Recently Barna Group reported on a survey called “The State of the Bible.” Barna Group is a reliable source of information about the culture and changing cultural attitudes toward religion. This report included a statement that should motivate every Christian to personal prayer and meditation. The results of the survey show that “while the Bible’s place in America as a cultural icon endures, it’s not always perceived as a transformational text.” The phrase “transformational text” is key. If the Bible is not a “transformational text,” then it is no more significant than the myths of Krishna or the sayings of Buddha. It is less significant than “The Sayings of Chairman Mao,” because the people who studied that famous little red book believed that Mao’s sayings were powerfully transformational.
The study also indicates that respect for the Bible in the US is declining, although a significant number of people still express respect. In 2011, 86% of respondents considered the Bible to be sacred, a level that declined to 79% in 2014. That number looks significant, but it does not in any way declare reverence for the Bible or any sense of obligation to follow its teachings. If anybody took a day to survey everyone he met, he might discover that everybody he met considered the Bible sacred. Yet he might also discover that not one of those people had opened the Bible even once in the past week. Many people consider the Bible sacred and keep it around for the same reason they might preserve a wedding dress. They no more intend to read the Bible than they intend to wear the dress. Both are special and memorable, and the special memories are best sustained by keeping the objects untouchable, stored in a safe place.
This is the attitude explains another comment on the Barna survey: “Even as Bible ownership remains strong, readership and engagement are weak.” Owning a Bible rarely leads to reading a Bible. Reading a Bible rarely leads to internalizing its teachings.
This survey appears to show clearly that many people who regard the Bible as sacred do not regard it as God’s revelation of himself. It is obvious that people can regard the Bible as sacred without regarding it as relevant to their daily lives.
Christians who ask why the culture is trying to suppress and diminish the influence of Christianity need to read these surveys. They need to recognize that “respecting” the Bible as a “sacred” book is a very different thing from considering the Bible to be God’s revealed guidance for faith and life. The survey makes it clear that even though 79% of the people consider the Bible sacred, only 19% of the people read it regularly with a view to living by its teachings. It might shock some Christians to discover that even though 79% of the people consider the Bible sacred, only 26% of the people who think morality in the US is declining believe that inattention to the Bible has anything to do with that decline. Apparently, in most people’s minds, the Bible is not the ultimate moral authority. In fact, most people appear to believe that the Bible has little or nothing to say to the everyday problems of human beings.
A look at the culture confirms the study. The 19% who attempt to shape their lives by the Bible see the Bible as the revelation of absolute truth, part of which is an absolute moral code. The number of people with this view of life is declining. Secular thinkers teach that there is no absolute truth, and secular thinkers teach people to look within themselves for guidance. The number of secular thinkers is increasing. It should not be surprising that the survey shows that people who are already sceptical about the Bible do not believe that morality is declining. Rather, they see positive progress in the fact that the culture now accepts as normal many behaviors considered immoral in the past. Careful reading of the statistics, especially the data for Millenials, indicates that there is a widening disconnect between those who follow a morality based on the Bible and those who shape their moral code on some other basis.
Christians who read the survey may well ask if there is anything to be done about it. They may mourn the loss of Christian influence in the culture. They may want to look back to a Norman Rockwell reality, forgetting that reality does not reside on a canvas. Christians who read the survey and conclude that things are getting worse and may never get better are guilty of not putting their faith in the God who revealed himself in the Bible. If the survey makes Christians despair, they are mistaking the real meaning of the survey. Nothing about the survey changes any truth about God or the Bible.
The information in this survey is, however, beyond the capability of any Christian to “fix.” Christians cannot take the survey and use it to plan a better strategy for teaching people to read their Bibles. The survey itself reports that people like to read the Bible on screens rather than paper, but they really don’t make time to read it, and when they do, they don’t take it to heart. Designing a more attractive Bible reading plan will not fix the statistics.
The only thing that will change the statistics is an increase in the trend for people to encounter the God revealed in the Bible and be changed by that encounter. Like Paul. Like Cornelius. Like the Philippian jailer. Christians must first be transformed by the Christ revealed in the Bible, and they must share that transformational Christ with others. The Bible is transformative, but God’s transformation is not a passive experience. People must read the Bible with hearts open to hear God speaking in the words of the Bible. If people read the Bible as ancient sacred literature, a relic of primitive thought, they will not be transformed. Only a faith conversation with God triggered by the words of the Bible will produce transformation.
This survey may be a prod for Christians to engage with the Bible in a transformative way. Christians who claim they are “too busy” to read the Bible will not experience it as transformational. They will experience respect for the Bible the way they feel nostalgia when viewing a perfectly preserved wedding dress. It is an attitude that does not permit, let alone invite, transformation. It sounds like a truism, but people are busy if they decide that they are busy. The always have time for the things they value. Christians who so not have time for the Bible, do not read it. People who do not read it will not be transformed by the God revealed in the Bible. They will always be part of the statistic that says 79% of people consider the Bible sacred, but 60% don’t consider it relevant to their daily lives.
Each Christian must examine himself or herself and ask, “Am I among the 19% who know the God revealed in the Bible and follow the Bible as my guide for faith and life?” Jesus told his followers from the very beginning that very few would find the narrow gate and hard path on which he walked. In order to walk that path they first need to dump self. Self says, “I need to do a lot of things in order to fulfill myself and look good.” When the fulfillment of Self is more important than the God revealed in the Bible, the Bible will take a distant last place in priorities. If anybody wants the statistics to look better next time, he must submit to the transformation that will make him part of the few, the 19%, the engaged. Programs will not change the statistics; only transformed people will change the statistics.