacy movement, was a missionary to the Philippines. He became deeply concerned about poverty, injustice and illiteracy. He also realized that people who couldn’t read couldn’t read the Bible.

Laubach devised a learning method, still in use, that has helped some 60 million people to read. You can join this movement.

When you teach someone to read, you expand their mind, their world, and their options. You give them a hand up from poverty, incarceration, and self-doubt.

Thousands of volunteers in hundreds of literacy organizations are fighting this problem, one reader at a time. When your congregation thinks of serving its community, you’ll think of poverty and hunger and homelessness and domestic violence and sex trafficking, and those are all pressing needs.

Don’t forget the unseen burden that correlates to nearly all the rest. Many people caught in those situations can barely read.

PS: If you’d like to join the fight, find a literacy organization near you.

Lawrence W. Wilson


I blog about Christian faith and ministry. I've also written a few books including The Long Road Home and Why Me? Straight Talk about Suffering.