Rediscovering the Bible

each generation

Younger Americans are more open than we think.

After a delayed and diverted flight from Philadelphia to Colorado Springs, I had to spend another 30 minutes in an Uber. I really didn’t feel like talking much, but the driver struck up a conversation. Thirtyish with a Grizzly Adams beard, this millennial mountain man volunteered that he had two small children. He wanted to teach them to be moral, to be good citizens.

“How do you go about doing that?” I asked.

“We haven’t completely figured it out, but for now we’re reading them Grimms’ Fairy Tales before bed.”

Hmmm. Now that’s an amazing approach if you want to keep your kids from wandering through a medieval German forest and getting eaten by wolves, but it might not prepare them for life today. And it probably wouldn’t achieve the goal of helping them become good neighbors who live with integrity and generosity.

I didn’t say any of that out loud. Instead I asked, “Have you ever wondered if the Bible might offer you wisdom to be a better parent and help your kids become better people?”

The driver looked at me with what I can only call open fascination. He was not condemning or dismissive, as I might have expected him to be. No, it was clear this was a radically new idea for him.

I asked if he’d heard of YouVersion, the leading Bible app. I told him it offered extra resources, like Bible reading plans on various subjects. I got out my phone and found that they did in fact have material on parenting.

“We keep banging the drum of propositional truth, but the currency of this generation is authentic relationship.”

We had pulled up at my destination, but the conversation continued. “How can I get that?” he asked, grabbing his own phone. As the car idled at the entryway of my hotel, I showed him.

Up to that point, I would have told you most non-Christian millennials were skeptical, often hostile, toward the Bible. That has been the common storyline, right? That people 40 and younger read the Bible less, know the Bible less and believe it less? It’s easy to assume they hate this book that we Christians love.

But my encounter with this Uber driver made me rethink my assumptions. Our research at American Bible Society supports what I discovered in this conversation: People today are starting at a different place than in the past but are still open to the teachings of Scripture. 

Answering the Right Questions 

Millennials don’t hate the Bible; they just tend to know very little about it. The same could be said of the generation that follows. These groups might be characterized as “open.” If the Bible can help them live a better life, connect them to God or give them wisdom for the decisions they’re making, they’re open to it.

Sure, you can find millennials—and younger folks, or examples from any generation—who are dismissive and derisive, and our modern world gives them the boldness and platform to broadcast those feelings. But in general, the shift in recent generations is not a growing enmity. It’s just that the Bible no longer enjoys epistemic privilege. 

In the mid-1900s, the Bible was viewed as an authority. People trusted it, even if they weren’t very religious. But now, especially in younger generations, people believe the Bible no more than any other book, which comes across like opposition to Christians because we’re used to the exalted position the Bible once held. But actually, by and large, young people are curious to know what the Bible says on a variety of subjects, especially if it provides answers to the questions they’re asking. 

Here’s the challenge: We keep answering questions people aren’t asking. People want to know how to be their best self in the 21st century. Does the Bible have anything to tell them about that? Absolutely, yes. So let’s figure out what they’re asking and share God’s wisdom.

Survey Says …

At American Bible Society, I oversee the annual survey behind the State of the Bible report. It’s a wide-ranging poll, targeting Bible-reading practices as well as the results of those practices. We ask about people’s attitudes and actions regarding the Bible, faith and the church. What brings them to the Bible, and what do they get from it? It’s a finger on the pulse of Americans in their relationship with Scripture.

The full nine-chapter report is downloadable at StateOfTheBible.org, but let me share a few important findings.

Nearly 1 in 4 U.S. adults (24%) increased their Bible reading from pre-pandemic 2020 to mid-pandemic 2021. At the start of 2020, COVID-19 was a faint report from a distant land. In January 2021, the U.S. was experiencing a surge and waiting for the vaccines to roll out. Stores were shuttered, schools were online, many of us were working at home, if we had jobs at all. Add to that the political, social and racial friction in the country. In terms of difficulty, it was an epic year—the kind that might lead people to turn to the Bible for help.

