Digging Deeper: Lifeway Research director says Bible engagment is about much more than just reading God’s Word

We’ve all seen the numbers and heard the statistics regarding Bible engagement in America and they’re often not encouraging. There are fewer Americans who believe the Bible is 100 percent true and authoritative, and even among those who claim to follow Jesus, the level of Bible engagement is down. We asked Scott McConnell, executive director of Lifeway Research, to help us process some of the numbers and provide a ray of hope for churches and leaders looking to raise the level of biblical engagement among their people.

In a general sense, we know American Christians aren’t engaging with the Bible as much as they should. Can you put numbers to that lack of engagement based on some of  Lifeway Research’s latest findings?

Scott McConnell: One of the things we see is that among Americans, only 12% have read the entire Bible and another 10% have read it more than once. So that’s less than a quarter of Americans who have read the entire Bible at any point in their life. And even if we ask, “Have you read half of the Bible?” it’s about 50/50. Half of Americans have read about half the Bible, and half have read less, and 7% have read none of it. 

If we zoom in just on Protestant churchgoers and look at their engagement with the Bible, just 32% of them read the Bible every day and another 27% [read it] a few times a week. About six out of 10 Protestant churchgoers are reading the Bible several times a week. So we definitely have some indicators that both presently and really anytime in the past, a lot of Americans and a lot of Christians have really not spent a lot of time in the Word on their own.

So how would you define biblical engagement? Is it about more than just reading the Bible?

SM: It is. It includes reading the Bible, but it also should include our beliefs about the Bible, our desires related to the Bible, and our behaviors—is it impacting the way you live your life? If you’re only engaging with one or two of those areas, you’re not getting the full benefit of what Scripture has for you. Bible engagement really should be more holistic.

Can you give me a general profile of a person who is not engaging the Bible regularly? What kind of things can we know about them from your research?

SM: When you’re not engaging with Scripture, you’re not going to be able to grow in biblical relationships. You’re not going to be able to grow in obedience. You’re not going to be able to grow in worship because it’s connected. It’s very much a tapestry. A real tangible example is that somebody who’s reading the Bible every day and then misses a few days, 65% of those folks say they desperately miss that time in God’s Word and another 21% somewhat agree. So almost nine out of 10 people who are reading the Bible every day—it’s not just a habit that they got into at some point, it’s not feeling like they have to, it is something that they absolutely enjoy. If you’re not in that place, if you’re not reading the Bible regularly, I would definitely want you to hear that. You don’t just want to try to create a habit in your life. You don’t want to just jump into this discipline for discipline’s sake. This is part of worshiping God and enjoying Him, spending that time in His Word.

When you’re not engaging with Scripture, you’re not going to be able to grow in biblical relationships. You’re not going to be able to grow in obedience. You’re not going to be able to grow in worship because it’s connected.

What can pastors and church leaders do to raise the level of biblical engagement among the people they serve?

SM: If a church is considering what it can do to encourage Bible engagement, I think they’ve got to start with the authority of Scripture. That might mean starting in a different place than we have in the past. In the past we encouraged people to just believe in the Word of God, but today we have to explain a little more. A lot of folks have not grown up in Christian homes, or they’ve grown up in a home where people take what they want from the Bible and leave the parts they don’t like. So it’s more and more important that churches are taking a step back and explaining “Where did the Bible come from?” and “Who did the Bible come from?” and letting people know that Scripture has an overall story to it. The Bible is a big book and you can kind of lose your place in the bigger story. Many people don’t understand that there’s a story of love and redemption that God has extended to us and revealed to us through Scripture. We need to set it up to make sure people understand that this book is worthy of our belief and is a precious gift of God’s revelation to us of the relationship He wants to have with us. … When somebody accepts that the Bible isn’t just a book with good moral teaching, but it actually has authority in my life because of who it came from, that can be transformative. You’re going to look at other things in life differently when you have that belief in Scripture’s authority.

If people don’t believe that the Bible is the written Word of God and is totally accurate, they’re much less likely to be reading the Word of God and engaging with it on a regular basis. You kind of wonder why they’re still practicing in other areas if they don’t believe in the Word of God, but at the same time there are many benefits to being a part of a body of believers that they may enjoy. Having a relationship with God and really wanting the truth of God’s Word to impact your life—when those are absent, then we definitely see much less engagement with Scripture.

What are the churches that are successful in helping their people engage more effectively with the Bible doing?

SM: Encouraging people to read the Bible on their own [through a reading plan] is an important thing that we see churches doing. The speed that you’re reading through the Bible seems to be less important than reading it regularly. When we ask Americans how they’ve read the Bible, only 22% actually have read sequentially and systematically through a section a little bit each day. Studying the Bible together in community is also a huge part of Bible engagement, whether that’s a Sunday school or a small group. We’ve seen statistically that people who are doing that on a weekly basis are more likely to be serving in their church. They’re more likely to be serving in their community. They’re more likely to be giving to their church. They’re more likely to be engaged in spiritual disciplines. They’re more likely to have friends at church and relationships with others at church. They’re more likely to be peacemakers at church. So many ways that we want to be growing closer to Christ happen when we study God’s Word in community. So that’s absolutely an essential piece that churches should be emphasizing. We’ve actually seen churches rebound faster [after COVID] because the people who were in groups had both the relationships and that closer walk with Christ that encouraged them to be back in person. 

We’re also seeing [churches raising engagement when they communicate] that life change is expected through God’s Word and through the Holy Spirit, that you use God’s Word in your life not because you want to be a church that knows the Bible really well, but because you believe it so well. That really completes that circle of Bible engagement where it’s actually impacting your life.

You look at a lot of numbers and statistics, and those figures aren’t always encouraging. What are you seeing in the realm of biblical engagement that encourages you?

SM: To me, the most encouraging part of it is that those who are in God’s Word on a regular basis, almost all of them enjoy it. And the other thing is just the impact it can have on your life. As with most things within our discipleship journey, it doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a lifelong journey. The fact that you can be going through a passage for the fourth time and see new things that God is bringing to light through that passage is absolutely refreshing. We continue to see that Bible engagement is predictive of walking closer to Christ, so knowing that spending time in His Word has an impact definitely gives us confidence to encourage others and to want to be in God’s Word ourselves. In this day and age, we have so many options for how to do this. If reading is absolutely not your thing, there are so many ways to listen to God’s Word and to hear people teaching on God’s Word on a regular basis that you can fill that gap in ways that still have you engaging in the Bible regularly.

Jayson Larson pic
Digital Editor
Jayson Larson
Southern Baptist Texan
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