State of the Bible 2018

Some positive takes on the latest data

For eight years in a row now, American Bible Society has commissioned the Barna Group to conduct a State of the Bible survey. What do Americans think about the Bible? How often do they read it? When they do interact with Scripture, do they use a book or an app? How does it change their lives?

This year, there was a new wrinkle.

We’ve been refining our definition of “Bible engagement,” so we added a few questions. In the past, we saw engagement as a combination of frequency and belief. Those who read the Bible at least four times a week and also held a high view of the Bible’s divine inspiration were considered “engaged,” and that group consisted of 17 percent to 20 percent of the public for the last seven years.

But lately we’ve wanted to dig deeper, connecting Bible engagement with measures of spiritual vitality (such as the REVEAL study). With fourteen fairly simple questions, we can determine not only frequency of Bible reading, but also spiritual impact and moral centrality—in short, how does Scripture change our relationships with God, self, and others, and how does it affect the choices we make in our day-to-day lives? A combination of Frequency, Impact, and Centrality puts a person in one of five categories: Bible Centered, Bible Engaged, Bible Friendly, Bible Neutral, and Bible Disengaged. This breakdown roughly corresponds to the previous system, but it gives more weight to the actual encounter with God that a reader experiences through the Scriptures, as well as the resulting life-transformation.

In this new arrangement, the portion of Americans on the positive side of Bible engagement (Centered plus Engaged) is up to 26 percent, but the portion of “Disengaged” is huge, now at 54 percent. As the report states, “The Disengaged are primarily classified by their infrequent interaction with the Bible and its minimal impact on their lives.”

That may seem to be a bleak picture. Certainly we have our work cut out for us, but a closer look at the data yields some surprisingly positive observations.

Half and Half

Is the glass half-full or half-empty? That depends on your expectations, of course. While the Bible has lost a status it used to have in our culture, a careful look at the data shows that it’s still woven into the American fabric.

Nearly half of Americans (48 percent) are “Bible Users”—that is, they interact with the Bible “by using, listening to, watching, praying or using Bible text or content in any format . . . at least three to four times a year,” according to the survey report. This usage is “on their own” and not in church services. So the midpoint of American Bible usage is apparently between two and three times a year. Even the Bible Disengaged might crack open the Good Book once or twice, as a potential source of guidance or wisdom, but about half of Americans do more than that.

More than a third of the population (35 percent) uses the Bible at least weekly. And this isn’t just rote reading. Of those who have read the Bible in the past week, nearly all (97 percent) say they thought about how it might apply to their life, a lot (53 percent) or a little (44 percent).

A healthy majority of Americans say they wish they used the Bible more (57 percent); are curious to know more about what the Bible says (66 percent); and are curious to know more about who Jesus is (63 percent). This dips into the Disengaged crowd, the seekers. Even if the Bible isn’t an important part of their lives, a bunch of them wish it were. Well over half of Americans (58 percent) agree that “the message of the Bible has transformed my life,” with half of those agreeing “strongly.”

So don’t write off that twice-a-year group. Sure, there’s a growing number of Americans who want nothing to do with the Bible, and that’s a cause for concern, but these numbers show that the Bible still has a presence in the lives of some who aren’t actively involved with it. It may be in their past or in their dreams, but it’s still a factor.

With all the hype about age groups, you might assume that Millennials are less likely to be Bible Users. But they actually outpace GenX. In fact, all four major age demographics are very close.

  • Elders - 48%
  • Boomers - 51%
  • GenX - 45%
  • Millennials - 47%

Perceptions

One of the most interesting parts of this survey involves perception. Given a list of adjectives, people are asked, “Which of the following words, if any, might you use to describe someone who reads the Bible daily?”

One of the adjectives is loving, and 34 percent said yes, that describes a daily Bible reader. It was the highest scoring of a dozen options. It’s nice to have the Bible connected with loving attitudes, but last year the number was 38 percent. Is that a glitch in the data, or has there been a decline in the love shown by Bible-readers? Let’s keep an eye on that.

The adjective humble had a similar fall. While 33 percent applied that description to daily Bible readers, that’s down from 39 percent last year. Did we get prouder?

As you might expect, the reactions of Bible-Centered people are much more positive than those at the other end of the spectrum, the Bible Disengaged. (Of course, many of those Bible-Centered folks do read the Bible daily, so they’re describing themselves.) Loving gains 70 percent agreement from that group and only 20 percent from the Disengaged. Humble scores 61 percent with the Bible Centered and only 20 percent with the Disengaged. Yet the most revealing breakdown occurs with the adjective smart. A full 57 percent of the Bible Centered call daily Bible readers smart, and only 9 percent of the Disengaged do.

This may uncover a side-issue in our efforts to promote Bible reading. We try very hard to show how great the Bible is. We preach and teach about how rewarding a Bible-reading habit would be. But the question for many who are currently disengaged from the Bible is, “Do I want to be the kind of person who reads the Bible every day?” If Bible readers are not loving, humble, or smart, why would I want to join that club?

Trauma

American Bible Society has been doing significant work in trauma healing in the last decade, so we’ve recently added some questions to the State of the Bible survey about that. The results are intriguing.

More than a third of all adults (35 percent) report some personal experience of physical, psychological, or emotional trauma. In addition, 21 percent witnessed a family member going through trauma; and 17 percent witnessed someone else in trauma. Combining these (and allowing for overlapping), nearly half (48 percent) say they’ve been affected by some sort of trauma, experienced or witnessed. These figures are up a few points from last year’s survey, suggesting that there’s more trauma, or that people recognize it more.

The Bible breakdown raises a fascinating question. Among Bible Centered people, all those numbers are way up. Those with personal trauma total 48 percent, as opposed to 35 percent for all adults. Add in the witnessed trauma, and we find 68 percent of the Bible Centered affected by trauma (as opposed to 48 percent for all adults).

Why do Bible Centered people report more experience with trauma?

There are several possible reasons. Detractors might say that the Bible Centered come from fundamentalist religious traditions that foster trauma. But here’s another possibility. Perhaps traumatic experiences have led people to the Bible, and to the God of the Bible, for healing. These people have centered their lives on the Word of God, because that’s the foundation on which they have rebuilt their lives.

We’re still learning about trauma and the Bible. Surveys like the State of the Bible help us learn more, year by year, mapping out more effective ministry.

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Randy Petersen
Randy Petersen

Randy Petersen is a free-lance writer and former Director of Scripture Engagement Content for American Bible Society. Writer of more than sixty books and hundreds of church curriculum lessons, he has also served churches as a Bible teacher, small-groups coordinator, drama director, preaching consultant and softball pitcher.

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