Scripture engagement still down, but interest up in 2023

Scripture engagement remains down among Americans, but a widespread curiosity gives ground for evangelism, the American Bible Society said in releasing the first chapter of its 2023 State of the Bible survey.

Only 47 million Americans, or about 18 percent of the adult population, ranked as “Scripture-engaged” in the 2023 study, using a descriptor based on Bible use and its impact in one’s life. “Scripture-engaged” described 49 million adults in 2022, down from 71 million adults in 2020 or about 27 percent of the adult population.

While Scripture engagement remains low, adults ranked in a category termed the “movable middle” grew by 10 million from 2022 to 2023, the study found, rising to 76 million. The “movable middle” spiked to 95 million in the 2021 COVID-19 pandemic year, but dropped back to pre-pandemic levels in 2022, reverting to 66 million.

The ABS finds hope in the newest numbers.

“The ‘movable middle’ is awash in curiosity, with more than two thirds (68 percent) ‘very’ or ‘extremely’ curious and only a smidgen (3 percent) not curious at all,” the ABS wrote. “Granted, there’s a difference between wondering and actively searching, but this is a start. Curiosity is a growth platform for Bible ministry in the U.S. How will we respond?”

While 138 million adults are ranked as “Bible disengaged” — those who score lowest on the Bible engagement scale — the number is lower than the 145 million who were characterized as disengaged in 2022. And those who are disengaged see Scripture as increasingly central to their lives and impactful in their behavior.

“That leads us to say that, not only are there 10 million fewer ‘Bible disengaged’ Americans than there were last year, they aren’t as disengaged as they used to be,” the ABS said. “If the trend continues, we might see even more migration into the ‘movable middle’ in 2024.”

Participants in the study registered frustrations in Bible reading. Including all three categories of Scripture engagement, 26 percent said they don’t have enough time to read the Bible; 17 percent don’t know where to start; 16 percent are not excited to read Scripture; 15 percent have difficulty relating to the language; 9 percent find the layout difficult to navigate; and 8 percent find the stories confusing.

But those who do read the Bible cite positive motivations including wanting to be closer to God (47 percent), gaining wisdom for making life decisions (20 percent), for comfort (15 percent), learning God’s nature (9 percent), learning how to treat others (4 percent), a sense of duty (3 percent), and to fulfill class or Bible study requirements (2 percent).

The ABS encourages churches to engage members in Scripture by asking communities about their practices, motivations and frustrations regarding the Bible, sincerely listening to their answers and finding ways to help; making a positive case for the benefits of Scripture engagement in youth; showing people how to start reading Scripture; and creating or curating mood-based resources to engage those who rank as Bible-disengaged.

— Diana Chandler is Baptist Press’ senior writer.