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Why the latest 'State of the Bible Research' leads us back to mission

bible reading
Courtesy of American Bible Society

The headline is compelling and disheartening: 26 Million Americans Stopped Reading the Bible Regularly During COVID-19. Unfortunately, it is also accurate. My research team at American Bible Society and I analyzed and reanalyzed the data for this year’s State of the Bible (SOTB). We searched for any sign that we had faulty data or that we had miscalculated something, but the numbers were right. Though there are certainly bright spots in the report, overall, the news was bad.

My prayer, then, is that of Psalm 126:6: “Those who wept as they went out carrying the seed will come back singing for joy, as they bring in the harvest” (GNT). As followers of Christ, we are called to engage with hard issues, to proclaim good news in hard times, and to be people who seek to trust that God is at work, even when we cannot see His hand. We weep and we mourn, but we also trust God for a new harvest. We take stock of the situation, and we look for how Christ might have us respond. In other words, we respond to bad news; we respond with action that we pray will turn the tide.

The facts

COVID-19 greatly impacted our churches and how people engage with their faith. Unfortunately, it seems that in the process, a significant number of Bibles were set to the side, perhaps forever. In the past year “Bible Users” (those who use the Bible at least 3 times each year on their own) decreased by 10 percent. Some 26 million Americans reduced or stopped their interaction with Scripture. Scripture Engagement is also down by 21 percent, with one in five Americans (14.7 million adults) leaving the Scripture Engaged category over the past year, and two in five (28.7 million adults) leaving the Movable Middle. It’s not a pretty story.

This information should unsettle us. I am deeply disappointed by these findings — yet I still find myself feeling more hopeful than helpless. Here’s why: because this reminds me of the Gospel. We must know the bad news (that we are sinners in need of a Savior) so that we can properly hear and receive the good news (that there is a Savior, and He can set us free). Here, we must know the state of Scripture Engagement in America so we can strengthen our mission to lead people, through evangelism and discipleship, back to God and His Word. In short, the latest statistics reveal to us an opportunity to bring us back to the historic mission of the Church.

God has repeatedly shown His people that He will bring them through the darkest of times. Consider the stories of Joseph or Daniel or Esther — or even Jesus. In times of uncertainty, when things look to be at their worst — God was and is still present and working powerfully. He draws his people back to their mission and draws the world to Himself.

I think our latest research shows that God is calling His people back to the task of waymaking. Historically, waymakers were English royal officials of the 16th and early 17th centuries who had the job of keeping the highways in good repair. They created roads so that people could get where they needed to go.

Likewise, I think we need to be waymakers who help people find their way back to God and back to His Word. I humbly submit three ways we can take action today:

1. Listen to what God is saying

2022 feels to me like a kairos moment, a turning point. The past several years have been replete with difficulties and disruptions: a global pandemic, economic struggles, increases in isolation and mental health issues, and war and uncertainty. And I believe that in the pain and chaos, God is calling us to be people who sit as His feet and listen. Elijah serves as our model. In 1 Kings 19, we find the prophet feeling fearful and defeated. He is fleeing for his life from Jezebel. As he reaches Mount Sinai, God invites him to stand on the mountain and wait. Raging winds, a powerful earthquake, and finally a fire passes him by. And then comes the “gentle breeze” (“hardly a sound” in other translations). It’s in that breeze that Elijah hears and feels God’s presence.

Likewise, God wants to use what we are learning so that we can be on a mission with Him. But the only way we can be empowered to respond is to sit and listen to what He is trying to teach us, even if it is painful to hear. If we are to be waymakers who help people on the road to God, then we need to be intimately connected to the Waymaker Himself.

2. Listen to our neighbors, too

Even Jesus asked a blind man, “What do you want?” (Mark 10:51). Research is about listening to our neighbors and hearing their needs. Before we can respond, we need to understand the issues those around us are facing. If people are curious about Jesus and the Bible but aren’t connecting with the Church, then we have an opportunity to listen carefully to their questions, concerns, and needs. We’re doing this at scale with our State of the Bible research, but that isn’t a substitute for personal human connection.

Ask your neighbors how they’re doing — how they’re really doing — and listen. Chat with your Uber driver about their hopes for the future. Invite the family who hasn’t been to your church for a while out for a meal — just to check in on how they’re doing. Seek out opportunities to connect and sincerely listen to how people are doing before jumping to solutions.

Each of these 26 million people who are no longer in God’s Word is someone precious to God. They are individuals with lives that have been disrupted over the past few years, and they need to be reminded of the hope of God’s Word.

You likely had a waymaker (or multiple waymakers) who helped you find our way to God. Maybe it was a parent or friend; perhaps it was a Sunday School teacher or other church leader. In John 4, we see the waymaker for the Samaritan woman is Jesus Himself. And then a wonderful thing happens: empowered by being in His presence and by His words, the woman herself becomes a waymaker for others! She runs into town, declaring, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done!” (v. 29).

Who can you walk alongside? Who is God asking you to invite to a Bible study or just out to coffee? As we invite others to make their way (back) to God, bad news is replaced by the best news: the Gospel.

3. Share resources to help

God’s Word is powerful and active, and one of the best ways for people to get to know God (or refamiliarize themselves with Him) is for them to read His Word. For the past 12 years of State of the Bible research and through 206 years of ministry at American Bible Society, we have seen how Scripture Engagement brings strength and flourishing to Americans of all ages and backgrounds. The Bible reaches the deepest parts of the human heart.

We must never be ashamed, embarrassed, or shy about giving people God’s Word and inviting them to make their way to God through its message. Remember, though, that one of most effective ways for Scripture Engagement to happen is in community.  As waymakers, we don’t just leave people to walk the road alone. Sometimes, we lead and guide where the road seems harder; other times, we walk together in friendship and companionship. We can point people to tools and resources to help make their next step an easy one to take.

A final word of caution and encouragement

The latest SOTB research isn’t indicating that people are no longer interested in what God has to say or that they are closed off to Scripture. It’s been a hard couple of years — but our research shows that people are still curious. Our fellow Americans want to know what God’s Word says. Sometimes, they just don’t know where to start.

What we need now are waymakers. We need people who will see this kairos moment for what it is — an opportunity to lead people back to God and his Word. We need people who hold onto hope in the face of discouragement. We need believers who will step up to broadly share practical tools for engaging with the mystery of faith. We need to point the way — and then walk it alongside our fellow travelers.

John Farquhar Plake is Director of Ministry Intelligence at American Bible Society

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