By Jody Owens
(This essay was first published on www.jodyowens.com; the author has given us permission to republish it here.)
A 2021 report from the Barna Group and the American Bible Society offered encouraging news about Bible engagement in the United States. According to the report, the number of people defined as “disengaged” from the Bible rose from 136 million (54%) in 2018 to 100 million (39%) in 2021.
The American Bible Society has suggested that the disengaged 36 million people have moved on to what they call the “mobile medium.” Characterized as “Bible-compatible” or “Bible-neutral,” this mobile milieu at least occasionally engaged Scripture and found the Bible useful. However, they also felt frustrated because they often don’t have a good model for reading the scriptures well.
Unfortunately, the news from the 2022 “State of the Bible” report was not so encouraging. The number of “disengaged Bibles” increased to 145 million, while the “mobile medium” decreased to 66 million (from 95 million in 2021). Additionally, the new survey reports that 64 million Americans were “engaged in scripture” in 2021, but that number dropped significantly to just 49 million Americans (19 percent) in 2022.
While the news of a substantial decrease in meaningful engagement with scripture over the past year is troubling, a deeper issue has surfaced. According to the most recent study, even those who consult the scriptures find that reading the Bible does not change their life. “In 2022, Americans are less likely than ever to say the Bible influences how they live out their faith in their relationships with others.” For some reason, fewer scripture readers report life transformation as a result of reading scripture.
These results seem to clash with the testimony of Scripture itself. After all, the Word of God is “alive and active.” Sharper than any two-edged sword, it penetrates to divide soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12). So how do you reconcile this verse with the trend reported in the study?
When I discuss the importance of ritual in relationships, I tell my students that when a ritual loses its meaning, the problem is usually not with the ritual but with the heart of the person engaged in the ritual. The same can be true for engagement with the scriptures. Receptive hearts and minds usually encounter God in the text. Those who “hunger and thirst for righteousness” are generally not disappointed; they experience the transformation God desires to bring about in our lives.
Perhaps we have paid too little attention to the cultivation of our own hearts and minds. The seed of the Word will not take root and thrive in hard or rocky ground. Perhaps we also failed to recognize the way The Word of God works to shape and transform. Our educational system and culture trains us in a way of reading literature that goes against the way scripture was designed to be read and experienced. Our information culture resists embracing text written primarily for processing rather than information.
This is precisely the question with which we will struggle during the Spiritual Formation Leadership Summit (Oct. 17-19, 2022; April 17-19, 2023; May 3-5, 2023). The theme of the Summit, “Shaped by the Word”, is borrowed from the title of the book by Robert Mulholland book, which I highly recommend. At the Fall and Spring Summits, we will reflect on Mulholland’s thesis, but we will also delve deeply into the dynamics at work when we read scripture. We will pay attention to the assumptions of biblical authors and how our modern assumptions get in the way of the work God seeks to do in us through the Word. I encourage you to read Mulholland’s book, but if you want a deeper study and an opportunity to approach the scriptures in new ways, I hope you’ll join us for one of the three Summit gatherings this fall. and this spring.
Learn more about the Spiritual Formation Leadership Summit and register on www.jodylowens.com.
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Barna, “State of the Bible 2021: Five Key Findings,” May 19, 2021; accessible to https://www.barna.com/research/sotb-2021/
NRB, “State of the Bible: The Bible in America,” Marissa Postell, November 18, 2021; accessible to https://nrb.org/articles/state-of-the-bible-the-bible-in-america/
American Bible Society, “State of the Bible USA 2022,” p. XVI; accessible to https://sotb.research.bible/