People of the Book?
According to Islamic tradition, Jews and Christians are referred to as “the people of the Book”, in this case, the Book being the Bible. Christians have been known as the people of the Book, not just because the Bible is their holy book, the book of ultimate importance to the faith, but also because they are a people who read, study, meditate, memorize and talk about the Book. Being “people of the Book” means people engaged with the Bible.
The Canadian Bible Engagement Study (CBES) conducted by the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (EFC) in 2013, casts some doubt if Christians in 21st century Canada can still hold on to that ancient title. The study, called Confidence, Conversation and Community: Bible Engagement in Canada, conducted a survey of 4,474 Canadians on their views on how they engage the Bible in their lives. The full report can be read here.
Regular Bible reading has been on the decline in Canada for several decades and the CBES report bears this out but what the report has to say about those who self identity as Christians is of particular interest. As more Canadians don’t consider themselves Christian, it is understandable that this group pays little attention to the Bible but are Canadian Christians far behind?
Taking Christians as a whole, the report’s findings were remarkable. For those who identify themselves as Christian, six percent read the Bible daily, six percent read it a few times a week and only three percent read it once a week. Astonishingly, 70 percent of Canadian Christians seldom read or never read the Bible. This kind of survey result would seem to indicate that Christians are no longer the people of the Book and might be called the people who ignore their Book.
But is that the end of the story? The study breaks down the numbers a bit further into Christian traditions. Catholic and mainline Protestant Christians read the Bible far less than their Evangelical cousins. Mainline Protestants and Catholics who read their Bible a few times a week or weekly are in the single digits. Monthly French Catholic readers are in the single digits as well while English Catholic and Mainline Protestant monthly readers are in the double digits but just barely. Evangelicals seem to do much better with those reading their Bibles at least a few times a week at 44 percent, weekly at 51 percent and monthly at 58 percent.
Although some may see this as evidence that Evangelicals have healthy Bible reading habits, the results also tell us that the other half of Evangelicals are not reading their Bibles even on a weekly basis, let alone a monthly one. Mainline Protestants and Catholics have seen weekly Bible reading decline by more than one half since 1996 but Evangelicals have seen daily readers fall by one third in the same period. Evangelicals may be the tradition with the strongest Bible readers but a sizeable number still do not have regular reading habits and the trend in daily readership is not that encouraging.
Followers or Disciples
So why is Christian reading of the Bible falling in such dramatic numbers? The survey found two key factors that affected regular Bible reading amongst Christians: confidence in the Bible and a seriousness about their walk with Jesus.
The survey showed that those who had a strong confidence in the reliability and the authority of the Bible were found to read it once a day, week or month by a wider margin than those who had even a moderate confidence in the Bible. Those who reflected on the meaning of the Bible in their lives, who engaged in discussions about the Bible outside of church activities and who regularly attended worship services, were found to read the Bible much more frequently than those who did not.
The scriptures teach that the Bible, the Word of God, is critical to the spiritual development of Christians. As Jesus famously said to The Adversary, “Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes form the mouth of God”. The Bible is spiritual food to feed humanity’s spiritual soul. If this survey showed that the majority of self identifying Christians in Canada only ate physical food once a week or even once a month, there would be screams of a crisis in Canadian churches. Christians seem to be starving themselves by eating the spiritual food of the Bible very sparsely and yet few within the church seem to be concerned.
What can be done to turn the situation around? Simply telling people to read their Bibles because they need to is an exercise that will fall on deaf ears. Christians who are not reading the Bible regularly need to recognize their own spiritual malnourishment and to see the Bible as true food.
One key way to address this problem is to re-establish confidence in the reliability and power of the Bible. Many Christians have fallen victim to the secular modernist take on the Bible that in effect waters down its reliability and, by extension, its relevance to life. By marginalizing the Scriptures, Christians will turn to other writings to find spiritual fulfillment such as the latest self-help book. Christian leaders need to not only do a bit of apologetics for the Bible in the church but they also need to encourage everyone to share how the Bible has and is changing their lives. The Bible says that it is living and active. Let others share their stories of how it has been living and active in their lives and not just a repository of ancient knowledge.
The second key way to address this self-starvation of the Bible, is to show Christians that Christianity is not about showing up on Sundays and getting to use the title Christian in their spiritual resume. Christian leaders of all kinds need to show to those under their spiritual care that Christ is calling them not be mere followers of Him but to be His disciples.
The words follower and disciple seem to mean the same thing but in reality they are not. In the Gospel accounts, Jesus had plenty of followers who followed him all over the countryside. Those who followed Him did so looking for free food, free healthcare and political freedom from the Romans. But when Jesus pressed them on the cost of following Him to the point of denying oneself and taking up one’s cross in order to follow Him, many left Him. Jesus wanted disciples to deny their lives for Him, not followers who could come and go as they pleased.
Followers of Jesus will treat the Bible as an optional reading lesson. Disciples of Jesus will treat the Bible as the bread of life. Serious Christians will see the Bible as indispensable in knowing Jesus more deeply. Causal Christians will see the Bible as a dusty, boring book that has little relevance to their earthly pursuits. If the church in Canada wants to regain the title people of the Book, she must be willing to disciple her people and show them the riches and treasures contained in God’s Holy Bible.
2016 © Ed LeBlanc