29 November, 2022

Reading Scripture and the Transformation of the Soul

by | 13 September, 2022

By Jody Owens 

(This essay was first posted at www.jodyowens.com; the author granted us permission to repost it here.) 

A 2021 report from the Barna Group and the American Bible Society offered some hopeful news regarding Bible engagement in the United States. According to the report, the number of people defined as “disengaged” from the Bible decreased from 136 million (54 percent) in 2018 to 100 million (39 percent) in 2021.  

The American Bible Society suggested those 36 million who were disengaged have moved to what they call the “movable middle.” Characterized as “Bible friendly” or “Bible neutral,” this movable middle at least occasionally engaged Scripture and found the Bible helpful. However, they also experienced frustration because they often have no good model for reading Scripture well. 

Unfortunately, the news in the 2022 “State of the Bible” report was not nearly as encouraging. The number of “Bible disengaged” rose to 145 million, while the “movable middle” shrunk to 66 million (down from 95 million in 2021). Further, the new survey reports that 64 million Americans were “scripturally engaged” in 2021, but that number dropped significantly to only 49 million Americans (19 percent) in 2022.  

While the news of a substantial decrease in meaningful engagement with Scripture over the last year is troubling, a deeper problem surfaced. According to the most recent study, even those who engage Scripture find that reading the Bible does not change their life. “In 2022, Americans are less likely than ever before to say that the Bible is influencing the way they live out their faith in relationship to others.” For some reason, fewer readers of Scripture report life transformation as a result of reading Scripture.  

These results seem to rub against the witness of Scripture itself. After all, the Word of God is “alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12). So, how might we reconcile this verse with the trend reported in the study? 

When discussing the importance of ritual in relationships, I tell my students, when a ritual loses meaning, typically the problem is not with the ritual but with the heart of the person engaged in the ritual. The same may be true for engagement with Scripture. Receptive hearts and minds usually meet God in the text. Those who “hunger and thirst for righteousness” are usually not disappointed; they experience the transformation God desires to bring about in our lives.  

Perhaps we’ve given too little attention to the cultivation of our own hearts and minds. The seed of the Word will not take root and thrive in hard or rocky soil. Perhaps we’ve also failed to recognize the way God’s Word works to shape and transform. Our educational system and culture train us in a way of reading literature that works against the way the Scriptures were designed to be read and experienced. Our information culture resists embracing a text written primarily for transformation rather than information.  

This is precisely the issue we will wrestle with at the Spiritual Formation Leadership Summit (Oct. 17-19, 2022; April 17-19, 2023; May 3-5, 2023). The Summit theme, “Shaped by the Word,” is borrowed from the title of Robert Mulholland’s book, which I highly recommend. At the fall and spring Summits we will reflect on Mulholland’s thesis, but also take a deep dive into the dynamics at work when we read Scripture. We’ll give attention to the assumptions of the biblical authors and how our modern assumptions get in the way of the work God seeks to do in us through the Word. I encourage you to read Mulholland’s book, but if you want a deeper study and an opportunity to engage Scripture in some fresh ways, I hope you will join us for one of the three Summit gatherings this coming fall and spring.  

Learn more about the Spiritual Formation Leadership Summit, and register, at www.jodylowens.com.  

_ _ _


Barna, “State of the Bible 2021: Five Key Findings,” May 19, 2021; accessed at https://www.barna.com/research/sotb-2021/ 

NRB, “State of the Bible: The Bible in America,” Marissa Postell, November 18, 2021; accessed at https://nrb.org/articles/state-of-the-bible-the-bible-in-america/  

American Bible Society, “State of the Bible USA 2022,” p. Xvi; accessed at https://sotb.research.bible/

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