Americans want to read the Bible more, but don’t.


Do you want to read the Bible more?Do you want to read the Bible more than you have in the past?  If so, you’re not alone.  Have you been successful in reading the Bible more often?  Then you are nearly alone.

That’s very sad.  Especially when you see what’s coming in this article and in the rest of the series

We’re going to continue looking at the Barna Research study commissioned by the American Bible Society.  The study is titled: State of the Bible 2017: Top Findings.  If you haven’t read it yet, the first article is Searching for hope – but not finding it?  The entire series (still being written at this time) is called State of the Bible.

There are seven sections in the detailed findings.  We’re going to look at the first one in this article – Bible Engagement

Most Americans Desire Greater Bible Use

This is one of the most interesting findings in Section 1 of the study.

More than half of all adults wish they read the Bible more often (58%). This is down slightly from 2016 (61%). Each segment expresses a desire for more Bible reading, in fact, one in five Skeptics (22%) and one in five non-Christians (21%) wish they read or listened to the Bible more. Also, desire is particularly high among Friendlies (78%). But despite most Americans’ desire to read the Bible more, two-thirds of them (67%) say their level of Bible-reading is about the same as it was one year ago.

If you’ve read the first piece in this series, titled Searching for hope – but not finding it? then you’ll recognize how odd these finding are.  People are searching for hope in the Bible.  But they say they aren’t finding hope.  And yet, fewer people are even taking time to read the Bible.  No wonder they aren’t finding hope!

In this article, we’ll look for a disconnect between the number of people who say they want to read the Bible more, and the number of people who are unable to do so.   One of the big problems with self-reporting surveys is that people’s assessment of themselves doesn’t always match up with reality.  So, we’ll look at the conclusions respondents made about themselves, and then see if they match up with the raw data.

Categories of Bible readers

Barna defines the categories of Bible readers.  The full criteria for being in each of the categories is in the “Searching for hope …” article.  For this particular analysis, we only need to know the following information.

Bible Engagement Definitions

Segment Definition Percent
Bible Engaged
  • Read, use or listen to the Bible four times a week or more
20%
Bible Friendly
  • Read, use or listen to the Bible fewer than four times a week
38%
Bible Neutral
  • Read, use or listen to the Bible one time a month or less
23%
Bible Skeptic
  • Bible usage isn’t a factor for Bible Skeptics
19%
Bible Hostile
  • Bible usage isn’t a factor for Bible Skeptics
13%

Definitions for 2017 Barna State of the Bible survey

Few Bible Engaged Americans – 

Right away, we see one issue.  Only one in 5 Americans (20%) are in the Bible Engaged category.  Further, the Bible Friendly category has such a wide definition that we cannot know how often they read the Bible.  All we know for sure is that it’s less than 4 times a week.  The sad reality is that zero times a week is less than four.  From this table, we just don’t know.

The Bible Neutral category, at once a month or less, is really a non-starter as far as having much hope for reading the Bible more.  While it’s certainly easy to move up from 0 or 1 time per month, it’s not likely to happen.

Bible Engagement Profile – any hope people will read the Bible more often?

Bible Engaged (20% of the population)

Believe the Bible is the actual word of God or inspired word of God. They engage with the Bible at least four times each week. More often than not, Bible Engaged adults are married females from the Baby Boomer generation, are 53 years of age on average, have not been to college, are weekly church attenders, attend Protestant churches, and reside in the South or Midwest. Three-quarters of Bible Engaged adults read the Bible every day. More African-Americans can be found in this category than the four other Bible engagement segments.

There actually is some hope, but also a sad reality that is apparent in this paragraph. 

The good news is that they are Protestant and go to church every week.  With apologies to Catholics, we’ll see in a moment that Catholics are less likely to read the Bible.  However, Catholics are more likely to read other liturgical documents.  But this is all about searching for hope and therefore wanting to read the Bible more often.  Therefore, the study, for better or worse, doesn’t consider reading anything other than the Bible.

The sad reality from the paragraph is that more often than not, Bible Engaged adults are married females.  That means there are a lot of not-so-engaged married men.

On top of that, we need to remember that this group is only 20% of the people responding.

