Home Voices Biblical Literacy by the Numbers, Part 1: The Challenge

Biblical Literacy by the Numbers, Part 1: The Challenge

How Well Do American Christians Know Their Bibles? Hint: Not Well.

Bible Literacy

Do you recognize these Bible phrases or allusions?

Rarely a week goes by without any one of us quoting or alluding to that great book simply in our conversations and chatter. These are among the phrases having origins in the Bible:

More and more people don’t recognize the biblical origins of those phrases. Be sure to check here for a longer list.

Biblical literacy—or more precisely biblical illiteracy—is a real issue today. This is the first of three articles on the subject. The series is based on an article I wrote for Charisma magazine some time ago. 

America can be proud of many things: our innovation, generosity and entrepreneurial spirit are unsurpassed. Yet when it comes to our nation understanding one of the greatest gifts ever given to humanity—the Bible—we’re moving from dumb to dumber … and it’s no laughing matter.

Both inside and outside the church, there is a problem. Non-Christians don’t have even the general idea of the Bible they once did. Christians are not seeing the life change that real Bible engagement brings. The result is a nation in spiritual free fall, and while most cultural analysts point to such culprits as church leadership scandals and government failings, the true answers start with the foundational Word of God—if we’ll take seriously the challenge, look to best practices in the research, and faithfully and fruitfully engage the Scriptures.

The Challenge: Biblical Literacy Is Getting Worse

The Bible’s impact on American culture is unmistakable; it has shaped our laws, social systems and even our language. People unknowingly quote biblical phrases every day. It’s a tragedy so many have used phrases such as “the good Samaritan,” “you reap what you sow,” and “do unto others” but don’t actually know the Scriptures or the Savior to which they point.

Study after study in the last quarter-century has revealed that American Christians increasingly don’t read their Bibles, don’t engage their Bibles, and don’t know their Bibles. It’s obvious: We are living in a post-biblically literate culture.

Just as critical is the second word of the Bible literacy problem: literacy. Pew Research tells us that according to a survey conducted at the beginning of 2021, 23 percent of us didn’t read a single book in the last year. That’s three times the number who didn’t read a book in 1978. Whether it’s the Internet, video games, the TV or increased time spent on entertainment and sports, Americans are spending less time between the pages of any book, not just the Good Book.

The situation should be different with Christians. We believe the Bible is the Word of God—His divinely inspired, inerrant message to us. To experience the Bible firsthand, whole people groups have learned to read, and new translations were created. Yet a recent Lifeway Research study found that 36 percent of evangelicals who regularly attend church read the Bible more than once a week. That means almost two-thirds of church attending evangelicals read their Bibles from never to occasionally. 

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Ed Stetzer, Ph.D., is a professor and dean at Wheaton College where he also serves as Executive Director of the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center. He has planted, revitalized, and pastored churches, trained pastors and church planters on six continents, has earned two master’s degrees and two doctorates, and has written hundreds of articles and a dozen books. He is Regional Director for Lausanne North America, is the editor-in-chief of Outreach Magazine, and is frequently cited in, interviewed by, and writes for news outlets such as USAToday and CNN. He is the Founding Editor of The Gospel Project, a curriculum used by more than 1.7 million individuals each week for bible story. His national radio show, Ed Stetzer Live, airs Saturdays on Moody Radio and affiliates. He serves as interim teaching pastor of Calvary Church in New York City and serves as teaching pastor at Highpoint Church.