Our survey says that’s exactly what people did.

Not only did we see 24% self-reporting an increase in Bible-reading frequency, we saw substantial growth in the number of people reading Scripture at least four times per week (from 12% to 16%). Millions of people who weren’t used to reading the Bible began to do so, at least occasionally.

Maybe working at home gave them more access to the Bible on their shelf. Maybe, without a daily commute, they could fit Bible reading into their morning routine. Maybe they had more family time, and so they read Bible stories to the kids. Or maybe they needed some spiritual guidance to get through these tough times.

“Millennials don’t hate the Bible; they just know very little about it. The same could be said of the generation that follows.”

For years, our surveys have shown that the biggest reasons people read the Bible are to get closer to God, to find comfort or to gain wisdom. During this particular year, all of those were sorely needed, and the reported jump in Bible reading bears that out.

One more news flash: Digital Bible content led the way. In the first few months of the pandemic, 23.6 million people downloaded Bible apps for the first time. If that were the population of a city, it would be the largest in America and the fourth largest in the world—all accessing a new way to read Scripture.

Bible Readers Flourish More. 

For the last two years, our surveys have included questions on human flourishing, a collection of factors developed by researchers at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. According to their research, flourishing is marked by:

* Happiness and Life Satisfaction

* Mental and Physical Health

* Meaning and Purpose

* Character and Virtue

* Close Social Relationships

* Financial and Material Stability

We cross-tabulated Scripture engagement with these factors. As you might expect, Americans in general saw flourishing take a tumble between January and June 2020. COVID-19 had struck, changing everything. These scores began to bounce back by January 2021, but not to pre-pandemic levels. The two notable exceptions were Character and Virtue and Close Social Relationships. Apparently, in spite of everything, we grew stronger and built stronger connections with others.

What about those who scored high in Scripture Engagement? They substantially outscored the less engaged in every category except Financial and Material Stability. (Spoiler alert: Bible reading won’t make you rich, but apparently it brings other blessings.)

The State of the Bible survey also found that Bible readers experienced just as much stress as everyone else, but they tended to deal with it in healthier ways. As a result, they experienced higher levels of hope than other Americans, despite the stresses we all faced.

We also found that Bible readers are good neighbors. They help strangers, donate to charities and volunteer in the community (not just the church)—all at greater levels than those who don’t read the Bible.

All these aspects of the abundant life should come as no surprise, but how can we communicate the benefits of such interaction with God’s Word?

Who Needs Our Message?

It might help to focus on three groups of people who especially need to get this message. 

The Next Generation(s) 

Just when we thought we could understand millennials, along comes Gen Z, now entering adulthood. And before we know it, there will be another cohort after them (Generation Alpha). Each group is a new mission field, deserving study, creativity and empathy. Each generation has its own concerns and questions.

From our data, we have characterized Gen Z as being curious and undecided. On a number of questions about the value and uniqueness of the Bible, Gen Z was most likely to neither agree nor disagree. And while they read the Bible less than any other age group, more than three-quarters of them indicated curiosity about the Bible. One bright spot is that Gen Z scored highest on our Neighboring Index, particularly with regard to volunteer activities in the community outside the church.

These young people are, of course, native to the digital world, and that fact should inform our ministry. If you have one or more of these 9-to-24-year-olds in your life, you know they live on their phones. With instant global communication and myriad entertainment options literally at their fingertips, their upbringing is significantly different than that of previous generations. The church needs to meet them in creative, winsome and deep ways—like BibleProject, He Gets Us or whatever’s next.

“In the first few months of the pandemic, 23.6 million people downloaded Bible apps for the first time.”

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Gen Z also has doubts, not just about the Bible but about everything. They need help addressing and processing their doubts about God and the Bible. Generally the church has not excelled at offering this kind of help. We keep banging the drum of propositional truth, but the currency of this generation is authentic relationship. We need to remember, and to remind these young people, that the truth of Scripture leads us to a vital relationship with Jesus (John 5:39–40), and that the Bible pairs love for God with an active love for others (Matt. 5:37–40). The Bible is packed with stories of real and raw relationships that connect with any generation.

