For Church Leaders: When Your People Don’t Believe or Read the Bible

Since leaderhelps is designed as a support and encouragement for church lay leaders, pastors, small group leaders, ministers and Sunday School teachers, it makes sense that an understanding of the Bible and its fundamental centrality to life as a disciple of Jesus Christ is at the heart of what is written here.

That implies, first, that the Bible will be at the center of what you teach – that your primary goal in teaching or preaching is to communicate so that there is an understanding of the written Word of God. In short, it is assumed that if you care about the content of this website, you consider yourself to be a teacher of the Bible.

But that also implies something else that may not be as concrete. To wit, it assumes that those to whom you teach or preach believe, trust and read the Bible. Or, perhaps more importantly, that they allow themselves to be challenged by the canonized text of Scripture as we have it. Because, if you are teaching the Bible to an audience of those who don’t believe, trust or read it, that is a considerable gap that can’t be ignored.

So, part of our job as preachers and teachers is to establish and support the Bible as true, trustworthy and valid, even when it presents information that is difficult to understand. Our responsibility as ministers may be to urge those we teach to be lovers, readers, and doers of God’s Word as found in Scripture (2 Timothy 2:15 and 3:16, James 1:22, Jeremiah 15:16, Psalm 119:11, etc.).

That’s why how those in our congregations and small groups may be perceiving and consuming the Bible is very important.

The American Bible Society annually samples American perceptions of Scripture. We can learn something from the ABS 2016 “State of the Bible in America” report. The study is commissioned by ABS through Barna Research, which has been cited here many times. There are still some positives to report from the study. For instance, “Eighty percent of Americans view the Bible as sacred literature and 64 percent believe the Bible has more influence on humanity than any other text.” However, also from the study:

In spite of (the) positive perception of the Bible, the percentage of Americans who view the Bible (only) as a book of teachings written by men has risen from 10 percent to 22 percent over the past six years. In this same period, the percentage of Americans who view the Bible as sacred literature has dropped, 86 percent to 80 percent, and the percentage of Americans who say the Bible is not a sufficient guide for meaningful living has risen, 23 percent to 33 percent. So while the majority of Americans hold the Bible in high regard, Bible skeptics are on the rise.

However, no matter what people feel about the Bible, generally, they don’t read it. First, 48% of Americans say they read the Bible “once or twice a year” or less. Twenty-eight percent never read it.  For those who say they are practicing Protestants with regular church attendance, 1 in 3 read the Bible once a month or less.

Why are people reading or not reading the Bible?

Among adults who say their Bible reading had increased from the previous year, more than half say they came to understand the importance of Bible reading as part of their faith journey (58%). One in four say a difficult experience caused them to search the Bible for direction or answers (25%), while another 18% experienced a significant life change that led to more Bible reading. One in six say the increase was because they downloaded the Bible onto their smartphone or tablet (16%).

Being too busy with life’s responsibilities continues to be the number-one reason Bible readers give for their decrease in Bible engagement compared to one year ago, at 42%. Far fewer say the reason for their decreased engagement is due to a difficult life experience that caused them to doubt their faith (15%) or a significant change in their life (12%). Another 12% say they decided to leave the church altogether and 8% say they became atheist or agnostic or converted to another faith.

In a nutshell, here’s the problem. When you look out on your congregation or small group, there is a strong possibility that a significant number of them haven’t picked up their Bibles in weeks, perhaps months. It’s very possible that as many as half of them do not read the Bible with any regularity at all.

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If you are basing your pulpit teaching on the Bible – and I would suggest that is absolutely fundamental to preaching – yet many in your audience don’t believe, trust or read it – that’s a serious problem that may short circuit much of what the Holy Spirit wants to do through your message.

Here’s the very good news. Year after year, high numbers of survey respondents say they wish they read their Bible more often. More than half said that in the 2016 study. That’s one of the more positive results from the study. We as teachers and preachers can connect with that desire. We have an impact on the Bible perceptions and habits of those in our congregations and groups and can latch onto that desire in many, that strong silent sense that reading the Bible is still the right thing to do. If you’d like to dig deeper into how, you’ll find more information here.

In short, I suggest three important steps for improving the Bible passion and literacy of those you lead:

1. Incorporate specific references to the Bible as a reliable reference to history in your preaching. I try always to provide historical context – date, geography, culture – for the Scriptural references in my teaching. This is particularly important for Old Testament texts. Be sure your folks know that the Bible represents real history.

2. Exposit exposit exposit. Although there is nothing wrong with narrative preaching or a topical message, be sure your teaching leans on a steady dose of expository messages where the Biblical text provides the topic, outline, and illustrations for the message.

3. Finally, teach about the reliability of the Scriptures as we currently have them. The implication is that the Bible in its original manuscripts represents a Spirit-breathed and accurate documenting of accounts, even in its various English translations. It can be relied upon as trustworthy for faith and practice. Teach the value and validity of the canonized text. Don’t assume that those you teach already understand.

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Access the complete 2016 ABS Report

2016 Report: What Do Americans Believe About the Bible and Politics?

What Should A Teacher Do About Biblical Ignorance or Apathy?

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