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Research shows downward shift in Americans’ engagement with the Bible


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Mario J. Paredes - published on 12/08/18

The survey found that 78 percent of “Bible-centered” adults “agree strongly that the future is hopeful.” That figure stands at just 24 percent for “Bible-disengaged” adults.

The findings are not overly dramatic, but new research commissioned by the American Bible Society (ABS) captures a subtle decline in the number of Americans who embrace the Bible as a tool for daily living and believe Scripture is the “inspired word of God.” The percentage of Americans who think of the Bible as “just another book of teaching written by men that contain stories and advice” grew from 18 percent to 20 percent of the population, compared to a year ago.

One particularly striking finding is that 54 percent of Americans fall into the category labeled as “Bible Disengaged.” As the researchers note, this figure doesn’t mean that this largest segment of the US population “necessarily [has] hostile or negative feelings toward the Bible, but many may simply be indifferent.” Still, most people in this category “do not interact with the Bible at all” and Scripture has a “minimal impact on their lives.”

By contrast, 9 percent of Americans are “Bible Centered,” 80 percent of whom “use the Bible every day.” The majority in this category are baby boomer married men, average age 51, attending church on a weekly basis and living in the South. Adults in the South across the board show the greatest engagement with the Bible.

Not surprisingly, it is particularly younger Americans—millennials and Generation X, today respectively ages 19-33 and ages 34-52—who make up the largest number of adults in the “Bible Disengaged” and “Bible Neutral” categories; 63 percent of millennials are either “Disengaged” or “Neutral;” that figure is 65 percent for Generation X. “Bible Neutral” Americans “interact with the Bible sporadically” and 38 percent of adults in this category are unchurched.

The poll also set out to measure how the Bible is rated as a “necessity in daily life.” On this front, the Bible had to compete with coffee, “something sweet” and social media. For 37 percent of adults, coffee was the most important daily necessity, followed by “something sweet” at 28 percent; social media came in at 19 percent, while the Bible is a daily necessity for only 16 percent of adults.

On the plus side, 57 percent of American adults indicate they “wish they used the Bible more often; even 32 percent of “Bible Disengaged” adults are apparently open to spending more time with the Bible; nonetheless, 63 percent in this category are decidedly “not interested in using the Bible more.”

Still, 66 percent of Americans exhibit “some curiosity to know more about what the Bible says”; 63 percent indicate they wish to know more “about who Jesus Christ is.” Not surprisingly, curiosity about the Bible is greatest among regular churchgoers; it is also stronger among people who have not gone to college and among those with minor children at home; curiosity about Scripture is weakest among those who are “Bible Friendly,” “Bible Neutral” and “Disengaged.”

When it comes to “Bible impact on thoughts and behaviors,” more than 50 percent of adults who use the Bible at least weekly report that reading Scripture has made them engage in their faith more, and that the practice has made them “show more loving behavior towards others.”

Still, the number of adults who “agree strongly that the Bible contains everything a person needs to know to live a meaningful life” has dropped from 44 percent a year ago to 42 percent. That figure is down from 53 percent in 2011. A similar drop is evident when Americans are asked if they think the Bible “has too little influence in US society”; that figure dropped from 47 percent in 2017 to 41 percent; what’s more, 25 percent of adults today think the “Bible has too much influence” in society—that figure stood at 13 percent in 2011.

A slip in regard for the status and value of Scripture also emerges as 56 percent of Americans say the US Constitution is more important than the Bible “for the moral fabric of our country.” On this point, as in many other cases, older adults are more likely to give Scripture higher ratings than younger generations.

Regardless of age, most US adults “don’t believe the Bible has much influence on social issues, the decisions they make about money, politics, or what they choose to watch on television or at the movies.” A quarter of Americans do indicate that their views on abortion are influenced by the Bible.

While 79 percent of adults “believe the morals and values of America are declining,” just 18 percent say “the decline is a result of a lack of Bible reading”—that figure still stood at 27 percent in 2018. Corporate greed is cited as the biggest cause of the country’s moral ills.

In sum, the research shows the engagement with and regard for Scripture is showing signs of decline—again, particular among  younger Americans; the findings conclude with a significant tribute to the power of the Bible: against the backdrop of 42 percent of US adults saying they are more fearful than five years ago, “hope for the future” correlates strongly with the degree of Bible engagement; 78 percent of “Bible-centered” adults “agree strongly that the future is hopeful.” That figure stands at just 24 percent for “Bible-disengaged” adults.

There is clearly something powerful, transformative—an impact that goes to the core of the human person—that is connected to an engagement with and a genuine love of Scripture!  

Research was conducted by the Barna Group and combined phone interviews and online surveys of more than 2,000 respondents. The poll used a methodology that ensured significant representation among all age groups, ethnicities and socio-economic segments of the population, including diverse geographic locations and distinctions between city, rural and suburban residents.

As a result, the data have a high degree of sociological validity and form an empirical basis for the assessment by the ABS and Christian Churches across the board how well evangelization efforts and all manner of practical initiatives are succeeding in spreading the Word of God; how engaged with Scripture Americans of all backgrounds really are; and how strongly they apply the teachings of the Bible to their daily lives.

This scientific method improves on formulas that tend to measure Scripture engagement more or less exclusively according to emotional, spiritual, inspirational or dogmatic yardsticks. The ABS/Barna Group research presents Christian leaders with highly concrete, actionable findings, reflecting the rich sociological profile of believers and non-believers. All this data will prove immensely valuable in providing so many points of potential access to the minds and hearts of contemporary Americans.

In the end, of course, it is up to the living witness of the Church and its preachers to credibly and convincingly make the case for Scripture as truly the living Word of God—and as a privileged place to encounter Jesus Christ.

Mr. Paredes is a member of the Board of Directors of the American Bible Society, where he previously served as director of the Department of Catholic Ministries.

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