Even though most of the laws and guiding principles that govern this nation are predicated on the Bible, a surprisingly large proportion of young Americans have developed not only an ambivalence toward Scripture, but an extremely negative view of it, as well.
In the largest study ever undertaken by the Barna Group on a single generation’s take on the Bible, it found many trends in Millennials (Americans ages 18 to 29) that some might find disturbing when it comes to the unchurched and heartening — when looking at the practicing Christians surveyed.
Partnering with the American Bible Society (ABS) and InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (IVCF) in the study, Barna discovered many intriguing facts about young Americans’ perceptions, practices and beliefs about the Bible and those who read and live by its teachings.
Many blame the progressive agendas pushed by the education system, the media and entertainment industry for a plummet in this nation’s moral standards and rejection of the Bible, but does the escalation of post-Christian sentiment held by the youngest generation of America’s adults have more to do with today’s culture, or with the passage of time since Scriptures were regarded as the primary educational, moral and spiritual authority of the land?
Do young American non-Christians really believe that about the Bible?
When it comes to unchurched young adults in America, an extremely unorthodox take on the Bible has set in. According to the massive study, nearly half (45 percent) of non-Christians argue that the Bible is just an instructional book of stories and advice compiled by men, while just 27 percent of this group say it is the inspired or actual Word of God.
Non-Christian Millennials, for the most, part sway from a benign indifference or apathy toward the Bible to a strong skepticism toward its teachings.
“While a plurality of non-Christian Millennials relegate the Bible to merely a ‘useful book of moral teachings’ (30 percent), nearly half agree with more negative characterizations,” Barna researchers divulge. “About one in five say the Bible is ‘an outdated book with no relevance for today’ (19 percent) and more than one-quarter go so far as to say the Bible is ‘a dangerous book of religious dogma used for centuries to oppress people’ (27 percent).”
When this group of young unbelieving Americans was asked to use terms that describe their take on what the Bible represents to them, many of the words they chose were based more in the realm of “cultural mythology” than in the category of “divine” or “sacred” literature.
“[Millennials’] top five word choices are ‘story’ (50 percent), ‘mythology’ (38 percent), ‘symbolic’ (36 percent), ‘fairy tale’ (30 percent) and ‘historical’ (30 percent),” the research points out. “Very few choose words that reflect divine origins: just 12 percent of non-Christian Millennials picked the word ‘sacred’ to describe the Bible, one in 10 chose ‘fact’ and even fewer selected ‘revelation’ (8 percent), ‘infallible’ (3 percent) or ‘inerrant’ (2 percent).
The Barna, ABS and IVCF study also found that a whopping 62 percent of these non-Christians never read the Bible —even though they have strong opinions about it — and their takes on those who do read it denote negative perceptions of elitism and separation.
“When they see someone reading the Bible in public, non-Christian Millennials say they assume the Bible reader is politically conservative (22 percent); that they don't have anything in common with the person (21 percent); that the Bible reader is old fashioned (17 percent); or that they are trying to make a statement or be provocative (15 percent),” the study reveals. “Fewer than one in 10 non-Christian young adults indicate any kind of positive response, such as encouragement (7 percent) or joy (7 percent). Only 9 percent of non-Christians say they feel curious about what's in the Bible when they see someone reading it — a disappointing statistic for those who hope their Bible reading could spark spiritual conversations with non-Christians.”
Despite this discouraging news, there is a bit of a silver lining.
“On the other hand, for non-Christians whose Bible reading has increased in the past year (11 percent), the second most-cited reason for that increase is seeing how the Bible changed someone they knew for the better (27 percent),” Barna points out. “So, while seeing strangers reading the Bible in public may not be a positive catalyst, personal interactions with those who are affected for the better by the Bible are a strong recommendation for the Bible itself.”
How different are young American practicing Christians?
As might be imagined, Millennials who are practicing Christians — which means they claim to go to church at least monthly and regard their faith as an essential part of their life — highly esteem the Bible, with 96 percent of them proclaiming that God’s Word provides “everything a person needs to know to live a meaningful life.” Nearly everyone in this group (96 percent) also believes that the Bible is the actual or inspired Word of God.