Bible Friendly (38% of the population)

Includes the most US adults. They believe that the Bible is the actual word of God or the inspired word of God, without errors, but read the Bible less often than four or more times a week. On average, Bible Friendly adults are 5 years younger than those who are Engaged, at 47 years old. Like Bible Engaged adults, nearly half have never attended college, are more likely to be married, have children under 18 at home, and reside in the South and Midwest.  

The fact that this group includes most American adults, and they read the Bible somewhere between 0 and 4 times a week is not a source of great hope for having people read the Bible more often.

Half of Bible Friendly adults are Christians who do not have a practicing faith. While two in five attend church weekly, nearly one-third (32%) are unchurched. About half of them are notional Christians (49%), that is, they call themselves Christian but do not believe Jesus died for their sins. About one-third of Bible Friendly adults are Catholics. Three out of five (60%) report reading the Bible at least three or four times a year.

Having one-third of this group not go to church doesn’t bode well for increased Bible reading.  Worse yet, about half of this group doesn’t even know the most basic Christian teaching – that Jesus died for our sins. Reading the Bible is one thing.  Getting something out of it is quite another thing entirely.  Unfortunately, even if some of the people in this group do read the Bible more often – it won’t help them, because they don’t know what they’ve read.

It reminds me of this prophecy from Isaiah.

Isa 6:9 He said, “Go and tell this people:  “ ‘Be ever hearing, but never understanding;  be ever seeing, but never perceiving.’

The thing that makes this, if possible, even worse, is that the wives will be saved and their husbands probably not.

Bible Neutral (23% of adults)

Believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God but contains factual errors or that it is not inspired but tells how the writers understood the ways of God. Adults in this category average 45 years of age. Similar to Bible Friendly adults, many in the Bible Neutral category are notional Christians or Catholics. Just over one-third (35%) do not consider themselves to be Christian and over half are (58%) are unchurched. Roughly one in four (27%) say they read the Bible at least three or four times a year.

The bad news here is that one of the main distinguishing characteristics is how many times they read the Bible as compared to the Bible Friendly group.  There beliefs, commitment to church, knowledge of Jesus, Etc. isn’t that much different between the two.

Again, we don’t see much hope for people reading the Bible more often here either.  

Bible Users – will there be a group that might show a tendency to read the Bible more often?

Unfortunately, this section of the study starts off with statistics that I believe are anything but good.

Half of Americans are ‘Bible users’ – that is, they engage with the Bible by reading, listening to or praying with the Bible on their own at least three to four times a year (50%). This proportion has remained relatively consistent since 2011. The addition of language to include those who listen to or pray with the Bible to “Bible readership” had no effect on the number of people who engage with the Bible.

Half – sounds pretty large – until it says at least three to four times a year.  Let’s say Christmas and Easter – the “big two” Christian holy days.  Maybe New Years , as part of a resolution.  And then one other time.  That’s not a lot.  It’s not a lot for a population that supposedly wants to read the Bible more.  That’s not even the full 58% who made that claim.  

Adults who read the Bible daily account for 16% of the total adult population, followed by 14% who read several times a week, 7% do so once a week, 7% about once a month, and 6% read it three to four times a year.

When we see the 6% in this excerpt, it has to raise questions about the 50% in the previous one.  Unfortunately, this is a problem with massive amounts of statistics.  The way the questions are asked, the groupings of people, Etc have a huge impact on the ability to determine what the statistics mean.  Of course, it’s also important to remember that everyone self-answers.  There are no checks to see if the answers are really correct – or if they even match up across questions.

The bottom line here though is pretty simple – those who fall into the Bible Users group really don’t use it all that much.

Nearly one-third of adults say they never read, listen to or pray with the Bible (32%), a five-percentage point increase over 2016. One in ten adults (10%) read the Bible less than once a year and 8% read it once or twice a year. Millennials and Gen-Xers are less likely to use the Bible than Boomers and Elders.

The fact that so many adults never interact with the Bible at all is both shocking and not surprising at all.  In a nation that claims to be overwhelmingly Christian, 32% of the adults responding that they never even read the Bible is shocking.  But then, it isn’t.  Remember what Jesus said,

A Tree and Its Fruit

Mt 7:15 “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. 16 By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? 17 Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.

Mt 7:21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ 23 Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’”

Given so many who claim to be Christian but rarely, if ever, read the Bible, it’s not surprising that so many would hear Jesus say, “I never knew you.”  To me, these are probably the scariest words in the Bible.  From this survey, it appears lot’s of people will hear them.  And remember, these words are only for those who claim to be Christians.  Everyone else will hear something very different – although the results will be the same.

