Robin Ham writes: I had the opportunity last week to hear a presentation from Osoba Otaigbe of Bible Society about their Lumino Research Project on attitudes to the Bible. I’d heard the research referenced previously in passing, but this was the first time I’d looked at it in detail.
If you’ve not come across it, it’s a fascinating and insightful piece of reflection based on YouGov polling, commissioned by Bible Society, which saw 20,000 people interviewed at the end of 2018 about their attitudes to Christianity and the Bible.
This data has been analysed and the population has been accordingly mapped into 8 spiritual types or ’personas’, based on attitudes to the Bible. These range from the extremes of ‘Bible Loving’ people (5%) to ‘Bible Dismissive’ people (31%), but crucially with a whole range in between. These include Bible Infrequent (8%), Bible Cultural (13%), Bible Nostalgic (8%), Bible Uncertain (7%), Bible Conflicted (5%), and Bible Indifferent (23%).
In response to the data, it’s Bible Society’s belief that around a quarter of the population are ‘open to the Bible and finding out more’ – and the project seeks to draw out from this mapping ofattitudes how we might better engage with these personas as churches.
One of the neat features of the Lumino website is you can enter your post-code and see how your local data compares with the national average (I don’t know how accurate this can be with 20,000 people polled, but it’s interesting nonetheless). Interestingly, Bible Society have undergone a deliberate change in emphasis in their mission, which is to now be a ‘partner’ with UK churches in mission – and this project is a flagship example of this. Their aims are now to build Bible confidence, Change the conversation about the Bible, and Bible distribution.
How did we get here?
Pollster George Barna has previously spoke of a ‘crisis of biblical illiteracy’. The very phase is perhaps enough to prompt knowing shakes of the head, and deep, long, sighs from the faithful. Previous reports have indicated that a third of children aged 8–15 in the UK couldn’t identify the Nativity as a biblical story, and the same amount thought Harry Potter was in the Bible. For a second it’s ditzy funny, and then you realise it’s just plain desperate. Kevin DeYoung & Greg Gilbert have described how the Bible’s increasingly peripheral place in the West has “spawned a rising generation of postmodern biblical illiterates”.
It’s fascinating how we can instinctively react with blame here. Biblical illiteracy? Yes, that’ll be the fault of our consumer culture’s carte-du-jour of endless options. And, of course, throw into the mix the distracting banality of social media, and if together those aren’t enough of a ’cause’, then we can always assign fault to liberal Christianity’s constant erosion of a high view of Scripture. Blame.
But of course, this is part of a complex narrative that we can’t do justice to in a couple of paragraphs. That said, we at least need to ask questions of ourselves as churches, church leaders, and denominations. Readers of this will come from different traditions and tribes, and so there may be distinct diagnoses for each of us, but no doubt there may be over-lapping indicators and causes.
What the Data Might Mean
Mark Woods, editor at Bible Society, suggests the research challenges the narrative that Christianity in the West has had it’s day, or that the Bible is therefore past its use-by-date. Whilst there is a clear and sizeable 31% of the population that is ‘Bible dismissive’, he notes that not everyone in that category is actually ‘hostile’. As Woods points out, “for most people, attitudes to faith and the Bible are much more complicated.” This is the reality of people not necessarily having a “fully worked-out position,” but one formed “inconsistently and erratically, probably” from a whole variety of influencing factors in our lives. That is to say,
far from facing a population that’s simply indifferent or hostile to faith and the Bible, we’re embedded among people who are infinitely various, interesting, and very often, interested.
No doubt that nuance will ring true for many of us as we reflect on our own ministry experiences.
Frances Spufford’s brilliant line in Unapologetic is very perceptive:
Our culture is still saturated with the spillage of Christianity, slopped out of the broken container of faith and soaked through everything.
So there is that echo of something familiar that seems to resonate and reverberate as we minister from and with the Scriptures in our communities. But as I’ve mulled on the data and the Lumino personas, I’ve been led to consider seven reflective questions.