But how does America’s youngest generation of practicing Christian adults respond when asked about history and derivation of God’s Word?
“Among these young adults, a plurality say, ‘The Bible is the actual word of God and should be taken literally, word for word’ (46 percent),” state Barna researchers. “An additional four in 10 agree it is divinely inspired and has no errors, though ‘some verses are meant to be symbolic rather than literal’ (39 percent); and 11 percent say the Bible is the inspired word of God, ‘but has some factual or historical errors.’”
Comforting to many believers from older generations, the research finds that a good percentage of young adults who practice Christianity view the Bible as being their “greatest source of moral truth.”
“Of the practicing Christian Millennials who believe in absolute moral truth (71 percent), four in 10 point to the Bible as the main source from which they have learned or discovered absolute moral truths and standards (39 percent),” researchers say. “This far outpaces any other source, with church coming in second at only 16 percent, followed by parents at 14 percent.”
Another aspect of the study focused on how reading the Bible compared with other forms of practicing their faith. Surprisingly to many, these Bible-believing Millennials contend that Bible reading is more important than any other facet of their faith, even though cumulatively, they say it’s of equal importance.
“[P]racticing Christian Millennials rank Bible reading as more important than church attendance (55 percent say Bible reading is more important), silence/solitude (50 percent), prayer (49 percent), worship (51 percent), acts of service (48 percent), communion (44 percent) and evangelism (42 percent),” Barna disclosed. “Among practicing Christian Millennials, the Bible still holds a high — if not the highest — priority in their faith life.”
Print in an electronic age?
Even though screens connected to the latest electronic gadgetry dominate the information intake process of more Millennials than any other adult generation in America, most young Americans still prefer getting their hands — and eyes — on a printed Bible.
“While all Millennials — significantly more than all adults —have, by and large, incorporated other mediums for engaging with the Bible, none of these trump reading a print version of the Bible (81 percent), or even hearing it read aloud at church (78 percent),” Barna researchers assert. “In comparison, two-thirds of Millennials say they use the Internet on a computer to read Bible content (66 percent) and a little more than half read the Bible on an e-reader (51 percent).”
But beyond the realm of computers and mobile devices, young American adults tend to be less eager to indulge their faith.
“While nearly half [of young Millennial believers] appreciate the Bible being incorporated into entertainment today (49 percent), a sizable percentage sees it as Hollywood trying to make money (36 percent),” Barna contends. “Non-Christians, in particular, express this skepticism (58 percent).”
However, even though Christian entertainment isn’t nearly as important to Millennial believers as other mediums that encourage their walk, they constitute the largest proportion of those consuming faith-based movies.
“When Bible-themed content does come to Hollywood, practicing Christians are the group most likely to view it,” Barna informs. “For all the shows surveyed (Noah, The Bible miniseries, Son of God, God's Not Dead and Heaven Is for Real), practicing Christians were far and away the largest audience. In fact, only 14 percent of practicing Christian Millennials had not seen any of the movies, compared to 42 percent of all Millennials and a full 62 percent of non-Christian Millennials.”
Any way one looks at it, Christian entertainment is making significant headway in reaching young Christians and non-believers, alike.
“Stated differently, a majority of Millennials has seen at least one biblical depiction on the small or large screen in the last year,” the researchers note. “Exposure to televised or movie versions of Christian content has penetrated to more than four out of five Christian Millennials and to more than one-third of non-Christian young adults.”
Social-sharing one’s faith
Social media has become a major avenue for young Americans to spread the Gospel.
“One common way Millennials have taken to engaging with the Bible in a digital age is to post Scripture passages on social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram,” Barna states. “A combined 81 percent [of young adult believers] have posted Scripture online in the past year: 30 percent do so a few times a year, 25 percent a few times a month, 13 percent a few times a week and 13 percent do so daily.”
