02 The Bible in a Changing Context

The Bible in a Changing Context



The Bible in a Changing Context

Twenty-five years ago, in 1991, 45 percent of U.S. adults told Barna they read the Bible at least once a week. In 2009, 46 percent reported doing so. These percentages were remarkably consistent over the course of nearly two decades. In the intervening years, however, Bible reading has become less widespread, especially among the youngest adults. As more and more Millennials join the adult population, the national average continues to decline.

Today, about one-third of all U.S. adults report reading the Bible once a week or more. The percentage is highest among Elders (49%) and lowest among Millennials (24%).

What else is changing? And what are the factors catalyzing the changes? Part II follows the “State of the Bible” data over six years to identify trends in Bible beliefs and practices. Asking a national representative sample of adults the same questions year after year allows researchers to track the country’s shifting perceptions of the Scriptures—from rising skepticism to increased digital Bible reading.

A few trends to notice:

  • Bible literacy is waning among younger generations of Americans—but not among practicing Christians.
  • Millennials (and Gen-Xers, to some extent) are more indifferent to or skeptical toward the Bible. This goes for both beliefs and perceptions, and for ideas about its usefulness today.
  • Young adults are adopting digital Bible tools more readily than older Americans, and some say these tools are increasing their engagement with the Scriptures.

Generation Gap

The Bible has been a part of American life since the first English colonists settled Jamestown in 1607. For nearly 400 years its well-known words, stories, people and principles informed public discourse and formed the national character and shared worldview. Younger generations, however, are loosening the Bible’s grip on the American soul.

Generation Gap

The Bible Through the Years

Barna and American Bible Society have tracked Americans’ views of and engagement with the Bible since 2011. Bible ownership and reading habits have remained fairly consistent through the years— but there is a clear downward trend when it comes to views on the Bible’s trustworthiness and influence.

The Bible Through the Years


The Bible Goes Digital

A good ol’ fashioned print edition of the Bible remains the most common format among American Bible readers—but the popularity of digital versions, whether online or through a smartphone or tablet app, is growing . . . especially among younger generations.

The Bible Goes Digital

Bible Literacy

One of the themes of The Bible in America, and more generally of Barna’s recent work, is that Americans increasingly minimize external sources of authority, such as institutions and religious texts, as they determine how life ought to be lived. Within this changing context, how familiar are people with the Bible’s background, people, stories and principles? In each year of American Bible Society’s “The State of the Bible” research, Barna asks U.S. adults about the Bible’s contents in order to gauge their biblical literacy.

Here is one example: Survey respondents were presented four statements and asked to identify the phrase that comes directly from the Bible.

  • The truth will set you free.
  • To thine own self be true.
  • God helps those who help themselves.
  • God works in mysterious ways.

Only 24 percent of adults were able to correctly identify “The truth will set you free” as a direct quote from the Bible. Instead, most others incorrectly selected the following phrases: “God works in mysterious ways” (36%); “To thine own self be true” (17%); and “God helps those who help themselves” (13%).

A combined majority of Americans believes the three latter statements are direct quotes from the Bible and, interestingly, the sentiment of these phrases points to the morality of self-fulfillment. As indicated in the Introduction, millions of adults (including many practicing Christians) believe the best way to find yourself is to look within yourself—so it is little wonder that self-oriented, feel-good phrases would wrongly be categorized as holy writ. Part of the Christian community’s focus in the coming years must be a reorientation toward the Scriptures as a filter for our lives, rather than trusting ourselves as a filter for understanding the Scriptures. This need is a wide-open window of opportunity for leaders concerned with helping people engage with the Bible.

Barna’s study of biblical literacy also reveals that most Americans retain some level of familiarity with the Bible. This does not mean that they understand the implications of the Scriptures for their lives—or even that they are familiar with the document itself (for example, only one-quarter knows the New Testament was originally written in Greek).

When it comes to some of the basic elements, however, millions of Americans retain “muscle memory” of the Bible. A majority of Americans, for example, is able to correctly identify the first book in the Bible as Genesis. Most know that the “3” in John 3:16 refers to the chapter reference. More than half know the apostle Paul was also known as Saul, and most are also able to correctly identify the biblical book named after a woman (Esther). Just fewer than half are able to identify the names of the first five books of the Bible.

