American Bible Society today released its 10th annual State of the Bible report, which shows cultural trends in the U.S. regarding spirituality and Scripture engagement. The report reveals findings from two surveys, one conducted in January 2020 with Barna Group and another this June, that demonstrate the effects of the pandemic on the faith community. The data show that Scripture engagement has declined amid the COVID-19 outbreak, and there is a clear relationship between Scripture engagement and in-person church participation.
"Faith communities have demonstrated incredible resilience, innovation and empathy through the pandemic. But this survey reveals that a big opportunity still remains for Christian organizations to make an impact on Scripture engagement," said American Bible Society president and CEO, Robert Briggs. "Despite nearly every individual in the U.S. having access to the Bible, engagement has decreased. That's been a consistent trend over the past few years, and the trend has accelerated since January 2020 throughout the pandemic. The Church must transition from 'survival' mode back into 'discipleship' mode, and, yes, that's going to take even more innovation."
In 2019, over one-third of American adults (35%) said that realistically they never use the Bible outside of a large church service or mass. In January, that number was statistically unchanged. However, by June of 2020, that proportion had fallen to 31%. Additionally, many Scripture engaged adults were finding it difficult to maintain their relationship with the Bible. The proportion of Americans who use the Bible daily also fell to fewer than one in ten (9%), the lowest number on record during the ten years of the State of the Bible research study.
The study shows a direct correlation between increased Scripture engagement and those efforts typically organized by a church, including mentorship programs and small group Bible studies. Church closures due to COVID-19 are therefore likely contributing to decreased rates of Scripture engagement. Those who participated in no relational activities through a church averaged 66/100 on ABS' Scripture Engagement Scale. Participating in one such activity increased average Scripture engagement to 89 points, and participation in two or more discipleship activities was associated with Scripture engagement scores above 94 on average.
"This study supports the idea that the Church plays a significant role in benefitting people's wellbeing and Scripture engagement," said Dr. John Farquhar Plake, Director of Ministry Intelligence at American Bible Society. "To increase Scripture engagement, we must increase relational connections with one another through the Church. The pandemic - and now this survey - have shown that when relational church engagement goes up, so does Scripture engagement, but when it goes down, Scripture engagement drops with it. In other words, it's probably the relationships people have with one another through Church that really make the difference."
In every category of religious self-identification, "churched respondents" or those who have attended a Christian church service within the past six months, were significantly more likely to be Scripture engaged. Interestingly, the survey found significant proportions of individuals who self-identified with a religion were unchurched (had not attended a service for more than 6 months and, likewise, were unlikely to be Scripture engaged). Across major Christian groups, Mainline Protestant denominations had the largest proportion of unchurched adherents (50%) with one in every two members being unchurched, followed by 46% of Catholics, 37% of Evangelicals, and 36% of Historically Black Protestants.
While Scripture engagement has declined and significant gaps need to be filled between the churched and unchurched, American Bible Society is not discouraged. The State of the Bible 2020 report shows a huge opportunity for the actively engaged Church: 67.8% of American adults or about 172 million adults are 'Bible curious,' meaning they want to learn more about Scripture. Additionally, the data showed that in June 2020 more Americans were exploring the Bible for the first time compared to January 2020. Leaders might recognize that many people are interested in the Bible, but fewer have a relational connection to a Church that will help them become Scripture engaged.
The first four chapters of The State of the Bible 2020 ebook are currently available to download HERE, and American Bible Society will publish additional ebook chapters every month between August and December, at which point the full ebook will provide a review of the State of the Bible highlights for 2020. In addition to those findings articulated above, the mid-year ebook shines light on more ways COVID-19 has impacted Scripture engagement in America:
- Americans who have been personally impacted by the coronavirus were more likely to read the Bible. Individuals were most likely to report an increase in Bible engagement if a family member in their household or a neighbor died from COVID-19. For those that have not personally known anyone who has died from COVID-19, their level of Bible engagement tended to stay the same.
- While spirituality may seem optional in day-to-day life, people tend to look to the Bible for hope amid crisis. 8 in 10 individuals who were hospitalized by COVID-19 said they wished they had used the Bible more. Others who did not experience the fear as acutely decreased their Bible engagement, or it stayed the same as it was in January.
- Food, TV/streaming services and prayer/meditation have been the top sources of comfort during the pandemic. Those tending to be more Scripture engaged were more likely to seek the Bible, family members and prayer/meditation for comfort. Those tending to be less Bible engaged were more likely to seek food, tv/streaming, and prescription drugs as sources of comfort.
The January portion of the 2020 State of the Bible survey was completed in partnership with Barna Group. American Bible Society's research team conducted the second survey in June to understand how and if COVID-19 had impacted the state of the Bible in the United States. A chapter on Church activities' impact on Scripture engagement, which will deep dive into the data listed topically here, will be released in September 2020.
About American Bible Society
Since 1816, American Bible Society has worked to make the Bible available to every person in a language and format each can understand and afford, so all people may experience its life-changing message. One of the nation's first and most enduring ministries, today's American Bible Society provides resources across a variety of platforms, enabling first-time readers and seasoned theologians alike to engage with the best-selling book of all time. For more information, visit AmericanBible.org or call 215-309-0900.