But for those on the other end of these faith-filled communications, how they receive these messages differs greatly between believers and non-believers.
“This practice evokes primarily positive emotions among practicing Christian Millennials and ambivalent or negative emotions among non-Christian Millennials,” Barna declares. “The most common responses from Christians when someone posts Scripture to social media are to feel encouraged (56 percent) and inspired (53 percent). Just over one-third find it bold in a good way (35 percent).”
Just like reading the Bible in public, most non-believing young American adults take social-sharing one’s faith as offensive.
“Non-Christians' most common response is to say it bothers them if the verses are used naively or out of context (35 percent), which is interesting since most admit never having read the Bible themselves,” researchers stress. “Slightly fewer non-Christians say it's ‘okay sometimes if you are religious’ (33 percent). About the same number say they find it irritating and one-quarter assume the person posting it is judgmental (24 percent). About one-fifth believes the person is trying to evangelize (21 percent) or that the practice will push others away (18 percent). Of all the responses, non-Christians were least likely to feel inspired (9 percent) or encouraged (7 percent) when they see Scripture posted on social media.”
A look at the results
After all is said and done, Barna Group President David Kinnaman believes the study has revealed some valuable insight about the spiritual direction in which this nation is headed.
"Many Christians and Christian leaders are concerned about the next generation of Christians … [a]nd for good reason,” Kinnaman proclaims. “There is certainly a well-documented trend of Millennials leaving church or turning away from their faith, however, this current study on perceptions of the Bible gives church leaders some very good news about the Good Book.”
Kinnaman is particularly impressed with the strong adherence young Americans have to their faith, despite the rife anti-Christian influences to which they are exposed each day.
“Active young Christians are holding true to historical and orthodox views on the Bible,” Kinnaman deduces. “In many ways, their commitment to the Bible stands in stark contrast to typical stereotypes of younger Christians.”
As connecting with peers enveloped in a post-Christian society becomes more difficult, young believers are finding new mediums made available through technology as extremely helpful when striving to fellowship or carry out the Great Commission.
"For the most part, the Bible is flourishing in the screen age, particularly among the faithful,” Kinnaman reports. “Practicing Christian Millennials, in particular, are eager to see Bible-based content on the big screen and to engage with the Bible on the little screen by reading Scripture online and posting it to social media.”
And just as Jesus and the apostles were shunned in biblical times, many young Christians in the modern era are finding hardened hearts to be a challenge when sharing the Good News.
"However, these practices aren't always appreciated by others in their generation,” Kinnaman explains. “While many Christians might hope that Bible-based films or sharing Scripture online would reach non-Christians, our research suggests the opposite. Non-Christians tend to be more skeptical of biblical films and often feel turned off or alienated by seeing Scripture shared via social media.”
But a ray of hope does exist, as young adult non-believers in America have been noted to pick up a Bible and read due to influences outside their secular circles — probably to Christians sharing or demonstrating their faith.
“On the other hand, in the rare cases when non-Christians have increased their Bible reading in the past year, they often did so as a result of seeing how Scripture changed someone they knew,” Kinnaman continues. “Such responses emphasize the importance of meaningful relationships and evidence of life transformation.”
Kinnaman suggests that different approaches to sharing one’s faith might be in order with the current generation, giving the increasingly negative response to the Gospel that non-believing Millennials has expressed.
"Finally, for non-Christian Millennials, the ‘brand' of the Bible is a negative one," Barna’s president proclaims. "The depth and range of these perceptions signal difficult challenges for younger adults who still believe in the Bible.”
Yet adversity is always something believers are called to overcome in their faith, and Kinnaman encourages young Americans to not give up when it comes to engaging the culture for Christ, given the fortified commitment and devotion to God Word that they divulged in the study.
“As Bible skepticism increases in their generation, Christian Millennials will have to face those criticisms head on and wrestle with the implications for their own beliefs,” Kinnaman concludes. “Yet when it comes to the Bible — more than many other areas of their faith — Millennial Christians are starting off on comparatively solid ground."