The Tongue of the Learned: How the Elaboration Likelihood Model and Group Communication Can Improve Biblical Literacy

By Jonathan D. Brackens
2012, Vol. 4 No. 12 | pg. 1/3 |


Interest in the intersection of religion and politics has grown in salience in the Post-9/11 era. Recent scholarship purports that when it comes to religion, Americans are profoundly ignorant. This ignorance leads to religious insensitivity that often results in suboptimum outcomes; thus, both religious and secular scholars have proposed policy actions to address religious illiteracy. As it pertains to biblical literacy, a policy debate exits which argues the question of whether or not the public sector should be involved in improving it. While each scholar proposes policies aimed to increase biblical literacy, some teeter on unconstitutionally, and all fail to look to clergy for assistance. This research reviews how employing the Elaboration Likelihood Model and Group Communication in clergy-laity interaction will improve comprehension of biblical concepts. The policy was implemented in a local church, and survey results show a significant improvement in biblical knowledge post implementation (M=.1579, SD=.37463) than pre-implementation (M=.6316, SD=.49559), t (18) = 4.166, p=.001). Furthermore, the organization experienced a positive externality to organizational health, as it saw a significant increase in their attendance-to-contribution correlation (AR2=.943 and p=.004). Based upon the results, the study concludes with a discussion of the trade-offs and implications that adopting the communication policy has on current church structures.

Recent scholarship posits that “Americans are both deeply religious and profoundly ignorant about religion” (Prothero, 2007:1; Pew Forum, 2010; Brackens, 2012; Owens 1985; Stetson & Scurry 2005; Hinton 2009). Each scholar attempts to speak to the extent to which Americans are religiously illiterate and propose various policies aimed to correct the deficiency. Current policy suggestions support the inclusion of religious education within primary, secondary (Prothero, 2007, Stetson & Scurry, 2005) and post-secondary schools (Blake, 2011; Prothero, 2007) or including libraries and educational resources within churches (Owens 1985; Hinton 2009). Most notably, the Obama Administration saw the need to promote religious literacy, and therefore created the Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge.2 Other scholarship simply measures biblical illiteracy gaps and the extent to which cohort specific variables aggravate or mitigate outcomes (Pew Forum, 2010; Brackens, 2012). However, none speak to how changes in communication styles within the church can improve religious/biblical literacy and comprehension. We seek to add this component to the discussion by answering the question: can the Elaboration Likelihood Model (ELM) and Group Communication improve comprehension of biblical concepts among parishioners?

This study answers the research question by reviewing the literature regarding the extent of biblical illiteracy among Americans and the policy suggestions each proponent poses. Next, the paper reviews communication theory and its role within the Church; subsequently, we qualitatively address the topic via deconstructing clergy-laity interaction through the lens of ELM and group communication. Pushing the analysis further, Shekinah Glory Church, SGC hereafter, is reviewed as a case study to provide empirical evidence of the impacts that ELM and group communication have on biblical literacy. The research concludes with a discussion of (a) the organizational trade-offs faced when adopting ELM and group communication, (b) the legal ramifications of adopting various policies aimed to increase biblical literacy and (c) the study's limitations and call for further research.

II. Theoretical Framework

Known Unknowns: Literature on Biblical Illiteracy

Prothero (2007) sought to increase the salience of biblical illiteracy by stating that "...understanding Christianity and the Bible must remain the core task of religious literacy education, if only because Christian and biblical terms are most prevalent on our radios and televisions, and on the lips of our legislators, judges, and presidents" (14). Additionally, Prothero detailed key terms and concepts that every American should know in order to improve their religious literacy. The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life’s 2010 survey was conducted to test Prothero’s claim that “Americans are both deeply religious and profoundly ignorant about religion” (2007:1). According to Pew Forum, the survey “gauge[s] what Americans know about their own faiths and about other religions…[via questions that cover] a wide range of topics, including the beliefs and practices of major religious traditions as well as the role of religion in American history and public life” (Pew Forum 2010). Pew Forum's (2010) findings confirmed Prothero's (2007) claim and holds that on average, American Christians can answer 47 percent of questions regarding religious knowledge3. Brackens (2012) pushed the discussion further by analyzing the biblical knowledge gap among Black and White Protestants/Christians from the data provided by Pew Forum. Brackens holds that "...Black Christians/Protestants know significantly less about the Bible than their White counterparts" (15). Furthermore, Brackens (2012) posits that "Blacks actualize a [significant] negative impact [to biblical literacy] engendered by their race," (11) in that for Blacks, "the attendance variable's impact is counterintuitive: whereas one would assume a positive correlation between attendance and biblical knowledge scores, the opposite is seen among Blacks" (10). Stetson & Scurry (2005) surveyed teen biblical knowledge and showed significant illiteracy rates; their research purports that secondary schools should teach biblical literacy as it will help re-enforce faith and improve academic performance. Owens (1985) and Hinton (2009) reviewed the Black Church and proposed that including libraries and educational resources within churches would increase literacy rates. None of these investigations sought to determine if clergy communication styles impact literacy rates4.

