Every year, Barna and the American Bible Society release new research on behaviors and beliefs about the Bible among U.S. adults. Click here for a summary of the surveys with charts and graphs to help you visualize the research.
Three findings stood out to me.
1. Most Americans appreciate the Bible and wish they read it more often.
The largest segment of Americans fall into the “friendly” to the Bible category. They don’t engage the Bible regularly, but neither are they neutral, skeptical, or hostile. They see the Bible as an important book that has the potential to improve their lives, even if it’s not a source of wisdom they regularly tap.
Because they have a high view of the Bible, the majority of Americans (58 percent) wish they read it more often. Of those who are friendly toward the Bible (the largest segment), a striking 78 percent wish they engaged it more often! The research shows that every segment of Americans expressed a desire for more Bible reading, including one in five Skeptics and one in five non-Christians.
Church leaders often lament the lack of biblical literacy among many church members. We turn to Bible reading plans and Bible studies and curriculum to help with this problem. But in our focus to get more Christians reading the Bible regularly, let’s not miss the opportunity to answer a need that people outside the church may feel, too.
If a majority of the largest segment of non-regular Bible readers say they wish they read it more often, shouldn’t we consider ways to build upon this desire in order to welcome people into our church fellowship?
The Bible is the best thing we’ve got going for us! Instead of assuming that most people outside the church are hostile or skeptical or even neutral toward the Bible, we should assume that people appreciate this Book and will likely appreciate our suggestions in helping them make Bible reading an ongoing part of life.
2. It’s likely that American views of the Bible are therapeutically motivated.
Older people read the Bible more than younger people, and women read the Bible more than men do. And many people say that they’ve gone to the Bible because of a difficult life experience or because they’ve seen the Bible improve someone else’s life.
Based on data from other surveys from Barna and LifeWay Research, it’s safe to assume that American appreciation for the Bible is not because it communicates Christian truth, but because of its wisdom that can help better your life. The Bible is seen as a good source of morals, a book that will encourage and support someone who wants to enjoy life more. To put it another way, Americans have a high view of the Bible because they believe it can be helpful to people pursuing their own way of life, not because it offers truth that might lead them on another path altogether.
The good news is Americans are still going to the Bible. Shouldn’t we build on this? If people have a high view of the Bible, even for the wrong reason, we ought to meet them at that starting point and then invite them to lean in.
I know that you appreciate the Bible, you want to get into it more, and you think it can improve your life. But let me warn you: this Word is living and active, and it’s not interested in just improving your life as it is, but in changing your life forever. Get ready for surprises! Do you want to go on this journey to see?
3. Printed Bibles aren’t going away anytime soon.
Perhaps the most startling takeaway in the research is that readers of the Bible overwhelmingly prefer a printed Bible (91 percent), even though they access the Bible in other formats (online, smart phone, and apps). Clearly, electronic forms of Bible reading are on the rise, but the arrival of the digital age has not changed Americans’ preference for reading the Bible in print instead of digital.
As a Bible publisher, I believe that in a digital age, where the content of the Bible is more easily accessible than ever before, the printed Bible matters more to people, not less. When people purchase a Bible, they care more deeply about the paper, the font size, and the beauty of the presentation. Printed Bibles provide the opportunity for the longstanding practice of making notes, underlining, and highlighting in a physical book, leaving a legacy to be handed down to future generations (as Tim Challies recently pointed out).
We’ve got our work cut out for us if we want to increase Bible engagement across America. Thankfully, we’ve got the opportunity to build on widespread appreciation for the Bible in our evangelistic efforts. We’ve got the opportunity to preach and teach in ways that exposit and explain the biblical text. And we’ve got the opportunity to show people why this Book has stood the test of time and how it can still change lives today.