By David Kinnaman, President of Barna Group
Sometimes research is like putting the pieces of a puzzle together without a box top. The process itself is the only way for a cohesive picture to emerge, because you don’t know ahead of time what the picture is. You may have some idea what you’re working on, but you can’t see the big picture until each piece falls into place.
Studying the Bible in America is like that.
For more than 30 years, Barna has studied the Bible’s role in and influence on American society, painstakingly collecting the pieces of data we need to understand the big picture.
And for the past six years, we have partnered with American Bible Society to add depth and detail to the picture, and to identify how it is changing over time. Since 2011, Barna has conducted more than 14,000 “State of the Bible” interviews with U.S. adults and teens on behalf of American Bible Society. The Bible in America represents one of the largest sets of aggregate data our firm has ever collected on any single topic. We have learned much, even as we continue to discover new and better ways of describing the impact of the Scriptures on Americans’ hearts, homes and communities.
We believe this is a crucial moment in American life, a pivotal season that requires Christian leaders to understand the times and know what to do (see 1 Chron. 12:32). The Bible witnesses to the unchanging realities of God and his purposes for the world and, at the same time, depicts that world and its people constantly changing, sometimes for the worse and others for the better. Just like God’s people in days past, we can trust that ultimately his purposes will prevail—even if it often feels to many people that today’s changes are definitely for the worse.
What is so urgent about our time and place?
A New Landscape
Let’s start by describing three major changes that are reshaping the landscape in which we read and engage with the Bible. (Of course, there are many trends that impact the Bible’s traction in culture, but these three pieces of the puzzle jump out from the data.) As you’ll see throughout The Bible in America, these shifts are most apparent among today’s youngest generations so, in a sense, they give shape to the present and future reality within which we read and interact with the Bible.
- Increasing skepticism. More people have more questions about the origins, relevance and authority of the Scriptures.
- A new moral code. Self-fulfillment has become the cultural measure of what is good, setting up a conflict between society and the Church.
- Digital access. New tools and technologies are making the Bible—and everything else—more accessible than ever before.
Let me briefly tackle each of these here, and we’ll come back to them throughout this report.
First, the steady rise of skepticism is creating a cultural atmosphere that is becoming unfriendly—sometimes even hostile—to claims of faith. In a society that venerates science and rationalism, it is an increasingly hard pill to swallow that an eclectic assortment of ancient stories, poems, sermons, prophecies and letters, written and compiled over the course of 3,000 years, is somehow the sacred “word of God.” Even in just the few years Barna has been conducting “State of the Bible” interviews, the data is trending toward Bible skepticism. With each passing year, the percent of Americans who believe that the Bible is “just another book written by men” increases. So too does the perception that the Bible is actually harmful and that people who live by its principles are religious extremists.
The Bible in America offers an in-depth examination of these sobering data. Of course, a healthy dose of skepticism means that people are still asking questions of faith, of Christianity and of the Bible. We believe those questions, when asked and answered honestly and from a biblical point of view, can lead to the Spirit’s work in people’s lives.
Second, as Gabe Lyons and I propose in Good Faith, the broader culture has adopted self-fulfillment as its ultimate measure of moral good. The shift that is underway moves authority from outside ourselves (for example, the Bible) to within us. This is why so many in our culture talk about identity and “finding themselves”; it is becoming rarer to find people who discover the truest thing about themselves is their identity in Jesus.1 Increasingly, Americans are rejecting external sources of moral authority, both spiritual and civic. Instead, the Self has become the spiritual and moral compass for the vast majority of adults. Our research highlights the extent to which Americans pledge allegiance to the moral code of self-fulfillment, summed up in six guiding principles.
In stark contrast to the people (including far too many Christians) who embrace self-fulfillment as the highest good, the Bible teaches that God’s moral order leads to human and societal flourishing. And the more Christians are oriented toward the way of life described by the Scriptures, the more likely it becomes that they will come into conflict with the dominant culture. As the data shows, fidelity to the Scriptures remains high among practicing Christians, including young adults—but for many, faithfulness comes at real social cost. How can the Christian community help disciples of all ages remain faithful as the culture becomes more intolerant?
Third, the explosive growth of digital tools such as Bible apps, daily reading plans, study resources and online communities offer unprecedented access to the Scriptures. In one recent 28-day period, according to YouVersion’s engagement data, people in just the United States used the mobile app to access translations in 554 languages and to request more than half a billion chapters of the Bible.2 These tools are an incredible leap forward in the “Bible cause” of giving every person on earth access to God’s word in his or her own language. What a privilege to partner with the Holy Spirit during this all-access revolution.
At the same time, digital access also means an unfiltered flood of ideas and information that must be evaluated for goodness and truth. An Internet browser is a gateway to an untold vastness of information, but can it also be a pathway for the soul to be shaped in the way of Jesus? The need for godly discernment and rich, relational discipleship has never been greater. Are we equipping disciples, especially young disciples, with the spiritual, emotional and mental tools they need to live wisely and for God’s glory in the “screen age”?
The report you hold evaluates a robust set of data in light of these three trends.
Windows of Opportunity
To understand the times and know what to do, Christian leaders need a complete picture—not just the edge pieces of the puzzle. And, thankfully, the data is not all bad news. In fact, Barna researchers continue to find bright pieces to the puzzle that demonstrate the Bible’s cultural staying power and persistent hold on people’s hearts.
- Most Americans (including a majority of young adults) believe the Bible has been more influential on humanity than any other text.
- A majority (also including young adults) believes the Bible contains everything a person needs to know in order to live a meaningful life.
- Two-thirds of all Americans hold an orthodox view of the Bible, that it is the actual or inspired word of God.
- Nearly half read the Scriptures at least once a month.
- Fidelity to the Bible is strong among practicing Christians of all ages.
- As America culture becomes more post-Christian—that is, as the population moves away from Christian beliefs and practices—there is some evidence that interest in the Bible may be on the rise.
Each of these realities, among others, is a window of opportunity open to leaders. But these windows are not likely to remain open forever, so we must take full advantage to advocate today for the Bible in our skeptical, self-centered, highly connected world.
We should not ignore or minimize the stiffening headwinds. The world is becoming less faith-friendly, but God has given us the astonishing task of trying to keep up with his work. “Do you not perceive it?” (see Is. 43:19). Culturally speaking, the pace of life continues to speed up. The accelerated, frenzied day-to-day living of millions leaves them wanting deeper answers. The Bible can be, as it always has been, a signpost to and conduit of the Word of God made flesh in Jesus Christ.
The Bible is the puzzle piece without which a picture of lasting faith is incomplete. The more data we collect, the more evidence we find that a person’s view of and approach to the Bible is a key indicator of Christian faith that lasts. For example, a young person is more likely to continue in her faith commitment if she is engaged with the Bible than if she is active in a local church. This is not to say that connection to a community of faith is unimportant—far from it. But lasting faith is more strongly correlated to engagement with the Scriptures.
Part I paints with a broad brush to sketch a picture of the Bible’s place in various sectors of American life. Part II zooms in on the trends Barna has uncovered through six years of “State of the Bible” research. Part III takes a closer look at various demographic categories, such as practicing Christians and Hispanic Americans, to understand how groups differ from each other. Part IV examines generational differences, both among the general U.S. population of teens and adults and among practicing Christians. And finally, Part V offers 10 insights that will help you apply these findings to your own context.
With that, we invite you into The Bible in America.