05 Deepening Bible Engagement

Deepening Bible Engagement


Deepening Bible Engagement

Now that we have assembled a picture of the Bible in America, we can zoom out to determine some of the strategic implications of the research. The question at hand for Christian leaders is, How can we deepen Bible engagement? Barna and American Bible Society have more to learn through further research, but what we have discovered thus far has implications for prayer and action.

There are no easy answers in an era of intensifying skepticism, iterative technology, changing demographics and morals based on self-fulfillment. It is time for clear thinking and courageous leadership, especially when it comes to the Bible. Leaders must assess reality and make strategic decisions in light of those facts. To help, here are 10 insights the Barna team has culled from this work—insights to propel you to prayer and action.


1. The Bible Is Still Good News in America

Although the nation’s population shows increasing signs of a post-Christian shift, more than 135 million adults are engaged with or friendly toward the Bible. A majority of adults view the Bible as sacred. It is often used as a source of guidance and tens of millions hear the voice of God through its pages. Don’t underestimate the window of opportunity these findings represent. How can we reactivate scriptural “muscle memory” so the Bible comes alive again in people’s lives?


2. Young People Must Be the Priority

Without intervention, the future of Bible engagement is less bright than the past, and there is no clearer portrait of this reality than the Millennial generation. Although Millennial Christians continue to stoke a bright flame of passion for the Scriptures, their numbers are dwindling and their non-believing and non-practicing peers have put the Bible on a dusty shelf. To generate the best long-term outcomes, consider prioritizing the youngest generations, especially children, youth and young adults. This is not to exclude efforts with older adults, but the most significant payoff will be with those under the age of 30—generally speaking, the younger the better. How can we relieve and redirect the anti-Bible pressure on young people?


3. The Scriptures Can Be Trusted

One way is to help them understand the reliability of the Bible. Why can it be trusted? What is its claim on human beings today? One interesting development of the last decade is the degree to which snarky, cynical humor has made it harder to have earnest conversations about important topics like the reliability of the Scriptures. Yet we must find ways to persuade people in a distracted and cynical age that the Bible is sufficient for life. How can we offer clear and courageous advocacy for the Bible?


4. Bible Engagement Needs a Plan

A strategic game plan can lead to transformative change when it comes to Bible engagement. For example, we could think about the four levels of Bible engagement and deploy specific efforts to assist people engaged at each level. Even in a local church setting, the congregation is comprised of a mix of individuals from these segments. How can we help people deepen their engagement from one category to the next?

  • Build on the strengths of the Bible engaged. Help them unleash their passion for the Scriptures by giving them tools to advocate for the Bible cause. Enlist them in the “campaign”; make this a mission. Equip them to deepen their relational engagement of the Bible, including within their families and with those whom they mentor.
  • The Bible friendly segment accounts for nearly two out of five U.S. adults, and they represent an enormous strategic opportunity. They have the tools (e.g., a Bible in their home) and the motivation to read the Bible more. They need to know the Bible isn’t just a place to go in times of trouble or for advice; it’s a primary way to experience God. And they may need assistance to grasp the Bible’s scope, history and meaning. Yet many of these individuals are only partially engaged with many elements of spirituality, including churchgoing, so the barriers to deeper engagement are often more than the Bible itself.
  • Bible neutral adults typically turn to the Bible, if they do at all, when they need comfort. There is nothing wrong with this motivation, but it is possible to turn these moments of comfort into patterns of behavior. Given their profile of disconnection from church and ambivalence about making faith a priority, it will take significantly more effort deepen the engagement of someone in the neutral category.
  • Bible skeptics are vital for their input, critiques and concerns. Their viewpoint ensures that Christian leaders’ efforts stay connected to the reality on the ground—the cultural dialogue about Christianity and its sacred literature. The Bible may be somewhat unfamiliar to this segment, but it is accessible even to most skeptics (for example, two-thirds own a Bible).