Furthermore, Americans remain confident that some of the most amazing stories in the Bible can be taken at face value. This is a slight twist on Bible literacy; it’s not just whether people know the stories of the Bible, but whether they believe they actually happened. Survey respondents were asked if they thought a specific story in the Bible was “literally true, meaning it happened exactly as described in the Bible” or whether they thought the story was “meant to illustrate a principle but is not to be taken literally.” Several well-known Bible stories were then offered for consideration.

Surprisingly, the most significant Bible story of all—“the story of Jesus Christ rising from the dead, after being crucified and buried”—is also the most widely embraced. Three out of four adults say they interpreted that narrative literally (75%), while only one out of five said they did not (19%). This is remarkable. Although millions who believe in the fact of the Resurrection may not understand how to connect the dots to their daily lives, the Bible’s record of these events powerfully resonates with them even today. The window of believability is still open for millions of people.

The account of the prophet Daniel surviving in the lion’s den is deemed literally true by two-thirds of adults (65%). Two out of three Americans believe that Moses literally parted the Red Sea to allow the Israelites to escape from the Egyptians (64%). The Bible says the young shepherd David killed a giant warrior, Goliath, with stones and a slingshot; nearly two-thirds of Americans accept that story as accurate (63%). These findings are evidence that belief in the supernatural and miracles endures, and that the Bible’s culture-shaping influence remains strong in America.

Biblical Literacy


Despite these favorable realities, Bible literacy is in decline among younger adults. They are less likely to have the “muscle memory” of Bible knowledge. As the chart shows, Millennials score lower than older adults on each of the literacy questions. This highlights one of the consistent themes of The Bible in America research: The sacred canopy of the Scriptures does not provide as much shade to the younger generations of Americans, especially the Millennials.


Biblical Literacy Within the Church


Looking at biblical literacy within the Christian community reveals some important insights. First, there is a wide range of knowledge about the Bible that practicing Christians know and do not know. Depending on one’s point of view, the findings in the chart represent either good news or bad—or some of both. Nearly nine out of 10 practicing Christians know that Genesis is the first book in the Bible. Is it good news that 88 percent know this basic fact? Or bad news that one in eight does not?

One bit of good news comes in the form of generational comparisons among Christians. In contrast to their peers, Bible literacy among practicing Christian Millennials and Gen-Xers is strong. That is, the decline in Bible literacy among Millennials is largely happening outside the Christian community, rather than among practicing Christian young adults. There are a few areas in which Millennial Christians are slightly lower than their fellow believers, but these differences are within the range of sampling error.

This research challenges the assumption that younger Christians are less biblically literate than previous generations of Christians. For the most part, where believers maintain Bible literacy, they do so across generations. And where Christians lack Bible knowledge—such as that the New Testament was written in Greek—the deficit is reflected across all the age groups.

The Good Book in a Digital Context

The digital revolution has affected many dimensions of society, including perceptions of and access to religious content. And the research shows clear signs of the revolution when it comes to the Bible in America.

Still, as the most distributed book in history, the vast majority of American households have at least one print Bible, and most own more than one. Nearly nine out of 10 U.S. adults report there is a Bible at home, and this proportion is holding steady. The median number of household Bible is 3.0, down slightly over the past six years from 3.4. Even in a digitized world, the Bible is the most ubiquitous book in America.

Does Your Household Own a Bible

Americans continue to own Bibles—but is readership as ubiquitous as ownership? No. About one-third of Americans reads the Bible at least once a week, and this proportion has remained fairly stable over the past six years. Likewise, the two out of five U.S. adults who read the Bible less than once a year or never has proven thus far to be a stable proportion. Unless something dramatically changes among Millennials, however, Barna researchers expect reading frequency in the general population to trend downward in coming years as Elders become a smaller share of the total: Half of Elders read the Bible at least once a week (49%), compared to just one-quarter of Millennials (24%).

