How essential is regular reading of the Bible for one’s personal spiritual life? If we go to church each week, or attend a regular Bible study group, and hear the Bible being explained, do we need to read it ourselves as well? Most Christian people would answer with a very affirmative YES! While it is possible to become a Christian and to live as a Christian without access to a personal copy of the Bible in one’s own tongue (as the experience of tens of thousands of people in countries like China testifies!), the norm in Western society is for Christians to have at least one copy of the Bible themselves with the expectation of reading it personally outside church services.
A large study in the UK in 2005 asked ministers how many people read the Bible in their church personally outside of church attendance. The overall answer, across all denominations, was that some twenty-seven percent of churchgoers in England claimed to read the Bible personally at least once a week. This percentage is between the forty-five percent of adults reading the Bible weekly in the United States1 and the twelve percent of Finns who read it at least once a month.2
Variation by Denomination
Regular Bible reading varied considerably by denomination as Figure 1 below shows, with those attending the New Churches reading it most (sixty-six percent), followed by the Independent churches (sixty-four percent) and the Pentecostals (sixty-two percent). Roman Catholics read it least (four percent), and most other denominations were fairly close to the national average. For UK church leaders, these figures come as no surprise.
Those of a non-white ethnicity read the Bible much more than those who were white—forty percent compared to twenty-five percent.
Variation by Churchmanship
The same study also broke down the answers by churchmanship and these results, shown in Figure 2 below, are more unexpected.
Those reading the Bible most describe themselves as Broad Evangelicals, who in total are six percent of all churchgoers, and of whom three-fifths are Anglican and a further quarter are Methodist or Pentecostal. These are followed by those who simply indicated they were “Broad,” a group representing nine percent of all churchgoers, and of whom half are Anglican, and most of the rest are Methodist or Roman Catholic. Half of these two groups said they read the Bible at least once a week.
The next group reading the Bible most frequently were the Liberals (not the Evangelicals), who collectively averaged twenty-nine percent, just above the overall figure. Of those who said they were “Evangelical” (called Mainstream Evangelicals in Figure 2 to distinguish them from the Charismatic and Broad Evangelicals), just twenty-six percent said they read the Bible personally at least once a week.
Variation by Age
The proportion reading the Bible at different ages is indicated in Figure 3 below.
This chart shows that those under twenty read it least of all, while those aged twenty to twenty-nine read it most, followed by those aged eighty-five and over. Those aged thirty to forty-four read it least, presumably because of the pressures of home, family, work and church for this age-group, indicating that other behavioural characteristics of Christianity are affected as well as church attendance (as this age-group attends less frequently than others).
Variation by Geography
The twenty-seven percent who read the Bible regularly varied across the country with the highest percentages in Avon (forty percent), Cumbria (thirty-eight percent) and Norfolk and Wiltshire (thirty-seven percent each); the lowest numbers were in Inner London and Greater Manchester (twenty percent each); Gloucestershire and the Channel Islands (nineteen percent each) and the Isle of Man (eighteen percent). The map below shows these variations in Bible reading with churchgoers in the western Midlands and in a few scattered rural areas reading it most.
Variation by Size of Church
The proportion who read their Bible at least weekly is shown broken down by size of church in Figure 4 below. Apart from the smallest churches with fewer than eleven congregants on a Sunday, in general the larger the church, the smaller the percentage of the congregation who read the Bible regularly. This is until one reaches the larger Protestant churches with at least three hundred people in the congregation, where the proportion who read the Bible becomes greater.
Variation by Frequency of Attendance
Those who attend church at least once a week read the Bible most (thirty percent); however, those who attend every other week or monthly read it less (twenty percent). Those coming less than once a month read it least (fifteen percent).
What does all this show? Perhaps those attending certain denominations are encouraged and taught to read the Bible. It is interesting to note that the numbers attending the Independent and Pentecostal churches are increasing. Is there a correlation between church growth and Bible reading? Does Bible reading promote or encourage church growth or does church growth encourage Bible reading?
Perhaps the biggest challenge, however, is not the proportion of people who are reading the Bible and how that varies, but the percentage who are not reading the Bible. How can they be encouraged to do so, and perhaps thereby grow in their Christian life and witness and contribute to the growth of the Church?
How much these results are replicated worldwide is not known, but perhaps they suggest that similar studies are worth undertaking.
1. Barna, George. 2005. The Barna Update. Ventura, California: The Barna Group. email of 11 April, 2005.
2. Kääriäinen, Kimmo, Maarit Hytönen, Katio Niemelä and Kari Salonen. 2005. Church in Change. The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland from 2000 to 2003. Translated by Virginia Mattila, Publication 55, Church Research Institute, 23.