It has been more than four months since the shutdown caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Most churches have now reopened — although with reduced attendance and social distancing practices. What effect has the COVID-19 shutdown of churches had? Did the coronavirus pandemic cause people to seek God for answers and for comfort? Did God’s children grow in faith during their alone-time at home, when they were unable to gather together?
Coronavirus Shutdown Statistics
In March 2020, Google had a 50% increase over the previous month for online searches using the word “prayer.” This is the highest recorded level ever, even surpassing major religious holidays. This is clearly an indication that as the pandemic gripped our nation, interest in praying increased. People were looking for answers and direction, comfort and peace, and prayer appears to have been the means by which they were seeking those things.
You might be thinking that the surge of interest in prayer is not surprising. We would all agree that people turn to God in times of crisis, pain, and suffering to find answers, comfort, and hope — so the coronavirus shutdown would be no different. But what might surprise you is that Bible engagement decreased.
In July 2020, the American Bible Society released its annual State of the Bible Survey, which sadly shows a decrease in Bible engagement during the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown. The report gave findings from a January 2020 survey (conducted with the Barna Group) and another in June. The data shows a decline in Bible engagement outside of church settings during the shutdown.
Data Indicating Decline
These statistics are from the American Bible Society:
In 2019, over one-third of American adults (35%) said that realistically they never use the Bible outside of a large church service.
In January , that number was statistically unchanged. However, by June of 2020, that proportion had fallen to 31%.
The proportion of Americans who use the Bible daily also fell to fewer than one in ten (9%), the lowest number on record during the ten years of the State of the Bible research study. ¹
Dr. John Farquhar Plake, Director of Ministry Intelligence at American Bible Society, has concluded,
“This study supports the idea that the Church plays a significant role in benefitting people’s wellbeing and Scripture engagement. The pandemic – and now this survey – have shown that when relational church engagement goes up, so does Scripture engagement, but when it goes down, Scripture engagement drops with it. In other words, it’s probably the relationships people have with one another through Church that really make the difference.”²
Hmmm….Possible Other Reasons?
The data is clear. A decline in Bible engagement, but an increased interest in prayer. Why are people praying more, but reading and studying God’s Word less?
Although many gathered virtually to continue small groups and Bible studies during the shutdown, we would agree that the inability to gather together has had an effect on the decline of Bible engagement. But to what extent? And for what reasons?
We must consider that reading and studying the Bible is not a group activity only. So why would “relationships people have with one another through Church” be the only contributing factor? Just because people were unable to gather in their small group or Bible study group, that should not have stopped them from Bible reading and studying. What other possible reasons might have contributed to the reported decline?
I suggest that, in addition to the shutdown of group gatherings, there could be a number of other reasons, including (but not limited to):
1. Difficulties in Personal Bible Engagement?
The Bible isn’t easy to understand. While a study or small group offers the help of others in explaining difficult verses and passages, and often there is a very knowledgable teacher with answers and reasoning, the Internet makes it simple to research and find answers and gain understanding. As a resource for Bible answers, www.reasonsforhopeJesus.com did not see a significant increase in traffic during the shutdown (with the exception of a very significant increase during Easter weekend). People who were home, with more time to engage with the Bible, should have led to increased searches on Bible questions. We have enough traffic to our site to note relevant increases, but since the shut down does not appear to have generated more traffic, we agree that the shutdown had a negative effect on Bible engagement.
2. Lacking Desire for Personal Bible Engagement?
With the suspension of group gatherings resulting in a decline in Bible reading and studying, we must wonder if people are not committed to spending alone-time in the Bible. Is the primary reason to join small groups or Bible studies for the social aspect of such gatherings? Do people have a greater hunger for the appetizers and friends than they do for God’s Word and increasing their Bible knowledge? Fellowship with other Christians is important and beneficial, but lack of it should not cause fellowship with God through His word to diminish. It seems the COVID crisis should have caused people to turn to God’s Word, not from it.
3. Conviction in Personal Bible Engagement?
Finally, this reason might be the most relevant reason why prayer increased but personal Bible engagement decreased.
In prayer, we express our feelings. We use our thoughts and our words to tell God about our needs and our hopes. We ask to feel His presence to give us hope and we ask for His provisions to meet our needs (and sadly, all too often, we ask that He meet our needs as we desire them to be met). While we are told we can bring everything to God in prayer, it should be noted that when we pray, we are praying to the God we know. And, it’s very easy to make God into the God we want Him to be, and too often we “know” Him as we think Him to be.
In contrast, when we read and study the Bible, God clearly tells us who He is. That can often be challenging and very conflicting.
Certainly, we want to know God as the God of love. He is our good, good Father, who wants to give us good gifts. But do we also want to know Him as the God of holiness, who commands us, “Be holy as I am holy” (1 Pet 1:16)? And do we also want to know the God of justice and judgment, who says, “The Lord will judge his people” (Heb 10:30)? Furthermore, do we want to think about how God calls us to judge ourselves (2 Cor 13:5) and to confess our sins (1 John 1:9)? That’s the God whom the Bible reveals.
In prayer, we share our hearts and minds with God. And it’s absolutely important to remember that God desires we come to Him and engage with Him in prayer, even though He already knows our every thought and desire. God wants to hear from us.
In Bible reading and studying, God shares His heart and mind with us. He reveals Himself in truth and by His Spirit.
John 16:13-14 “However, when He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth; for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak, and He will tell you things to come. He will glorify Me, for He will take of what is Mine and declare it to you.
In Bible reading and studying, we come to know God as He is. We see Him high and lifted up. We see His majesty and the magnitude of His love for us.
When we read the Bible, we are humbled and we are grateful for the mercy and grace God has given us in our salvation and gives us daily in our lives. When we read the Bible, we are assured that He is always ready to forgive us of any sin and to direct us in holy living. And we also find rest in this life and joy in knowing what is to come.
Just as God wants to hear from us in prayer, God wants us to hear from Him through His Word.
Read the Bible
There is no substitute for reading the Bible when it comes to increasing your knowledge of God and growing your faith.
When we pray, we talk to God. When we read the Bible, God talks to us.
Open your Bible every day and listen. Have an ear to hear what God wants to say to you (Matt 11:15, 13:9, 43, Mark 4:9, 23, 7:16, Luke 8:8, 14:35 ). Have a heart to receive what God wants to give to you (Mat 7:8, Eph 1:18, James 1:17). Personally engage with your Bible every day and you will come to know the Lord better and love Him more. That will change your life. And you will also play a part in reversing the sad decline in Bible engagement.
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