Nine out of 10 Bible readers—those who report reading the Bible at least three or four times a year—say they have read from a print version or heard the Bible read aloud in a worship service or Mass. About half (a fairly consistent percentage since 2011) say they have studied the Bible in a small group.

Yet as digital devices have proliferated in recent years, so has the availability of the Bible in formats other than print. In a relatively short time, use of tablets and smartphones for Bible searches has skyrocketed, from 18 percent in 2011 to 43 percent in 2016—a 25-point increase. Using the Internet to read the Bible has increased by 12 percentage points since 2011 and listening to a Bible podcast has jumped 13 points. One-third of Bible readers have accessed the Bible through a Bible app.

Among adults who increased their Bible reading over the previous year, one-quarter says the increase was due to having downloaded the Bible to their smartphone or tablet (26%). More than one in eight credits their increased Bible use to podcasts or streaming church services (12%).

All that said, a strong majority still prefers to read the Bible in print (81%). The same holds true even among Millennials (78%), who are most likely to use the Internet to read Bible content (62% vs. 49% of all adults).Bible Formats Used By Generation

The growing popularity of digital technologies represents an enormous opportunity for those who seek to increase Bible engagement— especially among Millennial Bible readers, who are most likely to report using digital versions of the Bible. And while they’re just as likely as Gen-Xers and Boomers to express a preference for print, 18 percent say they prefer a smartphone or tablet app—making them twice as likely as Boomers (9%) and six times more likely than Elders (3%) to say so.

Formats Used Within the Past Year

The Rise of Bible Skeptics

The data collected by American Bible Society and Barna is evidence of the growing culture of skepticism mentioned in the Introduction. One of the most significant trends revealed by six years of data tracking is the rise of Bible skeptics—that is, people who believe there is no God behind the Bible. These are individuals who believe the Bible is just a book written by men, and who generally draw negative conclusions about the Bible’s role in society (for instance, that it is a book used to oppress people, that it powers religious extremism, and so on).

In 2011, when “State of the Bible” tracking began, just 10 percent of American adults qualified as Bible skeptics. In 2016, the proportion has grown to 22 percent of adults—more than doubling in the last half-dozen years. This mirrors the other changes in American religious life, including the rise of the so-called “nones,” or religiously unaffiliated.

The Rise of Bible Skeptics

There are several puzzle pieces needed to complete an accurate picture of skepticism. First, while the Bible remains the top choice among U.S. adults who are asked to identify sacred literature, the proportion that chooses the Bible has softened. More telling, the percentage of Americans who opt for “none of these” has doubled in six years, from 7 percent in 2011 to 14 percent in 2016. This increase is mostly thanks to Millennials (22%) and Gen-Xers (18%), who are significantly more likely than Boomers (8%) and Elders (7%) to say none of the options qualifies as a holy book.

Similarly, there is rising skepticism about the Bible as a sufficient guide for living a meaningful life. The percentage of people who strongly agree with the statement has contracted in six years from 53 percent in 2011 to 45 percent in 2016—and the percentages of those who disagree strongly or somewhat have increased over the same time period, from 23 to 33 percent.

Here again, there are significant differences between generations. Only 27 percent of all Millennials and 40 percent of GenXers believe the Bible is sufficient for meaningful living—a sea change from the 56 percent of Boomers and two-thirds of Elders (65%) who trust the sufficiency of the Bible.

Indicators of Bible Skepticism


Trust in the Bible’s reliability is also dropping. Barna first asked U.S. adults in 1991 if they agreed or disagreed that “the Bible is totally accurate in all of the principles it teaches.” Twenty-five years ago, 46 percent strongly agreed—close to half—but today, one-third of Americans says so. And the percentage of those who strongly disagree has nearly doubled in six years.

The national shifts in these three perceptions—the Bible is sacred literature, is sufficient as a guide for meaningful living and is reliably accurate—are the clearest indicators that skepticism about the Bible is gaining a stronger cultural foothold. But they are not the only signs. As we’ll see in Part IV, non-Christian Millennials— a group that is steadily growing as more of them choose “none” when it comes to religion—are particularly disenchanted with the Bible. Their top descriptors for the Christian Scriptures are “story” (50%), “mythology” (38%), “symbolic” (36%) and “fairy tale” (30%). And more than one-quarter agrees “the Bible is a dangerous book of religious dogma” (27%).

