How Younger Generations Engage
Millennials and teens read the Bible less frequently than older adults, but practicing Christian Millennials are again more similar to older Christians than they are to their age cohort more generally. Practicing Christian teens read the Bible less frequently than older practicing Christians, but more often than their age group in the general population: One-third reads at least once a week, compared to only one-quarter of all U.S. teens.
How Millennials Read the Bible
Bible reading among Millennials is primarily a solitary activity; the majority says they most often read the Bible on their own. This is even truer for practicing Christians, nearly two-thirds of whom say they most often read the Bible “by myself.” When they do read it with other people, it is generally at church: Half of practicing Christian Millennials say they are most likely to engage with the Bible by hearing it read aloud at church.
Millennials engage with the Bible in a number of ways while they read—from praying regularly about what they’re reading, to reading along with a devotional, to making notes and underlining verses. Practicing Christian Millennials, in particular, make use of a number of reading methods and resources. Common practices include reading it as part of a one-year plan to read the entire Bible, reading it in conjunction with a liturgy or prayer and memorizing Scripture (and reading it with a commentary or Bible resource.
When they do sit down to read, how do Millennials approach the text? And what do they read most often? Practicing Christian Millennials say they are most likely to approach reading the Bible as they feel led by the Spirit (48%), followed by from front to back (41%) and in search of a specific verse or verses (40%). Other common approaches include reading one book at a time (39%), with a devotional (35%), chronologically (36%) and as part of a guided plan (such as a one-year plan, 33%).
Those who engage with the Bible less often—specifically, non-practicing Christian Millennials—are most likely, when they do read the Bible, to pick it up in search of a specific verse or verses (29%). They also read as they feel led by the Spirit (23%) or one book at a time (23%). They are less likely to read from front to back (20%), with a devotional (16%), chronologically (12%) or as part of a guided plan (16%).
Why Millennials Read (and Don’t Read) the Bible
For Millennials who do read the Bible, what motivates them to read? Most Bible readers (who read at least three to four times a year) in every generation say they read because doing so brings them closer to God. However, Millennials (21%) are more likely than both younger (6%) and older Bible readers (15%) to say their main motivation is they have a problem to solve or they need direction. This represents an important window of opportunity for ministry, as Randy Petersen explores in a special report, “When Life Stops Making Sense.”
Like most Americans, young adults and teens wish they read the Bible more often. More than half (56% of Millennials and 62% of teens) say so, compared to 62 percent of all adults. The desire appears to be most prevalent among practicing and non-practicing Christians, though even a significant number of non-Christians— whom one might assume have little motivation to pick up a Bible—desire to read it more often than they do.
While most Millennials desire to read the Bible more, they are more likely than older adults to say their Bible reading decreased over the past year. It’s unclear why this is the case among teens, but because Millennials are the adult generation most likely to drop out of church involvement, this also makes them more likely to push pause on spiritual disciplines like Bible reading. As we saw in Part II, about one in six adults who reports less frequent Bible reading (17%) attributes the decrease to their disconnection from a church community.
Among Millennials who reported an increase in Bible reading in the 2014 study, the most common cause for the increase was an understanding that Bible reading is an important part of their faith journey (41%). Other significant contributors included seeing how the Bible changed someone they know for the better (31%), a significant life change (29%), downloading the Bible onto a smartphone or tablet (29%), going to a church where the Bible became more accessible (28%), having a conversation with a Christian friend (27%), following media conversations about religion and spirituality (26%), watching The Bible miniseries on television (24%), joining a group that uses the Bible (22%) and having someone they know ask them to read the Bible together (19%). The number who selected each of these as contributing factors to their increase in Bible engagement is striking: Even the lowest-rated reason—having a friend ask them to read the Bible together—was chosen by nearly one in five Millennials who upped their engagement.
Among Millennials who reported a decrease in Bible engagement, the main culprit is simply lack of time. A plurality of all Millennials (39%) and a majority of non-practicing Christian Millennials (49%) say the main reason they haven’t read the Bible as much is because they got too busy with life’s responsibilities. This is less of a factor for non-Christians, who stopped reading simply because they stopped believing: Nearly half say the reason they decreased their Bible engagement is because they became atheist or agnostic (46%), while another 20 percent say they decided to leave church altogether.
Another factor for non-practicing Christians is a negative life experience, such as losing a job, the death of a loved one, etc. Presumably for this group, the negative experience shifted their views or priorities. About 13 percent say so explicitly—that “a difficult experience in life caused me to doubt my faith.”
Aside from not having enough time to read the Bible (19% of all Millennials, 33% of practicing Christians, 22% of non-practicing Christians), what other frustrations do Millennials feel toward Bible reading? For non-practicing Christians, it is often a lack of desire: about one-fifth say they just don’t feel that excited about reading it (19%). They also find the language difficult to relate to (17%) and don’t always understand the background or history of the Bible (11%).
For practicing Christians, they most often feel the latter two frustrations: They don’t understand the background or history of the Bible (13%) or they find the language difficult to relate to (13%). For non-Christians (aside from just not reading the Bible, 42%), their primary frustration is that they don’t feel excited about reading it (15%).
When they have trouble understanding the Bible, or come across a passage they don’t agree with, where do Millennials go for guidance?
Practicing Christians are most likely to go to a pastor or church leader for help (45%). They also pray about it (44%) or do some research on the passage in commentaries or study guides (40%). A smaller number go online to read what other people think about those passages (25%).
Non-practicing Christians are most apt either to research the passage in commentaries or study guides (27%) or to pray about the verses (27%). About one-quarter (24%) goes online to see what others think and one-fifth asks a pastor or church leader. Non-practicing Christians are much more likely than practicing Christians to say they don’t feel like they have to believe every part of the Bible (22% vs. 8%), and very few say the troubling verses make them doubt God (8%).
Among non-Christians, the most common response to a problematic passage in the Bible is to ignore it and move on (34%).
Engagement Across Generations
A combination of beliefs and reading frequency leads us, of course, to Bible engagement. As we found in Part 1, Bible engagement in the general population contracts with each successively younger generation. In 2016, Millennials (11%) are half as likely as Elders (25%) to be Bible engaged and twice as likely to be Bible skeptics (26% vs. 13%). And because of their low reading frequency, teens are even less likely to be Bible engaged (7%).
Yet Bible engagement is strong across all age demographics of practicing Christians—with the exception of practicing Christian teens who, while surpassing their peers overall, are less likely to be Bible engaged compared to older practicing Christians, thanks to their lower reading frequency.