At a Loss For the Word

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Study after study proves Bible illiteracy is drastically increasing. Here’s what several ministries are doing to combat that.

At age 5, John D. Barry became the youngest person to be baptized in his church in Anchorage, Alaska. By 8, he sensed God had placed a strong calling on his life. Previously, an allergic drug reaction triggered two seizures, each of which  nearly killed him, leaving him with a severe speech impediment until age 8. Barry says, God “performed a miracle” through speech therapy and Barry regained the ability to talk. At 10, the words he heard repeatedly were: “You will speak truth to the nations.”

Today, as editor-in-chief of Bible Study Magazine, Barry is on a quest to bring this truth to humanity by freeing people from the spiritual bondage of biblical illiteracy.

In light of a recent LifeWay Research study that found 67 percent of the largest generation in the nation—the 78 million Millennials born between 1980 and 2000—rarely or never read the Bible, Barry believes God has called him to help ignite a “Bible study revolution” to reverse this “all-time high” in Bible illiteracy.

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“When I think of the situation today, the analogy that comes to mind is when the Hebrews had gone astray in the Old Testament, their king finds the law in the archives and brings it out,” says Barry, who’s also the publisher for Logos Bible Software in Bellingham, Wash. “He starts reading it to them, and they are all shocked at what it says. They realize they have to change their lives.

“We are like those people. We are a people with a book that we affirm, but we don’t know what the book says.”

As part of this year’s 400th anniversary of the King James Version of the Bible, Logos Bible Software and a cornucopia of book publishers and ministries are releasing innovative and easy-to-read print and e-Bibles to raise biblical literacy in the U.S. This effort comes as studies have found a “generational decline” in Bible acceptance. This drop-off is occurring as younger generations have expressed growing skepticism about the reliability of the best-selling book in history and whether it is the inspired Word of God.

Barna Group President David Kinnaman says not only do people know less about the Scriptures, they also see less importance for it in their lives, with fewer viewing it as the “source of life-giving truth.”

“Younger people are more skeptical, more likely to question the authority of the Scriptures and more interested in all sorts of alternative ways of exploring spirituality,” Kinnaman says. “Among professing Christians or nominal Christians, there is less and less regard for Scripture, which is translating into more biblical illiteracy.”

The Ventura, Calif.-based research firm found what used to be basic, universally known truths about Christianity are now unknown mysteries to a large and growing share of Americans, especially young adults. For instance, while most people regard Easter as a religious holiday, only a minority of adults associate Easter with the resurrection of Jesus. As the younger generations—Baby Busters born from 1965 to 1983 and Mosaics born between 1984 and 2002—ascend to numerical and positional supremacy in churches nationwide, the data suggests biblical illiteracy is likely to increase significantly, Barna found.

Back to the Basics

A recent study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found 37 percent of Americans read the Bible at least once a week, but only 16 percent of Americans read it daily. About six in 10 Americans read the Bible at least on occasion, down from three-fourths in the 1980s, according to a recent study by the Center for Bible Engagement.

In the effort to prompt what few are doing—reading the Bible—Zondervan is promoting The Story, a Bible that reads like a novel and looks like a trade-fiction book, says Zondervan Senior Vice President and Publisher Chip Brown. Consisting of 31 chapters of carefully selected Scripture arranged in chronological order, The Story helps readers understand God’s story and how their stories intersect with God’s. Only a quarter of the size of the Bible—and without the numbers and headings—Brown says it’s much less intimidating than the complete Bible.

“You are basically reading the meta-narrative that exists from Genesis to Revelation that sort of teases that Christ is going to come in the New Testament,” Brown says. “Unless you read the Bible all the way through, that is usually lost on people.”

In what has become an organic national movement, more than 400 churches have purchased The Story Church-wide Experience kit and are taking their congregations on a journey from Bible illiteracy to Bible engagement through the 31-week course.

In recent decades, many churches have moved away from providing in-depth Bible study and discipleship programs for their members. While the seeker-sensitive movement and dynamic preachers have helped fill the pews in large churches, experts say biblical literacy has often taken a backseat as the Scriptures were “dumbed down” to attract more churchgoers. In the past, people attending Bible studies would use fill-in study guides to help them gain a deeper understanding of God’s Word. But with the rise in the popularity of home-based small groups and the accompanying DVDs, people aren’t gaining the kind of biblical knowledge that comes from the more hands-on learning methods.