The overall trends are clear: Skepticism toward the Bible is a minority report—for now. But questions about whether the Bible is supernatural and if it produces good things are gaining traction, and demand a response from the Christian community.

What Compels or Prevents Engagement?

In an era of significant change, when so many cultural touchstones are up for grabs, what compels people to read an ancient document, or prevents them from reading it? When it comes to reasons people read the Bible, a relatively consistent majority does so because it draws them close to God—but significant minorities in 2016 also point to a need for comfort (16%) or direction (16%). A majority, about six in 10 U.S. adults, also expresses a desire to read the Bible more than they currently do. This desire is another window of opportunity for leaders who care about increasing Bible engagement. And the “felt needs” people bring to Bible reading are also an opportunity to help them engage more deeply with the Scriptures. (For more on these opportunities, read “When Life Stops Making Sense”)

Motivations For Reading the BibleMost Peoples Bible Reading is Stable

About one-quarter of Americans says their Bible use increased since one year ago, and two-thirds report it stayed about the same during that time. Among those who experienced an increase, most attribute their growing use of the Bible to a realization that the Scriptures are an important part of their faith journey (67%). One in four says they have been through a difficult experience that prompted them to turn to the Bible (26%), and one in five reports a significant change, such as marriage or the birth of a child, that inspired an increase in Bible use (20%). (Keep in mind these are respondents’ perceptions of the barriers to Bible reading.)

What keeps people from reading the Bible? Like other forms of analog media, the Bible is pushed to the side in part because people are too busy. Among those who say their Bible reading decreased in the last year, the number one reason was busyness: Nearly six in 10 report being too busy with life’s responsibilities (job, family, etc.), an increase of 18 points since 2014 (58% vs. 40%).

What Compels Greater Bible Engagement

Other factors Americans cite as reasons for less time reading the Scriptures include becoming atheist or agnostic (17%), going through a difficult experience that caused them to doubt God (12%) or experiencing a significant change such as a job loss or death in the family (8%). These relatively smaller percentages reveal that people don’t often turn away from the Bible over ideological or emotional conflicts. Indeed, on the whole Americans say they want to read the Bible—again, two-thirds wish they read the Scriptures more—they just don’t know how to make time.

Taken together, the trends indicated by the data are toward growing skepticism and diminishing Bible engagement across the U.S. population. Yet, as Part III reveals, there are demographic segments within the overall population that buck those trends. Swimming against the cultural tide of religious indifference and suspicion of authority, committed people of faith in every age and ethnic group continue to trust God’s word as reliable and authoritative for their lives and for the Church.

Special Report

When Life Stops Making Sense

Why do people read the Bible?

More than half of Bible readers (55%) say the main reason is that it brings them closer to God. On another question, of the 23 percent of readers whose Bible reading increased in the past year, two-thirds say it was because they “came to understand it as an important part of my faith journey.”

Here we get a great picture of a substantial group of Bible readers, people with a growing faith, progressing in their journey, getting closer to God with every chapter. This is the majority report.

But there’s a smaller group worth mentioning. When asked for their main reason for reading the Bible, 16 percent of readers say they need comfort, and another 16 percent say, “I have a problem I need to solve or I need direction.” On the question about reasons for increasing their reading, about one-quarter say, “A difficult experience in my life caused me to search the Bible for direction / answers.”

So, while a slight majority of Bible readers come from a positive place, depending on the Bible to continue their spiritual growth, nearly one-third are coming from a place of need. They need comfort. They have problems to solve. They need direction.

Scripture works both ways. Psalm 1 gives us an image of happy people who “find joy in obeying the law of the Lord, and they study it day and night” (v. 2). But flip over to Psalm 73 for a different take:

God is indeed good to Israel,
to those who have pure hearts.
But I had nearly lost confidence;
my faith was almost gone.
(Ps. 73:1–2)

That psalm goes on to complain about the success of the wicked and the difficulty of living for God. Life may be great for the 55 percent, and God is good to the pure-hearted, but as for me—well, it’s a very different story. I have problems and struggles. I suffer. Sometimes I feel God is punishing me.

