During the first week of January 2017, millions of Americans hit the gym, opened a savings account, enrolled in a class or started a new diet, vowing to keep their resolutions to make big lifestyle changes in the new year. Sadly, most of those December 31 aspirations have already started to gather dust, casualties of the stresses and demands of life. Undoubtedly, some chose to focus their resolutions on exercising their spiritual muscles through Bible reading. So what level of commitment do they show toward their Scripture-reading habits? In a study conducted in partnership with American Bible Society, Barna looks at the Bible reading desires and motivations of American adults. Do Americans wish they read the Bible more? Has their reading increased or decreased, and why?
Who Wants to Read the Bible?
In an era of significant change, when so many cultural touchstones are up for grabs, what compels people to read an ancient document, and what prevents them from reading it? A majority—and significant plurality—read the Bible because it draws them closer to God (57%). This means that for many Americans, Bible reading is a pillar of their faith. Most Americans though, are not satisfied with their current level of Scripture reading. A majority—about six in 10 American adults (61%)—express a desire to read the Bible more than they currently do, while a little more than one-third (36%) don’t. These numbers have remained relatively stable over the years since 2011 (see chart). The groups who desire more frequent Bible reading than their counterparts are females (68% compared to 54% of males), Boomers (68% compared to 55% of Millennials), non-white Americans (67% compared to 58% of white American) and those with no more than a high-school education (67% compared to 56% of college graduates). Seven out of 10 (70%) southerners want to read the Bible more, an especially high number compared to their western and northeastern neighbors (55% each), and perhaps unsurprisingly, born-again (85%) and practicing Christians (84%) are the most likely to desire more Bible-reading in their day-to-day lives.
Bible Reading Is Generally Stable
With so many Americans desiring to read more of the Bible, how many actually follow through? As with those gym memberships, intentions and reality don’t always align. Asked if their own personal use of the Bible has increased, decreased or stayed about the same as one year ago, about one-quarter (23%) of Americans say their Bible use increased, and only 8 percent say it decreased. But most Americans—about two-thirds (66%)—report it stayed about the same during that time. Looking at the numbers over the last five years (see chart), the results are a little mixed since 2012, but remain mostly positive. Fewer people are seeing a decrease in Bible reading (8% in 2016 compared to 12% in 2012), but fewer people are also seeing an increase (23% in 2016 compared to 27% in 2012). Overall, more than three times as many Americans are seeing an increase rather than a decrease. However, there are definitely increases in the amount of people reporting stable Bible reading habits (66% in 2016 compared to 58% in 2012). Higher than average rates of increases are reported among females (26%), those from lower income (<50K) households (26%), black Americans (42%) and southerners (29%), and the more obvious groups like born-again Christians (40%), Protestants (33%), practicing Christians (44%) and very-active church attenders (42%). Those who are seeing the biggest decrease in Bible reading in the last year include Millennials (11%), atheists and agnostics (10%), those who are much less active church attenders (16%) and again, black Americans (11%), who appear to be existing more on the extremes of usage.
What Compels Greater Bible Engagement?
Most attribute their growing use of the Bible to a realization that the Scriptures are an important part of their faith journey (67%). About one-quarter (26%) say they have been through a difficult experience that prompted them to turn to the Bible, and one in five (20%) report a significant change, such as marriage or the birth of a child, that inspired an increase in Bible use. Other important factors include having downloaded the Bible onto their smartphone or tablet (18%), seeing how the Bible changed someone they know for the better (14%) and going to a church where the Bible became more accessible to them (12%). Less important are having someone they know ask to read the Bible together (10%), and media conversations around religion and spirituality (5%).
What Causes Lower Bible Engagement?
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 (58%) report being too busy with life’s responsibilities (job, family, etc.). This is an increase of 18 points since 2014 (40%). Other factors Americans cite as reasons for less time reading the Scriptures include becoming atheist or agnostic (17%), deciding to leave the church altogether (17%), going through a difficult experience that caused them to doubt their faith (or God, or the Bible) (12%) or experiencing a significant change such as a job loss or death in the family (8%). Less impactful are seeing how reading the Bible made very little difference in the life of someone they know (6%) and being converted to another faith (5%).
