The Story: A recent survey reveals how COVID-19’s disruption of in-person church attendance is directly affecting Scripture reading.
The Background: At the beginning of 2020, polling by the American Bible Society and Barna Group found that Scripture engagement by adults in the United States had risen to 70.9 million, its highest level since measurement by the two organizations began in 2011. A follow-up survey in June, though, showed that the COVID-19 crisis has significantly reduced Americans’ engagement with the Bible.
The State of the Bible polling found that as of the first week of June, Scripture engagement among adults had fallen from 27.8 percent to only 22.6 percent, representing some 13.1 million Americans no longer consistently interacting with the Bible “in a way that shaped their choices and transformed their relationships with God and others.”
The largest changes were in the groups classified as “Bible Centered” (i.e., people who say their values and principles of Scripture are central to their life choices and relationships) and “Bible Engaged” (i.e., people who say the values and principles of Scripture mostly influence their relationships with God and others, and to a lesser degree, the Bible also influences their life choices). The percentage of Bible Centered shrank by 3.8 percent, or 9.7 million American adults, while the Bible Engaged category shrank by 1.7 percent or 4.3 million adults.
Normally, the report says, Scripture engagement among women outpaces men. But women who were Bible Engaged or Bible Centered in January lost significantly more ground than their male counterparts did by June. For the purposes of the survey, Scripture engagement was composed of three components: frequency of interaction with the Bible; spiritual impact of the Bible on the user; moral centrality of the Bible in the user’s life. Frequency of interaction with the Bible showed the most significant decline for all Bible users between January and June, followed by spiritual impact. Moral centrality remained fairly steady between the two samples.
The study also found a direct correlation between increased Scripture engagement and those efforts typically organized by a church, including mentorship programs and small-group Bible studies. Church closures due to COVID-19 are therefore likely contributing to decreased rates of Scripture engagement. Those who participated in no relational activities through a church averaged 66/100 on the American Bible Society “Scripture Engagement Scale.” Participating in one such activity increased average Scripture engagement to 89 points, and participation in two or more discipleship activities was associated with Scripture engagement scores above 94 on average.
“This study supports the idea that the Church plays a significant role in benefitting people’s wellbeing and Scripture engagement,” says John Farquhar Plake, director of ministry intelligence at American Bible Society. “To increase Scripture engagement, we must increase relational connections with one another through the Church. The pandemic—and now this survey—have shown that when relational church engagement goes up, so does Scripture engagement, but when it goes down, Scripture engagement drops with it. In other words, it’s probably the relationships people have with one another through Church that really make the difference.”
Why It Matters: A few years ago, leadership expert Simon Sinek noted that every organization and leader knows what they do, some know how they do it, but very few know why they do what they do. The same principles appears to hold true when it comes to engagement with Scripture. Most Christians know what they should do—read the Bible. Some know how they should do it, such as engaging in inductive Bible study. But very few seem to know why they need to regularly engage with the Bible.
Perhaps we should first explain what is meant by “Scripture engagement.” Fergus Macdonald provides a superb definition:
Scripture engagement is interaction with the biblical text in a way that provides sufficient opportunity for the text to speak for itself by the power of the Holy Spirit, enabling readers and listeners to hear the voice of God and discover for themselves the unique claim Jesus Christ is making upon them.
Scripture engagement is the most important of the spiritual disciplines, and foundational to all other practices necessary for spiritual formation. Through engagement with the Bible we hear and encounter God. If we don’t engage with Scripture we can’t fulfill our primary purpose, which is, as the late J. I. Packer explained, is knowing God:
What were we made for? To know God. What aim should we have in life? To know God. What is the “eternal life” that Jesus gives? Knowledge of God. . . . What is the best thing in life, bringing more joy, delight, and contentment than anything else? Knowledge of God.
We were created to have a relationship with God, and engaging the Bible is a relational process. As Chris Webb says, the Scriptures are a “place where the boundary between heaven and earth has been worn through. . . . When we open the Bible, it does not say to us, ‘Listen: God is there!’ Instead, the voice of the Spirit whispers through each line, ‘Look: I am here!’”
Relational church engagement is certainly important, and it’s essential for Christians to engage with Scripture together. But church leaders need to ensure that Christians understand that Scripture engagement can’t be tethered solely to group interactions. The why of Scripture engagement is so that we can hear the voice of God saying, “‘Look: I am here!” And that’s a message we need to hear even when we can’t be gathered together.