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Why are so many teens ignorant about the Bible?


The Bible often is listed as the top-selling book in history. But, of course, there are tons of books that go under the name "The Bible." They include the Hebrew scriptures, the Christian Bible and more. Some include the books of the Apocrypha and some don't. And there are tons of different translations and paraphrases. 

So not only is it hard to figure out what is meant by calling "The Bible" the best-seller in history, it's also hard to figure out whether and how people are reading and understanding it (them?).

Still, the Barna Group has undertaken a series of surveys to find out, among other things, how teenagers around the world view the Bible.

The Barna press release about this lists these results:

  • Three-fifths of teens around the world (59%) say there is a Christian Bible in their home. Among teens who own a Bible, 88% say it is in a language and version they can understand.
  • Many teens recognize that the Bible is holy (44%), inspired by God (41%), good (40%), and meaningful (39%). However, 22% of teens who own or read the Bible say they don't fully understand the Bible while reading it.
  • Bible reading is not the norm for today's teens. One in five teens uses a Bible at least weekly. Forty-one percent of all teens never use a Bible.
  • Parents and church leaders play a prominent role in supporting a teen's knowledge of the Bible. Many Bible-engaged teens have had a parent or guardian (56%) or pastor, priest or minister (54%) teach them how to read and study the Bible.
  • Nearly three in five teens are very motivated (35%) or somewhat motivated (21%) to continue learning about the Bible. This motivation increases with Bible engagement.
  • The more teens engage with the Bible, the more they seem to act on Jesus' teachings and encounter God's love. Two in five teens say reading the Bible motivates them (39%) or makes them feel loved (38%).
  • Bible engagement correlates with a strong desire and empowerment to make a difference. Though 43% of Christian teens want others to see Jesus reflected through them in their words and actions, that number jumps to 81% among Bible-engaged teens.

One of the reasons 41 percent of teens never use a Bible, of course, is that it's rarely introduced to them as literature in public school classes designed not to teach the Bible or to teach religion but, rather, to teach about scripture of various traditions and to teach about those traditions.

Something like that happens in the religious studies departments of various colleges and universities, but almost never in public middle schools or high schools. Which is too bad in many ways. For one thing, such common phrases as "go the second mile" or "let there be light" or "Good Samaritan" no longer have much meaning for many people. Beyond that, we begin to lose the way parts of the Bible have been at the base of our legal and other systems.

The danger, of course, in creating classes for teens about religion or about the Bible is that the teacher will use the opportunity to proselytize for a particular religion or a particular way of understanding the Bible. And that danger must be avoided in public schools.

So although I find it kind of sad that a lot of teens know little or nothing about the Bible, the blame for that must fall on faith communities, which aren't drawing in people who want to know more about the Bible and the God attested to in the Bible. If the Bible is the source of what's often called "the greatest story ever told," a lot of people who know that story don't seem very interested in sharing it. Strange.

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Every faith community knows that the Covid pandemic changed how it operates -- and in some cases how it decides what's important to do or not keep doing. But what of the future? The Very Rev. Kelly Brown Douglas, dean of the Episcopal Divinity School at Union Theological Seminary, writes in this piece that if churches, synagogues, mosques, temples and other houses of worship try to return to what was, they will miss a great opportunity. She writes (focusing primarily on Christian churches): "The church and seminaries now have two options: cling to their history and lose sight of the massive progress that has been made or realize we are in a kairos time that requires us to chart a new path forward. Such times are often chaotic or moments of crisis, but they are also periods in which God is fully present and providing a way to God’s future." If you are part of such a congregation or denomination and your preference is to return to the past, do your community a favor: let others lead.


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