State of the Bible: The Bible in America

NRB | November 18, 2021 | Equipping

As a communicator, you know that it’s important to know your audience. And as a Christian communicator part of knowing your audience means that you should know what your audience thinks about the Bible.

Each year, the “State of the Bible” report helps us to do just that.

State of the Bible

The original “State of the Bible” research project began in 1812 when missionaries Samuel Mills and John Schermerhorn left New England to tour the United States and bring back a report of its spiritual condition, especially along the western fronter. Although this original research project wasn’t known as the “State of the Bible,” it had many of the same goals—to understand the nation’s condition regarding the Bible, faith, and the church and to report these findings to leaders of the American church, helping them see the best path forward and calling them to take unified action.

This year marked the launch of the second decade of modern “State of the Bible” research and 205 years of uninterrupted service. The American Bible Society released the “State of the Bible: USA 2021” report after reaching out to a representative sample of American adults in January 2021 to learn about their experiences with the Bible in their daily lives, conducting over 3,300 interviews with adults across the United States. The American Bible Society described this year’s report as the “team’s effort to tell the story of the Bible in America through the words and experiences of our respondents.”

This is a very thorough report packed with details and information. This piece is the first of a three-part series looking at a few key findings of the report for you as a Christian communicator.

Appreciating the Bible

According to the research done by the American Bible Society, over half of U.S. adults believe that America would be worse off without the Bible, and over half of adults in the U.S. hold what is known as a “high” view of Scripture, which deems the Bible without error. In fact, 54% say that the Bible contains everything a person needs in order to live a meaningful life. In general, adults in the U.S. have a basic appreciation for the Bible.

Engaging with the Bible

But how much do these people actually engage with the Bible? Data revealed that over 181 million American’s opened a Bible in the past year, a significant increase from the 169 million adults who used the Bible at least occasionally in 2020. The report estimates that 128 million American adults read the Bible regularly, with 34% of U.S. adults reading the Bible at least once a week. And 50% of U.S. adults read the Bible less than twice a year. In between these two extremes are those who read the Bible more than twice a year, but not on a weekly basis. The report categorizes this group of people as the moveable middle—a significant group for Christian communicators to keep in mind.

Who uses the Bible (and how)

Who are the people who engage the Bible by reading, listening to, or praying with the Bible on their own at least three to four times a year outside of a church service or church event? In this report, the American Bible Society gives a quick profile of these “Bible Users.”

  1. Bible Users are not just Christians
  2. Bible Users tend to be older
  3. Bible Users are ethnically diverse
  4. Bible Users are more likely to live in the American South than in other regions of the country

Of these Bible Users, nearly 60% say that they prefer print or paper Bibles over electronic or audio Bibles. Those who are Scripture Engaged are about twice as likely to prefer reading the Bible on their smartphones or tablets as the Bible Disengaged. In this report, the American Bible Society identifies Scripture Engaged people as individuals who score high in response to 14 survey items about the frequency of Bible use and the impact and centrality of its message in their lives.

Reading the Bible on a smartphone or tablet is increasingly popular among younger generations. Electronic access to the Bible is preferred by 38% of Gen Z, and only a slightly higher percentage of Gen Z and Millennials prefer a print Bible over digital or audio formats.

Knowing the Bible

In general, U.S. adults don’t want to assume too much of their knowledge of the Bible. Only 12% of Bible Users call themselves highly knowledgeable about the Bible while more than double that say that they feel not too knowledgeable about the Bible (26%). That leaves 62% of people feeling somewhat knowledgeable or moderately knowledgeable about the Bible. 

The Moveable Middle

This year, the number of Bible Disengaged people dropped sharply to 39%. The American Bible Society says that those who were once disengaged have moved to what they are now calling the “Moveable Middle.” Hearts are being softened to the Bible, but it remains to be seen whether this willingness to at least occasionally read the Bible will eventually lead to a deeper engagement with it.

People in this Moveable Middle cite not knowing where to start as the most significant frustration when using the Bible on their own, followed by not having enough time, the language being difficult to relate to, and the layout being difficult to navigate. Besides being more likely than the Scripture Engaged to experience frustrations such as these, people in the Moveable Middle read the Bible less frequently and are less likely to experience the life-changing message of the Bible than the Scripture Engaged.

The good news is that this group of people does engage with Scripture some, and when they do, they find that it benefits them. But in order to take the step from the middle to becoming more engaged, they need help finding resources that will reduce their frustrations.

Despite (or perhaps spurred on by) the turmoil in America, people who were once Bible Disengaged are reaching for the Bbile, and the Moveable Middle has grown to include 95 million U.S. adults who are exploring Scripture. Many of these are exploring Scripture for the first time and find it difficult to navigate and understand. Here lies a great opportunity for Christian communicators.

What can Christian communicators do?

As U.S. adults (particularly those who find themselves in the Moveable Middle) turn to the Bible to find a connection with God, comfort for their hurts, and answers to their questions, they need relational guides to help them encounter the message of Scripture, not just the words. Christian communicators are uniquely positioned to be this relational guide for people who are interested in the Bible. Whether you are a writer, radio broadcaster, television producer, PR professional, or hold any other role in Christian communications, you are building unique relationships with your audiences that open doors of opportunity for you to be the guide who points helps them navigate Scripture with clarity in a confusing and turbulent culture. How can you use your work and your relationships to multiply the impact the Bible has on lives across the country?

People also need digital tools to improve their access to Scripture. This is not only significant for those in the Moveable Middle who are looking for resources to help them understand what they are reading, but it is also important for America’s youngest generations who are picking up electronic devices when they want to explore the Bible. Every day, people use their smartphones and computers to search for content and answers that they don’t know how to easily find in a printed Bible. As Christian communicators, we have the privilege of making that content available for them when they click “search.” How can you help people explore the Bible on their electronic devices? What opportunities do you have to facilitate digital interactions with the Bible?

Scripture is still living and active (Hebrews 4:12). It still changes hearts and lives. And people are still turning to the Bible for hope and healing. We can join God’s mission of making his glory known in all the earth by using tools and providing resources that equip people to encounter the hope of Jesus when they read the Bible.

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