For the members of Generation Z who are Christians, we need to teach them how to talk about their faith in public, not with platitudes or sound bites, but with engaging and specific stories from God’s Word and of God’s involvement in their lives. They need to hear from people they know and trust who have an authentic connection with God. We should be hosting crucial conversations with these youth and young adults, where leaders talk with freshness and authenticity about their own faith journeys and how they’ve dealt with doubt, heartache and sin. This welcoming approach will energize the faith of Generation Z.

People in Pain 

In the year before the pandemic, half of the U.S. population was already dealing with trauma in some form. American Bible Society did a groundbreaking study in 2019, published in 2020 as Trauma in America. In it we asked, “Have you ever experienced physical, psychological or emotional trauma, such as extreme violence, abuse or a near-death experience that produced a response of intense fear, helplessness or horror lasting more than a few weeks?”

Another question clarified whether they had experienced this themselves or witnessed it. And, if the traumatizing incident had happened more than 10 years earlier, were they still suffering its effects?

Whether people were Christians or not, Bible readers or not, the incidence of trauma held around 50%. Take a moment to let that sink in. The data suggests that half of the folks at your church and half of your neighbors are dealing with trauma, and COVID-19 is certainly raising that rate.

“Rather than pushing our own program of what people ought to want, couldn’t we learn what they’re looking for?”

Over 58% continue to experience the effects of past trauma about half the time or more frequently, while 23% say their trauma always affects them. Only about 10% of trauma sufferers say their experience never affects them anymore.

It comes as no surprise that a majority of practicing Christians sought help in Scripture (55%), but I found it interesting that about a quarter of non-practicing Christians and 9% of non-Christians also turned to the Bible for help in their trauma. How many of these people are living near your church? How many could use some assistance from you?

In our survey, we also asked about negative feelings brought on by their trauma. Christians and non-Christians alike identified the main emotion as “No one understands how I feel.”

Many Americans have no idea that the Bible has anything to say to their pain. Perhaps we have overemphasized the feel-good aspects of our faith and ignored biblical examples of lament and empathy for sufferers. Plenty can be said about the Bible’s role in bringing hope to hurting people, but let’s start with biblical compassion, weeping with those who weep, sitting beside the sufferers and asking, “What happened? How did you feel about that? What was the hardest part for you?”

The Movable Middle 

Our surveys show about a quarter of Americans are “Scripture Engaged,” based on frequency of Bible use, its spiritual impact in their lives and the moral centrality of the Bible. The rest of the population is rather evenly split between Bible Disengaged (38%) and what we’re calling the Movable Middle (37%). 

The middle group, combining the previous categories of Bible Friendly and Bible Neutral, might be considered the sleeping giant of modern church ministry. These people tend to respect the Bible, but most don’t read it very much. While some are beginning to explore it on their own, it’s an infrequent, inconsistent exploration. You might say they test-drive the Bible every so often, dabbling in Scripture but not diving in.

The headline from our 2021 State of the Bible report was that the Movable Middle saw huge growth (29 million). This is good news and bad news. Some of that shift (7 million) came from a drop in engagement among those who were previously Scripture Engaged. Perhaps the pandemic jolted them out of Bible-reading routines or overwhelmed them with other obligations. But the bulk of the shift (19 million) came from the previously Disengaged. People do turn to Scripture in tough times.

Imagine the outcome if the church could ever excite the 95 million adults in the Movable Middle about the Bible’s message for them, a message that will give them hope and guidance. We might see a spiritual revolution. Remember that these folks don’t oppose the Bible—they’re just not captivated by it … yet. If this were a dating show, they’d be stuck in the friend zone. How can they be wooed?

Too often we try to energize this crowd by teaching about the Bible or doubling down on theology, but research suggests that, more than anything, these Bible dabblers need to know how the stories, people and relationships in Scripture can help them to connect to God and find a better way to live? Can they guide their kids more effectively? Can they find peace in their marriages and meaning in their jobs? How can God’s Word transform communities from battle zones to havens?

