The (Bible Reading) Sky Is Falling

LifeWay Research has recently released an alarming statistic: less than 20% of churchgoers read the bible daily.

I have two problems with this. The first is ‘statistic’ and the second is the sense of ‘alarm’. I have addressed both of these concerns before. We are drawn to the seeming irrefutability of statistics and we seem to be only motivated by the sense of alarm that those stats can raise.

I find that when I am inundated with stats and alarm that I become numb to both. Lacking the tools to evaluate the methodology of the statistic purveyors, I am inclined to mostly ignore them.

But this study raises a more critical question. I really don’t doubt the general concept the study has measured: that few Christians read their bibles on a consistently regular basis. It’s been measured before, but common experience shows it to be true. My question here is not with the reality, but with the conclusion – that this is somehow an alarming thing.

Should we see this not as a measure of a crisis but the identification of a reality, akin to the fact that 99% of people who jump in pools, and 100% of them without scuba gear, get wet? That people do not and have not and may never read their bibles should not alarm us but be accepted as a simple reality. In this case, perhaps the question should not be ‘What can we do about this?’ but rather ‘Why are we surprised or concerned about this?’

Perhaps we should be willing to say that people do not read the bible and that is, generally, an okay thing.

Ed Stetzer of LifeWay, in discussing this study, doesn’t quite seem to know what language to use in addressing his concern. The study addresses ‘bible reading’ but he speaks of ‘bible engagement’. Maybe his term, akin perhaps to Donald Whitney’s ‘bible intake’, is purposely chosen to make room in the spiritual spectrum for the illiterate. Stetzer asks the question, “…if tangible life changes are statistically related to bible engagement in the life of a disciple of Christ, why aren’t more reading and studying the bible?” A reasonable answer might be that reading and studying are not the only ways, and perhaps not the primary way, by which people receive God’s word.

Few, I suppose, would disagree that the goal of the Christian life, and of bible reading, is to know God. And few would disagree that the book through which God has revealed himself is, in fact, important to that goal. But if spiritual growth occurred for fifteen hundred years before the printing press, and if maturity still somehow happens in cultures where literacy is low, and if, in fact, people who read their bibles infrequently still come to know God with depth and devotion, is it not reasonable to ask whether we have put too much emphasis upon the ‘necessity’ of individual, private bible reading? Is it possible that we focus here because bible reading is measurable and knowledge of God is not?

I ask this as a serious question and am interested in genuine responses. Do we put too much emphasis upon the idea of individual, private bible reading?

7 thoughts on “The (Bible Reading) Sky Is Falling

  1. Private Bible reading is usually emphasized more in broadly evangelical/non-denom circles. I say “more” because there is private devotions and spontaneous prayer among more liturgical traditions (see the Book of Common Prayer) that is in addition to what is already in place in the life of the church. The importance of reading through the Bible outside the BCP can be found in devotionals such as Daily Bread, Upper Room and Table Talk. If we put too much emphasis on it, it is in the thought that if a person has not read the Bible today, then they have not really met with God.

  2. JerryH

    Thank you for raising this question. I have recently been wondering “How did christians grow before the printing press?” I am a layman in my church and have been trying to apply sound “lay logic” to the question. Psalm 119 certainly emphasizes to the importance of scripture. But it seems to me that the epistles instruct us to pray more often than to read our bibles. Their recipients would not have owned a bible. Rising early to pray was a daily habit for Jesus but we are not told that he also read his bible every morning. I am not anti-Bible at all; I am a long time Sunday school teacher. But I am concerned that we may be in error to some extent about the role of bible reading in disciple making. If so, what should we do to recapture effective disciple making practices. I sometimes wonder if Sunday school and our emphasis on bible reading are products of modernity’s conviction that “education” is the answer to everything. What was the historical and biblical approach to disciple making?

    Do you know of any good books that deal with discipleship before the printing press or how it is done today in illiterate or primitive cultures?

    1. I’m afraid I do not know of any books dealing with this. But the question is a really good one. What was the historical approach to disciple making? I too am not ‘anti-bible’ – I just wonder if we have elevated a measurable thing, bible reading, to a place of disproportionate importance. Thanks for your thoughts.

  3. Yes and no. Daily, private study is a good discipline to have, no doubt. And 20-30 years ago, at least where I’m from, admitting that you don’t have daily “quiet time” was like renouncing the faith. These days, the culture is more likely to be honest about the reality of their daily Bible reading habits because we are no longer a society that holds Christianity as the moral standard (now, whether that is a good or bad thing isn’t the topic here).

    So… all that to say, reading our Bibles doesn’t save us. But ask the preschool kids how God speaks to us and they will answer with certainty- “the Bible!” That certainly lends itself to a high priority, I think.

    And for the record, I SUCK at daily Bible reading… or weekly Bible reading for that matter.

    1. I’m with the pre-schoolers! Jesus loves me, this I know, for the bible tells me so. My question is this: does the content of the bible come to us through reading alone? To read the alarmists, one would think so, and that if we stop reading the bible we will know longer know God. I wish you were better at bible reading, for sure. I wish you were finding daily delight and encouragement from it. But perhaps bible READING is not the only way in which bible CONTENT comes our way. Perhaps our panic is misplaced? I think so.

      1. Oh yeah, I do think it is. I get the panic, though. I think you’ve probably got this group of mostly conservative, mostly orthodox Christians here who see the devaluing of Scripture happening all around them and panic! I was guilty last week (see Held Evans, Rachel). 😀

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