National surveys show that despite Americans' love and great respect for the Bible, its reading and study frequency is down. The American Bible Society's "State of the Bible" survey for 2014 showed the extent to which this is true. Even though 88 percent of American households own the Bible -- to the tune of 4.7 copies per household -- ownership is not enough. Only 39 percent of Americans read it once a week or more.
Some of this is being driven by a shift away from people believing that the Bible is sacred literature. In 2011, 86 percent of Americans believed the Bible to be sacred, but by 2014, that number had shifted downward to only 79 percent.
Doug Birdsall, former president of the American Bible Society, has been widely quoted regarding why Bible reading is declining:
"I see the problem as analogous to obesity in America. We have an awful lot of people who realize they're overweight, but they don't follow a diet. People realize the Bible has values that would help us in our spiritual health, but they just don't read it."
Those who are Bible engaged are now equal with those who are skeptics, at about 19 percent. The study, performed by the Barna Group, defines Bible engaged and Bible skeptics as follows. Bible engaged: those who "Believe the Bible is the inspired Word of God with no factual errors, or believe the Bible is the inspired Word of God with some factual errors, and read the Bible daily or at least four times per week." Bible skeptics: those who "selected the most negative or non-sacred view from five options, saying they believe the Bible is just another book of teachings written by men, containing stories and advice."
This shift toward skepticism is being led by millennials, i.e. 18- to 29-year-olds. In an upcoming article about millennials, I'll include some of the reasons behind this trend.
Although the study revealed 26 percent of Americans never read the Bible, many more are reading and studying it. Here are some ways Alaskans study the Bible:
Most people read and explore the Bible on their own. Some start at the beginning and read straight through to Revelation. Others, more New Testament-oriented, read that part only. Listening to the Bible in your car and online is also a great option if you study along. You can obtain most popular versions of the Bible from firms such as Audible for only one selection. These recordings generally run from 75 to 100 hours depending on the speed of the narration. There are also Bible apps for your smartphone. Many are free or minimal cost. My app has dozens of translations and I use it during sermons to compare how the same text is rendered in another translation. Many churches too offer electronic Bible access on their apps. TrueNorth Church and ChangePoint are two examples of this.
Bible study correspondence courses, sometimes aided by DVDs, are wonderful ways to read and study Scripture by yourself. Be aware that these courses can steer you to a particular denomination, But on the whole, they are great choices. Some of these courses offer quizzes with instant answers to test your comprehension.
Some groups read, study and comment on the Bible unassisted. Group leader Dean Southam sends out a brief reminder, often humorous, a few days before each meeting. In the July 22 email, he wrote: "This Thursday 6:30-7:30 am at Trinity, we will be tackling (reference to tackling is remembering NFL training camps open this week) 2 Thessalonians 2." I've been pleased to join the Trinity Presbyterian men's group over the years as time allows. Meeting at the church at 6:30 a.m. Thursdays, they usually read and discuss a chapter each week. A diverse group of professionals and some retirees, only about half of whom are Trinity members, they transition through each chapter with ease and grace. I enjoy their fellowship. Often, there are as many translations present as men. Similar groups for both men and women are available within and outside many local churches.
Some Bible study groups are large, facilitated groups. One such group is Bible Study Fellowship, which meets in large churches and is well attended. Separate groups are held for young adults. The format is small-group study using a workbook and coming together for a spiritual talk after. (Use search term "Bible study groups Anchorage" to bring up many options.)
Pastor Ray Nadon shared that Great Land Christian Church offers "customized" Bible studies, men or women, based on individual need and where they're at. This is a great option. If I was a pastor, I'd say to a group, for example, "Say, I'm getting a group together for an hour of fellowship and Bible study for six weeks. We'll be digging into the parables of Jesus to discover how they can affect your Christian walk and witness."
Pastor John Carpenter of Baxter Road Bible Church is planning a group men's Bible study based on Joe Gibbs' "Game Plan for Life Volume II," having covered Volume I last year. The studies last six to eight weeks and are a comfortable commitment.
The hardest part of Bible study is getting started. But remember, it takes two weeks to adopt a new habit, and this will be a habit you won't want to break. Whether you study by yourself or in a group, you'll discover it is a welcome activity. Studies are emerging about how intense study halts declines in mental acuity. I believe intense Bible study may be one of those activities.
Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith.
The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.