The Story: A new survey reveals that while many Americans are curious about the Bible, relatively few regularly engage with God’s Word. Could introducing them to biblical theology reverse that trend?
The Background: The State of the Bible, a survey by the American Bible Society and Barna Group found that for most of the last decade, about half of Americans said they used the Bible three or more times per year. This low bar of engagement qualified them, by the survey’s definition, as “Bible Users.” In the previous poll (covering the year 2021), that number dropped 10 points, with only two in five Americans (39 percent) being Bible Users. In 2023, the responses matched that low point of 39 percent. Only about 63 million American adults (24 percent) use the Bible—on their own, outside of a church service—at least once a week.
According to the survey, women (41 percent) are more likely to be Bible Users than men (36 percent). Never-married people (30 percent) are least likely to use the Bible, yet people who are separated (52 percent) are most likely. Black Americans (57 percent) are most likely to be Bible Users, while Asians (27 percent) and whites (35 percent) are least likely.
Bible Use seems to increase with age, as elders (aged 77 or over, 48 percent) are most likely and Generation Z (30 percent) least likely to turn to Scripture. With regard to religious identity, evangelical (70 percent) and historically black (68 percent) Protestant denominations lead the way in Bible use, while Catholics (37 percent) remain low.
Despite the low level of engagement with Scripture, nearly three in four Americans (71 percent) are curious about the Bible or Jesus, with more than one in four being “very” (17 percent) or “extremely” (22 percent) curious.
What It Means: If most Americans are curious about Jesus or the Bible, why do so few engage with Scripture? One possible reason is that they may not know how to approach the Bible because they’ve never been exposed to the study of biblical theology.
Nearly three in four Americans (71 percent) are curious about the Bible or Jesus.
Biblical theology has been defined as the study of how the whole Bible progresses, integrates, and climaxes in Christ. Jesse Johnson explains: “Biblical Theology approaches the Bible as a cohesive narrative, with a crisis, conflict, climax, and resolution; it then interprets stories not in isolation, but rather as they relate to the whole. It intentionally approaches the Bible as one complete book, rather than as an anthology of short stories.”
Unfortunately, the “anthology” approach is the way most Americans approach the Bible. They assume the important parts are found only in the New Testament, especially the Gospels since they tell us about Jesus directly. Modern Bible readers have a difficult time understanding the significance of the Old Testament, though they may acknowledge it has some value as moral literature.
To effectively reach this group of unengaged Americans, Christians need to develop a more cohesive understanding of biblical theology. This will allow us to show how the entire Bible is about Jesus and why that matters for people’s lives. Two primary ways we can do this are by learning how to explain the larger narrative of Scripture and being able to show how we see Jesus in every book of the Bible.
Some helpful resources from The Gospel Coalition on these topics include the following:
Essay: Christ in the Old Testament by Stephen M. Coleman
Article: Your Whole Bible Is About Jesus by Matt Smethurst
Article: What Do You Mean When You Talk About Christ in the Old Testament? by Nancy Guthrie
Podcast: Nancy Guthrie on Developing Skills of Seeing Christ in the Old Testament
Book: The Scriptures Testify About Me edited by D. A. Carson
Course: God’s Big Picture: Tracing the Storyline of the Bible
Course: KINGDOM: The Story of Scripture
Courses: Biblical Theology: Beginner, Intermediate, and Advanced
People are curious about Jesus and the Bible, so let’s reward that curiosity by showing them the depth, majesty, and cohesiveness of God’s Word. Exposure to the grand narrative of the Bible will make them more, not less, interested in engaging with Scripture.
Do you want people to think that everything that is interesting or artistic or brilliant comes from the world? Dumb down the Bible. Do you want them to see the complexity and simplicity of God? The sheer genius of the Spirit-inspired biblical authors? The beauty of a world-encompassing metanarrative of cosmic scope?
Then, says Hamilton, “Teach them biblical theology.”