Overall Bible Exposure

The numbers in this section match up pretty closely with what we’ve seen so far.  However, while the summary at the end of the section may sound good to some, I can’t help but wonder, what would Jesus think about this.

When combined with the previous question about personal Bible use, total Bible exposure is right at 65% of all adults, which is consistent with the previous year’s findings.

Just about the same as last year.  Even though so many people claim to be Christian.  Even though so many people want to read the Bible more.  It’s still the same as last year.  That means it’s 65%.  Just under two-thirds.  

Treasures in Heaven

Mt 6:19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. 20 But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Mt 6:22 “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are good, your whole body will be full of light. 23 But if your eyes are bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!

Mt 6:24 “No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.”

Yes, the passage concludes with a statement about God and money.  Money is a reasonable one for Jesus to use as a competitor for our time, as it was in Bible times.  Remember what Paul wrote about money.

Love of Money

1Ti 6:3 If anyone teaches false doctrines and does not agree to the sound instruction of our Lord Jesus Christ and to godly teaching, 4 he is conceited and understands nothing. He has an unhealthy interest in controversies and quarrels about words that result in envy, strife, malicious talk, evil suspicions 5 and constant friction between men of corrupt mind, who have been robbed of the truth and who think that godliness is a means to financial gain.

1Ti 6:6 But godliness with contentment is great gain. 7 For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. 8 But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. 9 People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. 10 For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.

Many people think the passage was about money being the root of all evil.  But a closer look reveals that it actually says money is the root of all kinds of evil.  There are other things besides money that will lead us astray. 

For those that claim to be Christian but rarely, if ever, read the Bible – a question needs to be asked.  What is the thing that’s competing – and winning – for our time that we should be spending with God?  What is the thing that we build earthly treasures with, rather than treasures in Heaven?

And then there’s the scenario of Jesus being asked about the greatest commandment.

The Greatest Commandment

Mk 12:28 One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”

Mk 12:29 “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

Mk 12:32 “Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. 33 To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”

Mk 12:34 When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And from then on no one dared ask him any more questions.

Not far from the kingdom of God.  But apparently not there yet either.  It takes more than just reading the Bible and remembering some verses.  It takes knowing, understanding and living it as well.  If we don’t even take the time to read the Bible, how can we possibly expect to understand it and live our lives according to it?  How far from the kingdom of God are we?

And one final thought on this concept, from the passage the NIV titles Do Not Worry.

Do Not Worry

Lk 12:22 Then Jesus said to his disciples: “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear. 23 Life is more than food, and the body more than clothes. 24 Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds them. And how much more valuable you are than birds! 25 Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life ? 26 Since you cannot do this very little thing, why do you worry about the rest?

Lk 12:27 “Consider how the lilies grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. 28 If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today, and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, how much more will he clothe you, O you of little faith! 29 And do not set your heart on what you will eat or drink; do not worry about it. 30 For the pagan world runs after all such things, and your Father knows that you need them. 31 But seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.

Lk 12:32 “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. 33 Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will not be exhausted, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. 34 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

There’s that treasure in Heaven idea again.  Along with a list of things that we probably consider absolutely essential, but which Jesus says aren’t as important as we make them out to be.  He says treasure in Heaven is more important.

So, if you’re part of the “I’m a Christian” and / or part of the “I want to read the Bible more” group – but aren’t reading it much at all – what’s stopping you?  If it’s competition from other things, like what we just looked at, a review of priorities may be in order.  Even Yoda said, “Do. Or do not. There is no try.”  If you want to follow Jesus / read the Bible more.  Don’t just try.  Do.

Time Spent Reading The Bible

Sure enough, the summary for this section of the survey results bears out exactly what we just looked at.  Money is the root of all sorts of evil – in a sense.  At least in the sense that those with more money tend to read the Bible less.

Households earning less than $50,000 annually are more likely to spend an hour or more reading the Bible at each sitting than are high earning households of $100,000 or more (27% vs. 18% respectively).

There will be more …

There’s more to the survey results.  And more to say about them.  However, since I’m learning from the survey that attention span for the Bible seems to wane after about 30 minutes, I’ll stop here for now.  We’ll pick up with Bible versions, along with motivations and frustration with Bible reading in the next segment.

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