73 percent

At the beginning of a recent college class in biblical studies, the professor conducted an informal poll.

The students came from a mixture of religious backgrounds. Most of them were from Protestant or Roman traditions, some from the Jewish faith; a few honestly admitted they were agnostics or atheists. In the poll they were asked to answer the following question.
How often do you read the Bible?
a. Every day
b. Once a week
c. Occasionally
d. Never
The responses from the 51 students were a little surprising: 73 percent never; 20 percent occasionally; 7 percent once a day, 0 percent once a week.

Some Presbyterians may respond to this statistic with a nearly spontaneous evangelistic approach and point out what an opportunity such a class provides for a primary presentation of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

But these students are too savvy and sophisticated to respond positively to patronizing attempts at soul-saving. Others may correctly object that such a survey is invalid because it is not scientifically conducted. In February 2010, however, a poll called “Religion Among the Millennials,” conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, reported that by key measures, Americans age 18-29 are considerably less religious than their older counterparts. As the poll put it, “Fewer young adults belong to any particular faith than older people today. They are also less likely to be affiliated than their parents’ and grandparents’ generations were when they were young.” In regard to Bible study, the poll shows that although 27 percent of the young adults they interviewed said that they read the Bible weekly, 40 percent of those over age 40 say they do. Of the younger group, however, 33 percent indicate that the Bible for them is the literal Word of God, another disturbing statistic.

In her review of findings of the National Study of Youth and Religion conducted from 2002-2005, moreover, Leslie Scanlon similarly reported in an earlier Outlook article (“Survey finds American teens’ response to faith tepid,’” October 18, 2010, pp. 21-23) that although American teens are not hostile to religion, most of them do not give it much thought either. The study suggests that American churches and parents are part of the problem since much of what youth are taught encourages participation in “a do-good, feel-good spirituality” that has little to do with biblical truths and that the church is basically just a social institution filled with nice people. In regard to Bible reading, if any of these statistics are remotely representative, church leaders may have good reasons to be deeply concerned. Why would young adults want to hear biblically based sermons if the narratives and premises on which they are based are largely unfamiliar? What does a traditional sanctuary communicate to them when their windows depict unknown ancient stories? Why would they want to sing songs whose lyrics are largely foreign to them? Regardless of the exact statistical percentages, both anecdotal and scientific evidence in many congregations indicate that church leaders must take their roles as Christian educators and spiritual mentors with the utmost seriousness if central biblical principles are going to mean anything to a whole new generation of believers. In a sense, the church today may stand in a position like Paul faced in Athens when he was surrounded by people who had a vague impression of religion but knew almost nothing about the one true God or Jesus Christ (Acts 17: 16-34). The urgency of this task cannot be put off to be solved later or dismissed with the rationalization “kids will be kids!”

EARL S. JOHN SON JR. is a pastor
in the Presbyterian Church
(U.S.A.) living in Johnstown, N.Y.
and an adjunct professor of religious
studies at Siena College.