(RNS) — People may be reading the news and “doomscrolling” through social media during the coronavirus pandemic. But what they don’t appear to be reading is the Bible.
That’s according to the 10th annual State of the Bible survey released Wednesday (July 22) by the American Bible Society.
Nearly 31% of American adults said in June that “realistically” they never use the Bible, according to the survey, conducted with Barna Group, a Christian research firm. That number jumped up 2 percentage points between January and June.
The American Bible Society, along with other Christian organizations, had declared 2020 the Year of the Bible and was initially “heartened” to measure an uptick in Bible engagement in January, said John Plake, director of ministry intelligence at ABS.
But, Plake said, “What we saw between January and June was that 13 million people in America, who were previously really engaging meaningfully with Scripture, no longer were, and that was a serious drop-off.”
The increase in the number of people who report never using the Bible tracks with what the ABS has seen over the past decade of State of the Bible research, according to the director. In 2011, about 64 million people said they never used the Bible, compared with 87 million to 90 million today, he said.
“Frankly, there’s just a much larger percentage of the American population over the last 10 years that says they never use the Bible,” Plake said.
Most of that change has come in what the ABS calls “occasional” Bible users or the “movable middle.” Those people are less likely than they were 10 years ago to open a Bible in search of answers to their questions, according to the research. The number of people who regularly use the Bible — at least once a week — had held “fairly steady right up to COVID-19, and then COVID-19 has messed everyone up,” Plake said.
Women, who have led men in Bible engagement every year of the survey, now slightly trail behind men, he pointed out. He said that may be because of the extra demands that mothers in particular have faced during the pandemic, juggling working from home and helping children with virtual learning as workplaces and schools closed to slow the spread of the virus.
Many churches have also moved online, he said, and that means people “can’t get together with their friends and study the Bible” the way they have in the past.
Plake urged church leaders to focus on the women in their congregations and communities who are “struggling in ways that might not make the headlines” and emphasized the importance of mentoring or meeting with church members in small groups to talk, pray and study the Bible together.
“I think the first thing is be assured that your role is critical in helping people maintain their faith and their deep connection to God,” he said. “It’s easy to think, ‘Well, hey, they can stream a service anywhere,’ and many, many people have done that, but the reality is without our pastors helping us, without leaders in our churches helping us to stay connected, people struggle.”
The State of the Bible survey is an annual survey by the ABS that examines “how adults in the United States related to the Bible, what questions they had about God’s Word, and what difference it was making in their lives,” according to the 2020 report.
This year, the ABS and Barna Group surveyed 1,010 American adults online from Jan. 2 to 13 and 1,000 by phone from Jan. 8 to Feb. 11. The report states a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points at 95% confidence. They repeated the survey between May 28 and June 10 to measure the impact of the pandemic, surveying 3,020 American adults online with a margin of error of 1.87% at 95% confidence.