Does What People Believe About the Bible Matter? Part 2

Let’s say you spend hours and hours preparing a teaching on the story of Noah or Joseph or the Apostle Paul. You pour over the Scriptures, cross reference, conduct appropriate word studies, develop effective illustrations – the whole deal.

Would it matter if some to whom you teach your hard-prepared message don’t believe Noah existed? Would it limit the impact of your message if half your audience considered “Joseph” a fictional amalgam of many characters in Hebrew history?

My thesis in this series of posts presupposes that the center and anchor of all meaningful spiritual teaching is the Bible – specifically the canonized text made up of 66 books from Genesis to Revelation. To that thesis I am adding a question: Does it matter what our hearers believe about the Bible itself? And, more specifically, how would we approach teaching if we came to the realization that about half the people to whom we teach never actually read the Bible?

The American Bible Society annually samples American perceptions of Scripture.  The ABS works in conjunction with Barna Research.

You can read the Barna 2013 report here.

One of the staples of the ABS research is a focus on Bible reading in America. The 2013 report concludes that 50% of Americans are “Bible readers” (the study’s term). However, the report characterizes a “Bible reader” as someone who reports reading the Bible three to four times per year.

Per year.

I’m fairly certain that most church leaders wouldn’t characterize someone who reads the Bible three to four times a year as a “Bible reader.”

What probably is of closer reality to lay leaders, pastors, ministers and small group leaders is the number 26. According to the report, 26% of respondents read the Bible at least three to four times per week. My guess is that that group could more accurately be referred to as Bible readers.

On the other hand, the same number – 26% – say they never read the Bible.

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So, if your congregation is typical and you are preaching on a Sunday morning to about 75 people, it’s a pretty good guess that 18-20 of them read the Bible at least 3 or 4 times per week. Everyone else reads less, significantly less or never.

What about time spent reading the Bible when they do?

The average adult spends 30 minutes reading the Bible – when they do – in one sitting. But it gets interesting when you look at how age relates to time spent reading. The youngest respondents to the ABS survey are 18-28 year-olds that Barna refers to as “Mosaics.” They have the lowest level of Bible ownership (79%) but they are the group most likely to report reading the Bible for an hour or more at one sitting (37%).

While perhaps not as important as reading habits, what people say they believe about the Bible is noteworthy. About half say either that the Bible is the actual Word of God to be taken literally (22%) or at least that the Bible is more inspired (with some symbolism) than literal (27%). The problem, of course, with the latter group is the implication that people may feel they make decisions about what in the Bible is true/trustworthy, etc., which introduces a relativistic interpretation to Scripture. In other words, if you adopt the belief that the Bible is a kind of hash of trustworthy account and irrational symbolism, who sorts out which is which?

Finally, what does all this say about how Americans allow the Bible to influence their lives. That’s really the issue for preachers and teachers isn’t it?

From the study:

“The survey also tested the level of interest Americans have in biblical insight. As a rule, U.S. adults show little interest in receiving input and wisdom from the Bible on various aspects of family life, with a majority of respondents who say they are not interested in receiving input and wisdom of any of the topics listed (58%). Only one issue garners interest from more than one- quarter (28%) of adults – dealing with illness or death. Addressing family conflict (24%) and parenting issues (22%) are of interest to just under one-quarter of adults. Biblical insight pertaining to romance and sexuality (17%), dating and relationships (16%), the influence of technology (12%), and dealing with divorce (8%) are of interest to relatively few.”

Six in 10 Americans say they are not interested in receiving input and wisdom from the Bible on various aspects of family life.


Now, to clarify. This is not a post written to lament these facts. As someone who believes in the power of God’s Word positively to impact a human life, I wish the numbers were better, of course. But there’s no point in complaining about “these Americans today… Things are going to heck in a handbasket.”

The fact is, things are the way they are.

As leaders, I think we should care about the issue, but primarily to learn how we can lead effectively in this environment. What can we do to help those we lead and teach connect more meaningfully with Scripture?

Ultimately, it is the Holy Spirit who will draw them Wordward so the issue starts with prayer, as all do. We can’t teach if we don’t pray.

But I think I have three ideas on how we can specifically lead and teach in a way that addresses the issues suggested by the ABS/Barna study. Those three ideas will follow as the series continues.