5. The Scriptures Are for the Community

Most U.S. adults use the Bible in individual rather than communal ways, and we can help people rediscover relational Bible use. According to Barna research in the UK, people report gleaning more wisdom from the Bible when they “discuss the Bible in a group.” And one of the ways Millennials stay connected to faith is developing meaningful relationships with other Christian adults. How can our churches facilitate social and communal forms of Bible engagement?


6. The Bible Is a Guide for Cultural Discernment

The Bible provides the Christian community with a map for cultural discernment. Its wisdom can be the grid for understanding what is happening in society, in our communities and in our hearts. Without a biblical framework for “understanding the times and knowing what to do” (1 Chron. 12:32), Christians are too easily tossed by the cultural tides—yet the story of Daniel, for example, offers remarkably timely insights for living in a religiously pluralistic culture. How can Christians read the Bible as a map for living faithfully in a changing world?


7. Cultural Discernment Is a New Apologetic

Wise cultural discernment helps Christians—but what if cultural discernment could also help church outsiders, and offer evidence for the Scriptures’ reliability and significance for today? In a society that is struggling with digital overload, for example, the notion of “digital Sabbath”—intentional time away from screens—is a powerful argument for the Bible’s continuing relevance. When one-quarter of Millennials believes they have a decent chance of being famous by age 25, Ecclesiastes offers a bracing antidote to a fame-obsessed generation. Pick a dimension of culture—sex and sexuality, terrorism, leadership, greed, ambition—and God’s word has wisdom to spare. How can we effectively communicate the Bible’s relevant-yet-countercultural ways of thinking and living?


8. Digital Tools Are Tools, Not Magic Bullets

Many observers of the Bible landscape attest to the effectiveness of digital tools, such as YouVersion, to increase access to the Scriptures—but we must do more than provide a catalogue of available products. Leaders mentor, guide and teach others how to blend diverse resources into their Bible engagement practices. Leaders also ask younger Christians for input and guidance as they bring new practices and priorities to the table. How can we teach people to use all the tools at their disposal to more deeply engage the Bible?


9. The Bible Speaks to 21st-Century Vocations

People spend much of their time in careers and work environments where the Bible may seem thousands of years out of step with the times. Yet the Scriptures relate directly to what God calls 21stcentury Christians to do with their lives. Sadly, only 10 percent of Catholic Millennials and 16 percent of Protestant Millennials have “learned how the Bible applies to my field or interest area.” For effective Bible engagement and transformational discipleship, this must change. How can we connect the Bible with the work of human beings?


10. Barriers to Bible Engagement Are Spiritual

Americans continue to find ways to under-prioritize engagement with the Bible. They lack time. They are too busy. They already know what it says. Even Christian leaders sometimes find convenient excuses for not being as engaged with the Bible as they need to be. At the end of the day, each of the obstacles to deeper engagement is a spiritual barrier that needs a spiritual solution.

People need help to cultivate humble eagerness to engage God’s word. They need to know the Bible is not simply solace for our human woes, but even more an experience of the living God who wants to transform lives from now to eternity—and they need the prayers of their fellow Christians and the Spirit’s presence to activate that knowledge in their own lives. How can we break down spiritual barriers to engaging with the Scriptures—even in our own hearts? 

As a final word of encouragement, take stock of your own context in light of the insights and conclusions found in The Bible in America. What findings do you see reflected in the lives of those around you? Is your community more Bible-minded or less—and what will that mean for how you encourage deeper engagement with the Scriptures? As a nation, America is undergoing rapid cultural change. How do you see these changes at work around you, especially when it comes to the Bible?

Whatever changes are still to come, the Scriptures bear witness to God’s ultimate purposes—to redeem, renew and restore his people and his world—so seismic cultural change is no cause for fear. “My word is like the snow and the rain that come down from the sky to water the earth. They make the crops grow and provide seed for planting and food to eat. So also will be the word that I speak—it will not fail to do what I plan for it; it will do everything I send it to do” (Is. 55:10–11).

A Message from Roy Peterson, President of American Bible Society

The following sentence anchors the end of an address given by Elias Boudinot when he founded American Bible Society in 1816:

We shall do our part toward that expansion and intensity of light divine, which shall visit, in its progress, the palaces of the great and the hamlets of the small, until the whole “earth be full of the knowledge of Jehovah, as the waters cover the sea”!

