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All Is Not Lost: How We Can Respond When Bible Engagement Is Low

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The latest American Bible Society State of the Bible (SOTB) report reveals that “Americans are less likely than ever before to say that the Bible is influencing the way they live out their faith in relationship to others.” This is no surprise, especially for those of us in college ministry who have seen a progressive decline in biblical literacy among freshmen. 

But what we have seen is that people are still open to exploring the Bible if they can learn how and study in community. Take this story about a student Bible study leader as an illustration. When asked to lead on her college campus, Tori felt ill-equipped and nervous because she had never led others through Scripture. She soon realized, however, that she did not need to know more than the other people – she just needed to be curious and open like they were. Soon, Tori’s group had grown, and the Bible study method she was using was also adopted by her home church, leading to growth in Tori and in many others in her church community. 

Those of us in campus ministry accept that we face real challenges: often, the spiritual climate is neutral or hostile toward the Christian faith, and many students are either unfamiliar with the Bible or have not been taught how to engage Scripture well. Yet many in college ministry have learned how to thrive in the midst of these obstacles. 

This is good news for churches! We believe that low Bible engagement among Americans presents great opportunities for growth and increased ministry impact in local communities. Allow me to share three realities and three prompts we need to consider before becoming discouraged by what the latest SOTB report reveals.

First, Your Neighbors Are Ready for Spiritual Conversations. Are You?

Although Americans are engaging the Bible less, the latest SOTB also shows heartening news: one-third of “non-Bible Users” indicated they are “very” or “extremely” curious about the Bible and/or Jesus. We can respond by learning how to talk with our neighbors about spiritual things. This begins by connecting through something we share in common. Once we have a connection, we can bring up faith by asking an open-ended question about their spiritual background, what they believe about God, or how they view the spiritual side of life. 

As we listen well and get to know one another, we can say something that keeps the door open for further conversation. This could happen by expressing how much you have enjoyed talking, how the conversation will keep you thinking, or how you look forward to hearing more later. The key is to have spiritual conversations regularly, even with people who believe differently from you.

Second, Your Neighbors Are Ready to Explore the Bible With You. Do You Know What to Do?

On campus, we find that approximately half of non-Christians will say yes to studying the Bible if a trusted friend invites them. In the flow of a spiritual conversation, you can simply ask, “Would you ever want to read the Bible with me so that you can explore Jesus for yourself?” If they say no, receive their response warmly and continue initiating spiritual conversations with them from time to time. 

If they say yes, then read a chapter from one of the Gospels with them. Talk together about what you see—characters, relationships, locations, time, actions, repeated words, comparisons, contrasts, and cause and effect. Ask questions and use the text to answer them as best you can. Discuss what points you think the passage is trying to make. After you have done this, discuss how you think the passage may or may not be relevant to your everyday lives or what thoughts and feelings arise from studying this passage. Share openly about your own life.

Third, Your Neighbors Are Ready to See the Bible in a New Light. Can You Lead the Way?

On campus, we find that students are eager to engage the Bible when they realize it speaks to the heart of their life experience. Those who have stopped reading the Bible may not have a problem with the Bible in general. Instead, they may just have a problem with how they have seen the Bible taught and what they have heard some Christians say it means. 

Engaging the Bible through an interactive discovery process can be effective because curiosity and active learning help people become lifelong students of the Bible. When reading the Bible is communal and we use the text to answer our questions, we are creating a level playing field and a transparent, investigative approach that is welcoming and easy to pass on. 

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Christy Gates is the national director of Scripture engagement for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA, and she can be reached at christy.gates@intervarsity.org for more information.