7 Reflective Questions from Lumino
1. Have we faced up to the issue of Bible confidence in our churches?
It’s no surprise that this notion of ‘Bible confidence’ is now at the forefront of Bible Society’s mission. The data is clear: many professing Christians have a confidence problem when it comes to the Bible. According to the data, uncertainty, scepticism and even diffidence in relation to the Scriptures amongst professing Christians is very common. The slice of people that the Bible Society deemed to be ‘Bible Loving’ was slim (5%). They attended church very regularly and notably were generally older than average.
In contrast, those who were ‘Bible Infrequent’ (8%) still attended church quite regularly but tended to feel they weren’t sure about the Bible or worried about ‘being wrong’. There were then various groupings that identified as ‘Christian’ but had an increasingly removed relationship with the Bible. Sadly, this is particularly pointed for those of us in the Church of England: ‘Bible Infrequent’ people were much more likely to be Anglican or Roman Catholic than ‘Bible loving’ people, in contrast to other denominations. Only once we’ve recognised this lack of confidence, will we consider doing something about it.
2. So more practically, are we leading services and preaching in a way that helps people to read the Bible for themselves?
It always strikes me as tragic when Bibles are left at the end of a pew, or on the back of the chair in front, in our church services. What are we doing on a Sunday to encourage Bible engagement? Is it evident to people that our preaching is about prayerfully longing for the Spirit of God to speak through the word of God? Or do we have a haphazard approach to Scripture, betraying surface-level preparation and quickly re-routing to trite hobby-horses and vague aphorisms? I think the latter is a temptation even for those of us who in theory have a high view of Scripture. Maybe some of us who preach would do well to honestly ask ourselves, ‘Would I listen to that?!” Of course, we all have ‘off days’ – and it’s about the regular week-by-week feeding, rather than one-off spectacles – but we can’t fault congregations for switching off if there’s nothing of substance transmitting.
Perhaps some of us will need to recover a view of preaching that is more than just glorified information-sharing (even if that information is orthodox and ‘sound’). Some of us could ask ourselves when was the last time we sought to refresh our preaching? Have we sought feedback recently? Are we giving it the time it deserves? Others of us will need to reflect on whether we truly believe listening to the word of God is as spiritual an experience as the twenty-minutes of singing that came five minutes earlier. Opening up the Scriptures isn’t absolutely everything that a church leader is called to do, but it has to be absolutely essential.
3. Similarly, are we facilitating personal engagement with the Bible outside of church services/meetings?
Would you be able to guess how many people in your church are involved in daily personal Bible reading? If not, what might that in itself tell us? I don’t think it’s a surprise to suggest that results here will directly correlate to how we answered the previous question. Closed Bibles on a Sunday at church will surely lead to closed Bibles at home Monday-Saturday. Here we can give thanks for the popularity of smartphone apps like HTB’s ‘Bible in One Year’ or the audio-focused ‘Dwell’, both of which seem to be encouraging daily Bible engagement amongst those under-40. Personally, I love the way that the Good Book Company’s ‘Explore’ notes/app have an intentional desire to push the reader into the text of Scripture, rather than skimming along the surface or relying on someone else’s ‘commentary’, though I admit bias here as someone who occasionally writes for them!
Of course, we might have unhelpful stereotypes in our minds about what personal Bible-reading looks like. For example, I remember one lecturer at theological college remarking that there’s ‘no reason why Quiet Times have to be quiet’. Similarly, I think we can sometimes give the impression that it’s all about reading something ‘new’, rather than discovering something fresh in something familiar, or even returning regularly to trusted pasture to find treasured sustenance. Anecdotally, I wonder if that’s why it seems been a gentle rise in people reading through the Psalms in this season of lockdown. It’s highlighted the need for personal rhythms and a faith that is not reliant on a weekly top-up.
4. But are we realistic about the cultural challenges we face?
For all that Bible Society might acknowledge the complexity and inconsistency of some people’s positions, it’s hard to deny we face some real challenges in our cultural moment. Nearly half of the people surveyed (47.5%) said they were ‘not at all interested’ in discovering more about the Bible. Nearly another quarter (23.4%) said they were ‘not very interested’. Perhaps unsurprisingly, reasons given included ‘not being religious’, previous experience of Christians/church, and time capacity.