This inspirational sentence stayed with me as I pored over the information in this book—particularly that first phrase, “We shall do our part. . .” Given the declining trends we’re seeing in both the attitudes and actions of Americans toward the Bible, what is “our part” in seeing an awakening of Bible engagement in the U.S.?

We start with complete confidence in God. No, the sky is not falling. We are not doomed to a Bible-barren future or a nation of people who have walked away from the gospel message. We still serve a sovereign God who is not surprised by any of this data, and who still calls us to do our part in the advancement of Christian love and hope. May we hear the same question that Isaiah heard from God, and may we respond the same way: “Then I heard the Lord say, ‘Whom shall I send? Who will be our messenger?’ I answered, ‘I will go! Send me!’” (Is. 6:8).

While each of us has a different part, there are certain elements that I pray are critical to us all. First, that we are actively engaging the Scriptures ourselves, creating daily opportunities to be shaped and guided by God’s word of life. Second, that we are actively involved in the local church. Third, that we pray often for the Bible cause both here in this country and around the world. As we continue to pray and engage the Bible in our community, we will become living witnesses to the power of Christ to transform the human heart.

When it comes to Bible ministry, we live in one of the most exciting times in human history. Today, the Bible stands ready to change the world as we know it. Consider with me these three tremendous opportunities:

  • Our nation is at a crossroads: In this season of deepening divisions across political, racial, religious and socioeconomic lines, we are witnessing an awakening across this nation to the unifying power of God’s word. Today we have the opportunity to choose a path of growing Bible engagement or growing Bible skepticism. Let’s choose together the path of personal increased Bible engagement so that Christ may be glorified through our lives.
  • The human heart is at a crossroads: As wonderful as our cities are in all their vibrant and diverse potential, many are still gripped by poverty, violence, corruption and oppression. Terror, trauma and mass migrations caused by civil wars and groups like ISIS and Boko Haram seem to be ratcheting up global levels of anxiety to new heights. Communities around the world are crippled by decades of civil wars, gang wars, modern day slavery and other abuses that leave survivors devastated by trauma. But there is an awakening to the power of God’s word to restore and transform the human heart. We’re seeing Bible-based trauma healing ministry make tremendous impact on thousands in some of the most hostile and remote regions of the world.
  • Humanity itself is at a crossroads: We live in a globally connected world awash in information. And yet a billion people still lack the full Bible in their heart language. Nearly a quarter of the world’s active languages do not have a single word of scripture translated. But thanks to unprecedented achievements in technology and global collaboration, there is an awakening to the power of God’s word to reach “every tribe and every nation.” Our generation could be the first since the Tower of Babel to see God’s word proclaimed in every language on the planet as the final 1,800 translation projects get underway.

Whether it’s skepticism in the U.S., trauma here and around the world or this landmark stage in the history of Bible translation, we are living in a critically important time for God’s word around the world. And each of us has a part.

What is yours? As you consider your role in the Bible cause, I will leave you with this beautiful prayer from the Scriptures:

I ask God from the wealth of his glory to give you power through his Spirit to be strong in your inner selves, and I pray that Christ will make his home in your hearts through faith. I pray that you may have your roots and foundation in love, so that you, together with all God’s people, may have the power to understand how broad and long, how high and deep, is Christ’s love. Yes, may you come to know his love—although it can never be fully known—and so be completely filled with the very nature of God. To him who by means of his power working in us is able to do so much more than we can ever ask for, or even think of: to God be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus for all time, forever and ever! Amen (Eph. 3:14–21).


Roy Peterson joined American Bible Society as president and CEO in 2014. Prior to that, he spent 10 years as CEO of The Seed Company. He also held several leadership positions at Wycliffe Bible Translators, including president and CEO. Peterson received a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration before earning a Master of Arts in Leadership Studies from Azusa Pacific University. Peterson and his wife, Rita, live in Philadelphia and have four children and five grandchildren.

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Appendix A: Data Tables

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