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Fewer Americans are reading the Bible: Why it matters

How many people today are engaging the Bible in any meaningful way? Apparently, fewer than you might think.

In April 2024, the American Bible Society (ABS) published their annual “State of the Biblereport, a study that examines the bible reading habits of Americans. Their previous studies have noticed a shocking decline in Bible reading in recent years, and according to this latest study things are not getting any better.

Founded in 1816 to promote the distribution and engagement with the Bible, the ABS believes Scripture is essential to form healthy spiritual lives and communities. The history of Western Civilization is, in large part, a history of the way the teachings of the Scriptures have forged cultural institutions. Just read through Tom Holland’s masterful work, “Dominion,” which tracts the important contributions Christianity has made to social and civil institutions, governments, and traditions.

Moving closer to home, pick up a copy of Mark David Hall’s “Did America have a Christian Founding?” and consider the ways that the teaching of the Scriptures have shaped American ideals. There is no question that in the past centuries, Scripture has helped create stable governments, academic institutions, voluntary associations, and all kinds of human flourishing. But now the ABS study is another signal that the Bible is losing its persuasiveness and formative power.

When you dig into the study, the first thing that stands out is the general decline of “Bible Users.” From 2011-2021 “Bible Users” — which they define as those who “interact with Scripture at least three or four times a year (apart from services as church)” — always hovered between 50 percent to 60 percent of the U.S. population. The study considers an “interaction” as any engagement with the Bible including print, audio, video, or online mediums. But in 2024, the number of Bible Users is a mere 38% of the population. That means in the last few years, millions of Americans have not glanced at a Bible for any significant reason.

Beyond general questions about Bible use, the study also evaluates the level of engagement with a series of questions that weighs the frequency, impact, and centrality of the bible in a person’s life and decisions. Based upon their findings, 151 million (57 percent) people are what they call “Bible Disengaged,” meaning these people do not interact with the Bible in any meaningful way.

On the other side, they identify 47 million people — or 18 percent of the population — are “Scripture Engaged.” These are people who intentionally look to “the Bible as a guidebook for life.” This is about the same number as last year, but looking to the larger trends, this category has slowly dwindled since 2020 when 71 million or 28 percent on population regularly engaged Scripture.

In between these groups stand a group the study calls the “Movable Middle.” These are the approximately 65 million (25 percent) people that are interested in Scripture, but not currently engaging it in any meaningful sense.

The study shows that this groups is shrinking in the wrong direction. There are now fewer people in this middle group as the “percentage of Bible Disengaged is now at its highest point ever.” This means that for a sizable percentage of the population “the Bible is not leading to a greater connection with God or more loving behavior toward others, at least as much as it did a year ago.”

The ABS study offers another data point in the abiding struggle between Christianity and culture, suggesting further changes ahead if these trends continue. With fewer people consulting the Bible for spiritual growth or guidance in their daily decisions, societal norms once influenced by Scripture are evolving into an array of moral perspectives, many of which are incompatible with its teachings.

This is not to say that every application of Scripture has been right and good, history is filled with stories of abuse justified with appeals to Biblical texts. Despite these tragic stories, the real issue is, whether we recognize it or not, we all rely upon authorities to make decisions. Those who choose to ignore the Bible or church teaching, are looking elsewhere, and, as Simon Peter recognized, there is nowhere else to go to find the words of eternal life (John 6:68).

However, amid these concerning trends, there is still hope. A majority of respondents (53 percent) expressed a desire to engage with the Bible more, including a significant percentage of non-Bible users. While the number of those engaging with the Bible may be declining, the desire for its wisdom and guidance remains. Whether individuals act upon this desire remains to be seen.

How many people today are engaging with scripture in any meaningful way? Apparently fewer each year, but it is my hope that next year more seek wisdom within its pages and find a path leading to true spiritual life.

–Stephen O. Presley is senior fellow for religion and public life at the Center for Religion, Culture & Democracy (crcd.net), an initiative of First Liberty Institute and associate professor of church history at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Reprinted with permission.

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