Tim Keller often speaks of ‘defeater beliefs’, unspoken assumptions that need to be engaged with in people’s minds before they will consciously give Christianity a hearing. But here we also have ‘defeater experiences’, effectively limiting in people’s minds what is even possible when it comes to experiencing the Bible. We’re seeking to help people imagine something altogether different. That said, it’s clear there are also particular ‘stumbling blocks’ we need to rationally engage with, which leads us to…
5. Are we prepared to give a reason for the hope we place in Scripture?
Undoubtedly, there is a clear need for Bible apologetics. In the Lumino research, the most common words that people associated with the Bible were Outdated and Contradictory. Other negative words, though less common, were Judgmental, Homophobic and Anti-women. How do we respond to these preconceptions? Of course, our lives as Christians should hopefully do a great deal to challenge these, but it strikes me that we do need to tackle these ‘head on’. In our preaching we need to name them and show we understand and identify with them. Rebecca McLaughlin’s excellent book, Confronting Christianity, is a stunning example of this. All that said, 37% of people simply stated they believed the Bible wouldn’t be relevant to them – which strikes me as an opportunity to prove people wrong!
6. Are we personally experiencing and modelling Bible Delight?
I love the title of Christopher Ash’s wonderfully devotional preacher’s guide to Psalm 119, ‘Bible Delight’. It unpacks the rich and holistic way in which that psalm describes how God engages with us in Scripture. For me, this has to be at the heart of any ‘answer’ to the lack of confidence in our churches. These perceptions and beliefs about the Bible are only going to be transformed as people actually ‘taste and see’ for themselves that the Bible is life-giving and life-changing, ultimately as we encounter God through it.
If that’s not a church-goer’s weekly experience, then why would they look for that in their day-to-day experience? And why would they expect to see anything different if they invite unbelieving friends to give the Bible a read? So as ministers and preachers, surely we need to consider whether that’s our own experience personally too? Is the Bible simply a task to be mastered, or a meal table for our hearts? What could we do to rekindle that relationship with the God of the Scriptures – not that there is any other God of course! Does the language of Psalm 119 seem a distant memory to us – or perhaps something we’ve never had?
7. Have we lost sight of the over-arching narrative of the Scriptures?
I’ve written about this before , and I think it’s fair to say I’m passionate about it. Biblical illiteracy is not going to simply be solved by ‘more Bible’. I think the real challenge of biblical illiteracy is moving beyond familiarity with Bible stories to introducing people to the Bible’s big story. It’s always dangerous to make sweeping statements about preaching, but I think bad preaching can make biblical illiteracy worse, failing to help people read the Bible well. We can rip verses out of context and we don’t give people the tools to help locate themselves within the vast story of Scripture.
Of course, the goal of good preaching isn’t just so that people know how Genesis to Revelation all fits together. We’re doing this because this story of God is the very thing our fractured world needs right now. I remember reading an article in the Irish Times a few years back about the growth of the ‘hipster’ identity. It perceptively argued that our crisis of identify shows we’re desperate for a ‘meaningful narrative about who we are’. In other words, as we feel the disorientation of a growing cultural unfamiliarity with the Bible, our response shouldn’t be to champion the Scriptures for the sake of Bible trivia, but rather because we want people to see that in this book we have the only story of reality that can bear the weight of our personal struggles for meaning and substance. The Bible Project videos, giving an overview of both the whole Bible and individual books, as well as tracing different theological themes through the whole story of Scripture, are a great resource here.
I hope these give pause for thought and might help us ‘look within’. Have you come across the Lumino data? What are your reflections and what questions or actions are you prompted to ask or take?
Robin Ham is the Pioneer Minister with responsibility for Grace Church Barrow in the Diocese of Carlisle, as well as teaching Mission and Apologetics for Cumbria Christian Learning and is a member of the Archbishop’s College of Evangelists. He blogs regularly at ThatHappyCertainty.com, and collates a weekly round-up of links called The Sunday Refill there.
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