As observers of American culture debate whether the nation has entered a post-Christian phase, one overlooked discussion is how attitudes about and usage of the Bible may be changing. A new research report from the Barna Group examines recent nationwide studies on how different generations of American adults view and use the Bible. For the purposes of this research, the Mosaic generation refers to adults who are currently ages 18 to 25; Busters are those ages 26 to 44; Boomers are 45 to 63; and Elders are 64-plus.
There is often more that unites the various generations in American culture than divides them. The Barna research regarding the Bible confirms the central role this revered text has for most Americans. A majority of each of the four generations believes that the Bible is a sacred or holy book. Another commonality is that millions within each of the generations report reading the pages of Scripture in the last week.
There is also significant generational overlap regarding people’s views on the nature of the Bible. Similar proportions of the generations embrace the most conservative and most liberal views. For instance, the “highest” view of the Bible – that it is “the actual word of God and should be taken literally, word for word” – is embraced by one-quarter of Mosaics (27%), Busters (27%), and Boomers (23%), and one-third of Elders (34%). The extreme view on the other end – that the Bible is not inspired by God – is embraced by proportions that are also statistically close to one another, including Mosaics (25%), Busters (19%), Boomers (22%), and Elders (22%).
However, despite these similarities, the Barna studies show that the youngest generations are charting a new, unique course related to the Bible. Here are the types of changes being forged by young adults:
- Less Sacred – While most Americans of all ages identify the Bible as sacred, the drop-off among the youngest adults is striking: 9 out of 10 Boomers and Elders described the Bible as sacred, which compares to 8 out of 10 Busters (81%) and just 2 out of 3 Mosaics (67%).
- Less Accurate – Young adults are significantly less likely than older adults to strongly agree that the Bible is totally accurate in all of the principles it teaches. Just 30% of Mosaics and 39% of Busters firmly embraced this view, compared with 46% of Boomers and 58% of Elders.
- More Universalism – Among Mosaics, a majority (56%) believes the Bible teaches the same spiritual truths as other sacred texts, which compares with 4 out of 10 Busters and Boomers, and one-third of Elders.
- Skepticism of Origins – Another generational difference is that young adults are more likely to express skepticism about the original manuscripts of the Bible than is true of older adults.
- Less Engagement – While many young adults are active users of the Bible, the pattern shows a clear generational drop-off – the younger the person, the less likely then are to read the Bible. In particular, Busters and Mosaics are less likely than average to have spent time alone in the last week praying and reading the Bible for at least 15 minutes. Interestingly, none of the four generations were particularly likely to say they aspired to read the Bible more as a means of improving their spiritual lives.
- Bible Appetite – Despite the generational decline in many Bible metrics, one departure from the typical pattern is the fact that younger adults, especially Mosaics (19%), express a slightly above-average interest in gaining additional Bible knowledge. This compares with 12% of Boomers and 9% of Elders.
David Kinnaman, who directed the analysis of the research, explained that the “central theme of young people’s approach to the Bible is skepticism. They question the Bible’s history as well as its relevance to their lives, leading many young people to reject the Bible as containing everything one needs to live a meaningful life. This mindset certainly has its challenges but it also raises the possibility of using their skepticism as an entry point to teaching and exploring the content of the Bible in new ways.
The president of the Barna Group pointed out that since many young people want to learn about the Bible it should be an opportunity for Christian leaders.Perhaps young people want to participate more in the process of learning, not simply attend Bible lectures or be trained in classrooms. Mosaics and Busters have come to expect experiences that appear unscripted and interactive, that allow them to be open and honest with their questions, that are technologically stimulating, that are done alongside peers and within trusted relationships, and that give them the chance to be creative and visual. Their expectations may or may not be entirely healthy, but without considering these issues, the Bible will continue to lose hold on the next generation.
About the Research
This report is based upon annual tracking surveys conducted via telephone by The Barna Group among representative random samples of US adults (known as the OmniPollSM).
The five separate studies were conducted between 2006 and 2009 and each of them is based on nationwide, random samples of 1000+ adults. The range of sampling error associated with each sample of adults is between ±1.4 and ±3.2 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. These allowances do not include other types of error (known as non-sampling error) that can occur in surveys, such as errors arising from question wording, question sequencing, and the inaccurate recording of responses. Minimal statistical weighting was used to calibrate the aggregate sample to known population percentages in relation to several key demographic variables.
This report was based on research analysis done by David Kinnaman on behalf of the American Bible Society (www.AmericanBible.org).
The Barna Group, Ltd. (which includes its research division, The Barna Research Group) is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization that conducts primary research on a wide range of issues and products, produces resources pertaining to cultural change, leadership and spiritual development, and facilitates the healthy spiritual growth of leaders, children, families and Christian ministries. Located in Ventura, California, Barna has been conducting and analyzing primary research to understand cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors since 1984. If you would like to receive free e-mail notification of the release of each new, bi-monthly update on the latest research findings from The Barna Group, you may subscribe to this free service at the Barna website (www.barna.org). Additional research-based resources, both free and at discounted prices, are also available through that website.
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