In recent years, the sales of DVDs for small groups have overwhelmingly outnumbered the number of Bible study participant guides, says Michael Cook, a marketing manager at the Baker Publishing Group. Most people today—jammed for time with work, family and their entertainment-driven lifestyles—simply want to talk about the DVD; and that’s part of the dilemma, Cook says.

“Jesus said, ‘Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will never pass away.’ The only things that are eternal will be people and the Word,” Cook says. “The Bible is a personal letter from God to His children—His creation. The church in the West has made it into a textbook filled with facts and data. But we have to look at it as a love story. It’s a story of redemption, mercy and grace. This is the plan for eternal life. It’s not just a book. It’s the Word of life itself.”

Creating an Appeal

In an effort to offer Bibles that appeal to a wider audience, publishing houses have in recent years released Bibles in a variety of creative formats. 

In the mid-2000s, Thomas Nelson, one of the world’s largest and oldest Bible publishers, launched several “Biblezines” that present Scripture in a magazine-type format appealing to various audiences. In 2008 it also produced The Voice, which teamed artists and authors with Bible scholars to allow a new generation of readers to experience Scripture “in a fresh voice.” 

Hoping to give time-starved mothers some biblical inspiration, Zondervan recently released the Busy Mom’s Bible, which is packed with one-minute “spiritual fuel for your busy mom-on-the-go lifestyle.”

“Each generation struggles with understanding the Bible, however, with all of the media opportunities through social media, phone apps and texting, it becomes even more challenging to gain their attention for biblical knowledge,” says Gary Davidson, senior vice president and group publisher of the Thomas Nelson Bible Group. “But God’s message will break through and I believe it’s only a matter of time before we see a renewed urgency for the things of God.”

In an effort to make the Bible easier to read, the full Common English Bible (CEB) will be released this fall (only the New Testament is available now). A bold new translation that took nearly 120 Bible scholars four years to complete, the CEB offers a “smooth and natural reading experience” and seeks to open up the Bible to a new generation of readers,” says Michael Stephens, a senior editor at Abingdon Press. Also, Bardin & Marsee Publishing just launched their “GIVE together” initiative to provide waterproof Bibles to the homeless.

The NextGen Bibles

Meanwhile, a rapidly growing number of people are reading and studying the Bible on Internet sites such as or downloading applications such as and others onto their mobile phones and iPads. More than 13 million people have downloaded the free YouVersion Bible app.

Zondervan recently released the NIV Bible eBook, which quickly shot to the top of the USA and Barnes & Noble best-seller lists. Also, The Seed Company, a Bible translation organization founded by Wycliffe Bible Translators, has launched the Blank Bible Challenge—a 28-day devotional that delivers daily Bible story videos to people’s inboxes. 

Through the related OneVerse program, a $26 sponsorship gift provides the resources required for translators to translate one verse of Scripture into their own language. It provides God’s Word to the more than 2,200 people groups who don’t have Scriptures in a language they can understand.

Taken together, Barry says he believes the new Bibles, eBibles and the various campaigns during the Year of the Bible are going to help ignite the next “Bible study revolution.” He says that in the same way America told Britain before the Revolutionary War that “we will not live like this anymore,” the church needs to do the same and strongly declare that the Word of God is the truth.

“We will not ignore the Bible anymore,” Barry says. “We will not be enslaved to what the world deems important. We won’t be enslaved to money, fancy cars and big-screen TVs anymore. Instead, we’ll pour our lives into the poor and hurting. We know that’s what the Bible says. There is a Bible-shaped hole in our lives and we have to fill that with the Bible.” 

Troy Anderson, a writer and newspaper reporter, lives in Los Angeles.

 Help—I’m Not a Scholar!

7 books every Bible student needs

1.  MacArthur Topical Bible 

2.  Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Dictionary 

3.  Baker Illustrated Bible Handbook 

4.  New Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible 

5.  MacArthur Bible Commentary 

6.  Illustrated Manners and Customs of the Bible 

7.  Complete Word Study Dictionary


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