Stunning! We’ve been losing Bible readers for decades but the loses have been incremental. If we were comparing this to hurricanes, it would be a Category 5.
For those few paying attention, the general diagnosis is usually, “People are too busy” or “People no longer read” or just plain “reader apathy.”
Consider instead these culprits:
Three Bad Ways We Read the Bible
1) We read the Bible in fragments
A daily devotional built around a single verse, a Scripture of the day e-mail, even a chapter-by-chapter reading plan (the current gold standard): all of these are ways that we read the Bible but in fragmented ways. Over a sushi lunch, journalist Philip Yancey framed it well for me: “The modern church created an entire culture around Bible McNuggets and assumed they were nutritious!”
Our team at The Institute for Bible Reading has concluded that fragmented reading didn’t happen in a vacuum. It’s the byproduct of the fragmented form of the modern Bible. The addition of chapter breaks in the 13th century and verse numbers in the 16th century, turned the Bible’s seamless presentation into 30,000 “scripturettes”. In biological terms, chapters and verses became a kind of exoskeleton, a skeleton outside the body of Scripture.
Chapters and verses are the crowbar that pried open Pandora’s Box. Soon we were piling more artificial material on top of the text—outlines, note systems, center column references, red letters etc., all resulting in fragmented reading.
2) We read the Bible outside its historical context
An ahistorical reading is yet another byproduct of the fragmented modern Bible. Before the modern additives, the book was the Bible’s primary unit of engagement. Today verses reigns supreme. The crowning of the verse has all but obliterated reading the Bible in context. As one pastor expressed, “For my congregation the Bible is a bag of beads without a string. They know the Bible’s sayings but not the Bible’s saga.”
3) We read the Bible in isolation
In the first century when letters by Paul, Peter, and John were hand-delivered and read to local congregations, the “congregants” were invited to react. In some cases, the discussions became a verbal free-for-all (like in the church in Corinth) and Paul had to set guidelines for the conversations. What Paul didn’t do was shut them down. Why? Because at its core the Bible is a communal transformation book.
Today daily Bible reading has become a solo sport. Our lexicon gives us away: quiet times, personal Bible studies, etc.
These three bad habits are hotwired into the Christian subculture. Here are three bold steps toward a paradigm shift.
Three Better Ways You Can Read the Bible
1) Find a Reading Bible
Chances are, the bibles you have are Reference Bibles, with chapters and verses, note systems etc. When you open it, it looks like an encyclopedia. As Alex Goodwin observes in his soon-to-be released book, The Bible Reset, “If you were to walk around your house and thumb through random books on bookshelves and tables, the odds are that all of them would be more readable than your Bible” (Alex Goodwin, The Bible Reset: Simple Breakthroughs to Make Scripture Come Alive, Carol Stream: NavPress, 2023, 17).
This is not ideal for readers living with distracted minds formed by the Internet “clickbait” era. It’s imperative that we provide Reading Bibles that allow smooth entry into the flow of the story. NIDS (numeric interference devices) are like speedbumps on the Bible’s super-highway and interfere with unencumbered reading that invites us to lose ourselves in the story.
We are partial to the Bible we created—Immerse: The Reading Bible, winner of the ECPA’s Bible of the Year Award in 2022, published in the easy-to-read New Living Translation. Our prayer is that Reading Bibles become a new normal in the Bible ecosystem (Immerse: The Reading Bible Experience, Carol Stream: Tyndale Publishing House, 2017).
2) Find a reading group
It could be a single kindred spirit who shares your conviction that dipping in and out of the Bible is like watching movie trailers but never watching the movie itself. It could be your Bible study group for whom plug-and-play Bible studies have become stale.
Try calling your group a Bible Book Club instead of a Bible Study. Explain how the experience will be fundamentally different because the conversations will be built around open-ended questions like “What stood out to you in your reading this week?” This question alone will break open conversations in the same way that canned questions or fill-in-the-blanks prompts shut them down.
3) Find a reading rhythm
Abandon the old “a chapter a day keeps the devil away.” formula. Shift from a snacking model to a feasting model. This is more doable than you might imagine! Immerse’s eight-week reading plan (five days a week), works out to about 29 minutes of reading (or listening) a day—equivalent to only one sitcom-length episode of TV! Thousands of people following this approach have been amazed and delighted that in only eight weeks they’ve read the entire New Testament!
And for those who comprehend more through listening, we created a fabulous audio Bible, free on the Immerse website.
The end game isn’t to make us better at Bible Jeopardy; it’s the metamorphosis of our faith communities, our families, and our individual lives. To that end there are no shortcuts for deep immersion in our sacred writings.
Sadly, today’s Bible reader is set up to fail. But we like to think we’re meeting this challenge with the mentality E.B. White had about the state of readership in general: “The reader is in serious trouble most of the time, floundering in the swamp. It’s our duty to drain the swamp and get the reader on dry ground, or at least throw them a rope” (E.B. White, The Elements of Style, New York: Longman Publishers, 2000, Introduction xviii).
The rope we throw them can’t be some version of “try harder.” Today’s reader needs a new Bible—a Reading Bible, unconstrained by chapters and verses—a new context, a new community, and a new rhythm.
We ignore the State of the Bible report to our own peril. In the wilderness, Satan challenged Jesus to turn stones into bread. Jesus retorted that three square meals a day won’t keep us alive. We need a steady stream of words from God’s mouth. (Matthew 4:4, The Message) Our very lives depend on being a community of people immersed in the Book.