The ups and downs of Bible reading
I cringe at the thought of underlining passages in my Bible. In part, as a faithful English student, I hold a certain reverence for all print material. I regard books – particularly the Bible – as great treasures. Also, I enjoy reading large chunks of Scripture in order to feel the ebb and flow of the message, and highlighted passages distract me.
However, once in a while, I record a small date in the margin of my Bible to mark a particularly meaningful lesson or “ah-ha” moment when God spoke to me from his Word. There are dates from mission trips, seminary classes, silent retreats. I can go back to those Scripture passages and remember the Lord’s voice with gratitude and awe, reflecting on how those words impacted my life.
The good news
Nothing has transformed the world – and individual lives – as much as the Bible.
The Bible is inextricably linked with the creation of the printing press, and the first early modern English translations of Scripture indelibly shaped the way our language developed. Linguist David Crystal says more than 250 phrases from the King James Bible can still be found in contemporary English idiom.
English literature also owes a debt of gratitude to the Bible for recurring themes and material, evident in the works of literary greats such as Shakespeare, Milton and Dickens.
Today, the full Bible has been translated into 531 languages, with portions of Scripture available in thousands more. Since the early 1800s, some 6 billion Bibles have been printed. Now, more than 100 million copies are sold or given away each year.
As well, the YouVersion Bible app has been installed on nearly 170 million smartphones and tablets. It’s safe to say the Bible has been read by more people across the globe than any other piece of writing.
The not-so-good news
Despite those amazing facts, regular Bible reading is declining. In 2013, the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada sponsored a study on Bible engagement, and found that, among Canadian Christians, the percentage of those who read the Bible at least weekly fell from 27 percent in 1996 to 14 percent in 2013.
If we consider just the evangelical population, some 50 percent say they read the Bible at least once a week, with only 22 percent reading daily. More surprisingly, 36 percent of Canadian evangelicals say they seldom or never read the Bible!
According to the study, “there tend to be two kinds of Bible readers: those who read at least a few times a week and those who read seldom or never. Either Bible reading is a regular habit or discipline, or it tends not to be done at all.”
What prompts us to read Scripture on a regular basis? What discourages us? Does our way of engaging with the Bible change depending on our season of life?
Do we view God’s Word as something that can transform our hearts and minds? Do we rely on Scripture to guide our everyday decisions and choices? Do we see the Bible as relevant, reliable and authoritative? (See “Does the Bible really have authority?”)
Ways to engage
While most of us agree that Bible reading is important, many are quick to recommend a one-size-fits-all solution for Bible engagement, assuming there’s a “best” or “right” way to read the Bible. It is crucial to realize there are many ways to engage with the Bible. (See “How will I engage with the Bible?”)
It’s important for each person to find a way to interact with Scripture that nourishes the soul and mind so reading becomes a regular habit, instead of something added to a list of New Year’s resolutions, then quickly dropped come the middle of March.
When Bible reading becomes part of our daily lives, it can have a profound effect.
In 2012, Craig Kanalley wrote an article for the Huffington Post on how reading the Bible in 100 days changed his life as he engaged with Scripture on his iPad: “At times, I physically wanted to kneel on the subway in prayer as I read on the commute to and from work,” he said.
“I never did [kneel], but I did find a routine of standing all the time as I read, and balancing myself without holding onto anything…. Perhaps it wasn’t just physically balancing myself but a sense of being spiritually and mentally balanced as I read too; it was refreshing.”
In 2013, Rebecca Pham, a science student at the University of Alberta, took up a similar challenge. In a Canadian Mennonite article, Pham gave an incredibly compelling reason for reading the entire Bible in a year:
“If someone who loved you immensely… wrote you a letter, wouldn’t you read it? If it was an essay-length letter, wouldn’t you still read it? If it was a whole book on how they fought for your heart and would help you and provide for you, and longed for you to know their love, wouldn’t you definitely still read it?
“The lover of my soul wrote me one of those,” says Pham, “and I read it, and I’ll read it over and over again.”
So remember, whether there are marks in the pages of your Bible or not, a letter from the lover of your soul is waiting to be read – over and over again.
Note: The Bible Engagement study is sponsored by the Canadian Bible Forum, together with the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada and the Stronger Together Foundation. The members of the Canadian Bible Forum are the Bible League of Canada, Canadian Bible Society, Every Home for Christ, Gideons Canada, OneBook, Open Doors Canada, Scripture Gift Mission Canada, Scripture Union Canada, and Wycliffe Canada.
Updated Mar. 5, 2015: CBF information added.