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New research on Americans and Bible engagement has been released, and as usual, the statistics give reasons to be both alarmed and encouraged.

Let's start with cause for alarm. The problem of biblical illiteracy isn't going away anytime soon. More than half of Americans say they have read little or none of the Bible. Although more than 8 out of 10 own a Bible, more than a third say they never pick it up on their own.

What does this mean? Many Americans know next to nothing about the Bible. And, for those who do have rudimentary understanding of certain Bible stories and facts, it is likely they picked up their knowledge about the Bible from someone else, not from the scriptural text itself. If they know anything about the Bible's moral precepts, it's because of what they've learned from the culture, probably not in church.

Thankfully, the numbers improve among churchgoing Christians, particularly evangelicals. Among people who attend worship at least once a month, 39 percent say they read the Bible a little every day. One in five Americans say they've read the Bible at least once.

Still, we have reason to be concerned about biblical illiteracy. What's more, we have reason to be concerned about literacy in general in a digital age. Another survey shows that 42 percent of graduates haven't read a book since college, and 80 percent of U.S. families did not buy or read a book last year. So, many Americans aren't reading the Bible because many Americans don't read.

But let's look at the positive side to all this research. In a world in which many Christians feel besieged and beleaguered for their beliefs being "out of the mainstream," it is heartening to see so many Americans claim a positive outlook on the Bible. They see the Scriptures as a reliable source of moral lessons for today, a book to help you in a time of need, or a book that helps the reader help others.

Far from being hostile to the Bible, most Americans believe the Book's reputation as a timeless guide of moral wisdom to be true. There may be a vocal minority who believe Scripture to be harmful or bigoted, but most Americans use words like "true and life-changing."

Bob Smietana summarizes the LifeWay Research stats:

Overall, Americans have a positive view of the Bible. Thirty-seven percent say it is helpful today, while a similar number call it life-changing (35 percent) or true (36 percent). Half (52 percent) say the Bible is a good source for morals. Few say the Bible is outdated (14 percent), harmful (7 percent) or bigoted (8 percent).

Here's the takeaway. The people in your community who don't attend your church are likely to have a positive feeling about the Bible. And the people who do attend church are likely to say the Bible is the primary reason why.

Kate Shellnutt recently summarized a new Gallup poll showing that "sermons that teach about Scripture" are the No. 1 reason Americans go to church. It's not the worship band, the excellence of your children's program, or the charisma of the preacher. It's the Bible.

The Gallup survey found that people in the pews care far more about what's being preached than who's preaching it. Only half of Protestants (53%) and Americans overall (54%) said they attend because of "dynamic religious leaders who are interesting and inspiring."

Now, keep in mind Gallup surveyed churchgoers, not the unchurched. Still, as church leaders we can be encouraged to see that, both inside and outside the church, the Bible matters.

What do we do with this information?

Well, we could shake our heads and wag our fingers at a biblically illiterate culture or scoff at the woefully deficient, seemingly self-centered views of people who only read the Bible in a time of need. But to me, that response reeks of spiritual superiority and fails to consider our calling as pastors on mission in our community.

Instead, we ought to see American views as a good base on which to build.

  • Knowing that people see the Bible as a reliable guide on moral issues, I'm going to build on the Bible's trustworthy reputation and help people see the underlying worldview that gives rise to those moral truths.
  • Knowing that people see the Bible as a collection of inspirational stories, I'm going to build on those famous and lesser-known accounts and help people see the overarching Story that the tells.
  • Knowing that people see the Bible as true, I'm going to build on their trust in the Bible and help them see how the Bible is also good and beautiful.

The Word that inspires people is actually God's inspired Word.

I never want to lose sight of the fact that through this Book, God speaks. Through this Book, God changes lives. Through this Book, God confronts and comforts, wounds us and heals us.

I'm glad so many Americans have a positive perspective on the Bible. It's my job as a pastor to help them see why the Bible is even greater than they've imagined.


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3 thoughts on “Pastors, the Bible Is the Best Thing You’ve Got Going”

  1. David Ormand says:

    As a long-time youth ministry worker and faithful Southern Baptist church attender, I’ve come to have a slightly different perspective. Yes, the Bible is very important. And the rate of biblical illiteracy IN THE CHURCH is staggering, in spite of Bible sermons. I’ve had too many young people in Sunday School who can’t find a verse in their Bibles without using the index. They don’t know how the books are divided into history, poetry, doctrine, prophecy, etc. They don’t have any theological framework upon which to build their understanding of the Bible.

    Sorry, Mr. Pastor, but the problem is largely that there is simply NO INTENTIONAL STRATEGY to educate believers about the Bible. A once-a-week three-point sermon on a text of 3 to 6 verses isn’t a strategy. A traditional-style Sunday School class of forcing a handful of verses (printed in the quarterly, out of context) into a life-application topic isn’t going to address biblical illiteracy. A Sunday or Wednesday evening “Bible Study” serves more to justify denominational prejudices from scripture than actually study the Bible. Even AWANA, which is mere memorization of verses with no context or understanding of a comprehensive theme, is inadequate. The closest I’ve come to seeing something better than the usual incompetent traditional Evangelical approach is a long-term visit in a Reformed church, and even there, what happened on Sunday morning was too brief and fractured to be effective as “education”, and there was no expectation for members to be studying the Bible on their own, or any materials to assist them with this, or any accountability that they would do this.

  2. Hi Trevin, thanks for writing on this title. appreciate your insightful writing. it is so true: books and commentaries will serve generation, but the Bible will remain powerfully relevant for every generation. and God has proven this through His word through out the history. I believe strongly that Church should provide opportunity for Biblical Literacy. Bible Schools and Seminaries should consider taking students through whole Bible in the course of study program and not just skip with short introduction of the books.

  3. Jim Lanley says:

    As a former pastor and IMB Missionary to East Asia, I am very concerned about the staggering biblical illiteracy I encounter on almost a daily basis in conversations with Millennials. But, I believe we’re missing the much broader issue, the true root of the issue. It’s about Discipleship. While the worship services are trending toward congregants ease and comfort with “fill in the blank” sermon notes and scripture reading via power point or pro presenter – what need would anyone have to actually bring a bible let alone open one at home? We hear weekly the diatribe of pupiteers rant about what we should do about/with out faith and yet there is no outlet accept for the lettered! No accountability. No opportunity. One of the reasons the persecuted church thrives is first its true faith in Christ and second its training in making disciples to be His followers. There’s no need for studies in those countries about biblical literacy because the Bible is their standard to both know and live for God. I’ve learned a lot from the 9 years I served next to persecuted brothers and sisters in East Asia, Africa, and Burma. The most telling is this: No true Discipleship = Apathy toward Scripture. If you’re concerned, you should be. A little over a year ago, my wife and I visited a city in Burma’s Northern Shan state that used to be one of the most Christian cities in that country. The Church and Hospital built by the Missionary there is now overshadowed by a 200 foot Buddah. Why? Because it only took one generation to die without knowing how to make disciples to stamp Christianity out. We had better learn to make active, accountable, reproducible Christ following Disciples before it’s too late.

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Trevin Wax


​Trevin Wax is Bible and Reference Publisher at LifeWay Christian Resources and managing editor of The Gospel Project. You can follow him on Twitter or receive blog posts via email. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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