What Is Next?

Businesses are paying attention to the choices you make and the preferences you identify, the questions you ask. If you watch The Crown on Netflix, you’ll soon see ads for similar viewing fare. In a way, those companies are listening to you, learning what you want.

Why can’t we Christians be just as attentive? Rather than pushing our own program of what people ought to want, couldn’t we learn what they’re looking for? Couldn’t we answer the questions they’re asking?

Information technology allows us to do that. We need to be smart, sensitive and faithful in how we use it, but we need to use it.

“Each generation is a new mission field, deserving study, creativity and empathy.”

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In a number of U.S. cities, American Bible Society has worked with local church leaders to provide resources and ministry support. “Wouldn’t it be great,” we say to those leaders, “if you could know what questions the people in your city are asking about the Bible?” It’s a trick question, because we can know that. Where do people ask questions nowadays? Google. And Google keeps great records.

In Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota, for instance, we found the top 10 searches about the Bible: What does the Bible say about …

• Forgiveness

• Heaven

• Marriage

• Sex

• Relationships

• Christianity and homosexuality

• Depression, suicide and mental health

• Hell

• Drinking

• Marijuana

The searches from other cities are similar but not identical. Why not learn what your neighbors are wondering about the Bible and then plan a creative outreach on those themes?

We’re also working on ways to gather data on spiritual development within churches. You might find that your congregation scores high on Bible knowledge but low on relationships. This would allow you to plan sermons and programming to bolster weak areas. You could also recommend resources to your people based on their particular growth needs.

Your church already uses data, assuming you count attendance each week. Perhaps you’ve learned ways to estimate how many people are watching your livestream. But, as we know, ministry involves more than attendance. We build people up in their faith. Why not use the tools of the modern world to do this more effectively?

The Bible: For the People

State of the Bible research has bolstered my faith in the power of the Bible to change lives and communities for the better. The Bible is helping Americans, and not in a small way. The positive, nationwide impact of God’s Word is clearly visible to anyone who cares to look for it.

Still, many Americans don’t know that the Bible is for them. Whether they’re suffering from trauma or grief, facing the unique challenges of emerging adulthood, or are simply new to Scripture, millions of Americans would find hope in God’s Word—if we would help them.

You might be surprised to find that your Uber driver is more open to the Bible than you ever thought possible.

5 NEEDS OF THE MOVABLE MIDDLE

1. They Are Interested in the Bible, But on Their Own Terms.

People in the Movable Middle bring questions to the Bible, issues they need help with. They won’t get excited by a sermon series on the Minor Prophets unless it pointedly addresses their own questions and needs.

2. They Struggle with Bible Language and Culture.

The Bible comes from a different world, long ago and far away. When we talk about mustard seeds, fatted calves and whatever Boaz was doing with that sandal, it reminds people of their distance from the story—especially if a bunch of church folks are nodding and saying, “Amen.” The unchurched, unengaged person ends up feeling like a stranger in a strange land. As the Ethiopian said to Philip, “How can I understand unless someone explains it to me?” (Acts 8:31).

3. They Prefer Modern Language Translations.

In many cases, when people in the Movable Middle read the Bible, they’re pulling an old King James Version from the shelf. That’s what their parents read. Or they assume that’s the only “correct” version. For many, the best thing we can do to ignite a Bible-reading habit is to introduce them to a modern translation that communicates God’s truth in the way they actually talk.

4. They Need a Guide and a Welcome From the Church.

Movable Middle people don’t know how to find their way around Scripture. They know they need guidance, and they’re quite willing to get that guidance from the church.

5. They Want to Emulate a Heritage of Faith.

In one of our focus groups, a woman talked about her memories of her mother sitting by a window, with a Bible in her lap, praying and reading as she watched her kids play. The mother had since passed, leaving that Bible to her daughter, who told us that she longed to be like her mother but didn’t know how. 

We’ve heard this story a lot. People in the Movable Middle often have a person of rich faith in their background, someone they would love to be like. They just need someone to show them the way.