Both Sides Now

Any attempt to promote Bible engagement needs to take both the majority and the minority position into account. We need to cheer on those who are moving forward in their faith journey, growing steadily closer to God as they read the Bible. But we also need to bring the word of God into the troubled reality of those who are in need.

There’s one category in the survey that jumps out and confirms this point. “Non-practicing Christians” call themselves Christian but don’t go to church even once a month. When asked to choose one statement that would explain their motivation for reading the Bible, only 35 percent say, “It brings me closer to God” (far below the overall 55%). But combining the “I need comfort” (29%) and “I have a problem . . .” (23%) answers, we find more than half of non-practicing Christians coming to the Scriptures from a place of need.

And that makes sense. These people are not joining in regular worship and fellowship at church. They don’t receive that weekly support in their faith journey. They aren’t Psalm 1 people, studying the Bible “day and night.” They might be Psalm 73 people—dealing with difficult questions and doubts. For them, God’s word is not daily bread as much as a lifeline.

Tough Times

Fortunately, the Bible is no stranger to tough times. From Joseph to Job to Jeremiah to Jesus, we find people facing difficult circumstances. Dozens of psalms are full of lament. “How long, Lord, how long?” is a theme common to the prophets, as well (see, for example, Habakkuk 1:2; Zechariah 1:12; Psalm 6:3). Jesus warned his followers to expect trouble (see John 16:33), and Paul wrote passionately about all of creation “groaning” as we await God’s redemption (see Romans 8:22).

For those who come to the Scriptures from a situation of need—well, they’ve come to the right place. The problem is, they might be looking for the wrong kind of solution. Our consumer culture teaches us to treat every problem with a quick fix. Some bring that approach to Bible reading. Grab some comfort. Get an answer. Here’s a verse that will cure what ails you.

And sometimes the Bible works like that. It’s a powerful book. The Spirit of God blows through its pages and works all sorts of miracles. But the Lord wants more from this encounter. He wants to build a relationship with us.


When people experience serious trauma, certain assumptions are shattered. We tend to go through life assuming we have value in a world that is orderly and fair. But then there’s a random act of violence, a betrayal, a natural disaster that causes injury or loss—and we have to re-examine everything. Is there order in the world or only chaos? Is there justice, or will good people keep suffering? Am I loved and valued by other people and by God?

These questions shake us to the core. They add emotional and spiritual turmoil to whatever physical and relational pain we feel. Some people run to the Bible as a way to shore up those original assumptions. But wiser ones crawl into the Bible and live there for a while. They don’t just grab a verse; they get the big story.

That story is found throughout the Scriptures, in many forms. It recognizes that this world is fallen and redemption is a rocky road. Some mysteries remain; some questions go unanswered. Yes, “all of creation groans with pain” as it decays into disorder, and we groan with it (Rom. 8:19–23). Yet our God is taking the injustices of the world and refashioning a good outcome for those who love him (see Romans 8:28; Genesis 50:20). We may have to endure “hardship or persecution or hunger or poverty or danger or death” but none of it can “separate us from the love of Christ” (Rom. 8:35–37).

These aren’t “Bible Band-Aids,” covering deep wounds with surface platitudes. These passages go to the core of God’s relationship with this world. As people take the time to engage fully with God’s word, they get more than answers. They get healing.


Randy Petersen works with American Bible Society as Director of Scripture Engagement Resources. Author of more than 60 books, he has also written Bible study curriculum for RightNow Media, David C. Cook and Mainstay Church Resources. Randy teaches often and preaches occasionally at Hope United Methodist Church of Voorhees, New Jersey, where he also serves on the leadership team. His latest book, The Printer and the Preacher, focuses on the friendship between Great Awakening preacher George Whitefield and Benjamin Franklin.

Previous Section

The Big Picture of the Bible in America

Read Section
Next Section

The Bible Among Key Demographics

Read Section