Rhetoric and the Church

The success of Christian conversion and doctrinal understanding is largely based upon the speaker's capability to persuade the listener (Rybacki & Rybacki, 2008:4; Brackens, 2011:1; Matt. 28:19, Luke 14:23, 2 Cor. 5:11, Rom. 12:1, Acts 26:28). Additionally, a preponderance of biblical and scholarly evidence supports the proposition that the onus of biblical education of laity falls on clergy (Duet. 33:10a; Craigie 1976:396; Harrison 1987:65; Brackens 2011, 2010; Bell 2006; Derrett 1983). Based upon these two premises, one can reasonable conclude that clergy must use the art of persuasion to convert, disciple, and ensure "adequate" biblical literacy levels among their parishioners. The aforementioned assumes that clergy somehow gauge the comprehension level of laity -- this is a large assumption as current communication styles within Church settings does not foster assessing how well laity understand the messages taught. However, through employing concepts from ELM and Group Communication, clergy can gauge and improve laity biblical literacy.

ELM and Group Communication

ELM, founded by Petty and Cacioppo (1986), seeks to aid the leader in persuasion by providing techniques on how to keep the audience focused on the message. It asserts that there are two types of processing: central and peripheral. Peripheral processing is when one fails to “fully process the message…[instead, they] seize on some cue from the message, context or situation to do the thinking for [them]” (Rybacki & Rybacki 2008: 5). Peripheral processing is where most of the information is lost during communication. If the speaker desires the audience to understand key concepts, s/he should engage the audience in such a way as to foster central processing. Central process is the “result of a person’s careful and thoughtful consideration of the true merits of the information presented” (Petty & Cacioppo, 1986:3). It is important to note that the listener must be engaged in order to access central processing. Consistent engagement of a group to achieve central processing and act in the manner desirable to the leader is group communication and leadership.

Group communication and leadership discusses behaviors that are essential to increase biblical literacy levels within local churches. There are several behaviors which are important in group leadership such as mutuality, persuasion, and credibility. The transactional model of communication holds that the person initiating a message is not and should not be the only one involved in communicating; rather “each person in the interaction is…a communicator” (Froemling, Grice & Skinner 2011:7; O'Donnell 1984:327; Barnlund 1970:83-102). In short, mutuality must be established to foster an environment of collaboration. Sze-Sze Wong (2004) writes, “defined as the knowledge acquisition, sharing, and combination activities of group members (Argote et. al 2001), group learning has been posited to advance group development (Argot et al. 2001), enhance group creativity (Hargadon 1999), coordinate members’ thoughts and actions (Senge 1990), and promote group performance (Edmondson 1999)” (646).

The goal in group leadership is to “…[influence] others to understand and agree about what needs to be done and how to do it…” (Rowe & Guerrero, 2011: 1). If communication appears to be asymmetrical, in this case heavier on the leader’s side, then group members may suffer from the spiral of silence. The Spiral of Silence Theory, founded by Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann, refers to “the increased pressure people feel to conceal their views when they think they are in the minority” (Griffin, 2009: 372). Causing a group member to fear isolation due to their incongruence to the leader’s/majority’s ideology is poor group leadership. If we are to discover what our local group knows, they must believe that they can contribute (i.e., inquire, concur, and dissent) and we must let them. Ergo, mutuality is essential and must be establish for effective group leadership, learning, and communication.

Rybacki and Rybacki assert that credibility is an important factor in how the audience, in the case the group, will perceive the leader (2008: 257). Carl Hovland and Walter Weiss assert that “expertise and trustworthiness are the two main ingredients of perceived credibility” (Griffin, 2009: 14). In group leadership communication, the leader must have the technical knowledge necessary to adequately persuade the group to act in the desired manner. Perceived credibility is subjective as it depends on each member of the group to derive measures of credibility. In a group setting, some will never know the level of one’s expertise without having questioned them. If mutuality is not fostered, group members’ expertise cannot be established; establishment of expertise is paramount to assessing the group’s biblical knowledge base. Furthermore, the leader’s credibility is essential to motivating the group to learn more. This research purports that if one desires to see their local church group increase in religious knowledge, then ministry styles must be restructured to include positive group communication behaviors. We support our hypothesis via analyzing the impacts of a change in communication style among a local non-denominational church, SGC.

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