What the Research Means
“It should not come as a surprise that the majority of Americans wish they read Scripture more than they do,” says Roxanne Stone, editor in chief of Barna Group. “We have consistently seen in our research that, even with skepticism on the rise, Americans still hold the Bible in high regard. After all, two-thirds of Americans (66%) agree that the Bible contains everything you need to know to live a meaningful life—why wouldn’t you want to read such a book more often?
“However, like other new year’s resolutions, such as exercising more and eating healthier, Scripture reading is often an aspirational goal,” continues Stone. “It’s a goal that for most people probably doesn’t feel necessary to survival and so can easily get swamped by the day-to-day demands of a busy life. And who isn’t leading a busy life these days? Scripture reading takes time and focus—two things that feel like scarcities in today’s fast-paced and on-demand culture. Like the exercise, like the diet, regular Bible reading does not offer instant pay-off. It’s a discipline whose rewards are reaped over the long-haul.
“It’s telling then, that the reasons most people cite for increased Bible engagement are indicative of escalated importance,” points out Stone. “When people go from feeling they should read the Bible more to needing to read the Bible, they find the time. For pastors and spiritual leaders, this means avoiding the ‘guilt trip’ approach—which rarely motivates for long—but cultivating an environment where Scripture reading feels central to a spiritual life. It also means paying attention to when people are troubled, and pastoring them during those times—pointing them to Scripture as a comfort and a guide.
“Spiritual leaders should feel heartened by these numbers,” says Stone. “People still see Scripture reading as a worthwhile pursuit. The key is helping people see Bible reading as essential and not merely aspirational.”
About the Research
The data reported above originated from a series of telephone and online interviews with nationwide random samples.
All telephone interviews were conducted by Barna Group. All households were selected for inclusion in the sample using a random-digit dial technique, which allows every telephone household in the nation to have an equal and known probability of selection. Households selected for inclusion in the survey sample received multiple callbacks to increase the probability of obtaining a representative distribution of adults. Regional quotas were used to ensure that sufficient population dispersion was achieved. There were also minimum and maximum ranges placed on the distribution of respondents within several demographic variables that were tracked during the field process to ensure that statistical weighting would not be excessive. When a particular attribute reached one of the parameters, the sampling selection process was varied to preclude individuals who did not meet the necessary demographic criterion, with the interviewer seeking a person from the same household who fit the desired criterion. Between 20% and 40% of telephone interviewing was conducted on cell phones.
Most online interviews were conducted using an online research panel called KnowledgePanel® based on probability sampling that covers both the online and offline populations in the U.S. The panel members are randomly recruited by telephone and by self-administered mail and web surveys. Households are provided with access to the Internet and hardware if needed. Unlike other Internet research that covers only individuals with Internet access who volunteer for research, this process uses a dual sampling frame that includes both listed and unlisted phone numbers, telephone and non-telephone households, and cell-phone-only households. The panel is not limited to current Web users or computer owners. All potential panelists are randomly selected to join the KnowledgePanel; unselected volunteers are not able to join.
Once data was collected, minimal statistical weights were applied to several demographic variables to more closely correspond to know national averages. Note that some data differs from statistics published in our Bible in America report, as “don’t know” responses were removed for some questions.
Millennials: Born between 1984 and 2002
Gen-Xers: Born between 1965 and 1983
Boomers: Born between 1946 and 1964
Elders: Born between 1945 or earlier
Practicing Christian: Those who attend a religious service at least once a month, who say their faith is very important in their lives and self-identify as a Christian
Born again: Have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today and believe that, when they die, they will go to heaven because they have confessed their sins and accepted Jesus Christ as their savior.
No faith: identify as agnostic or atheist, or as having no faith
Very active: attended a church service in the past seven days, not including a special event such as a wedding or a funeral.
Semi-active: attended a service within the past month (but not within the past week)
Less active: attended a service within the past six months (but not within the past month)
Barna research is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization under the umbrella of the Issachar Companies. Located in Ventura, California, Barna Group has been conducting and analyzing primary research to understand cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors since 1984.
© Barna Group, 2017