When the American Bible Society was founded in 1816, millions of people around the world were experiencing what historians have come to call "the year without a summer." Severe climate abnormalities caused lower temperatures that led to food shortages and failing crops. People's livelihoods were on the verge of collapse.
More than two hundred years later, in 2020, we experienced another "year without a summer"—this time a year marked by social distance, uncertainty, and loss. But the news isn't all bad; new research shows that more Americans than ever are turning to the Bible as a result.
American Bible Society's 11th annual State of the Bible report found that over 181 million Americans opened a Bible in the past year, compared to 169 million adults in 2020. This year marks the sharpest rise in Bible engagement that we have seen since beginning reporting in 2011.
One in six U.S. adults (16 percent) now reads the Bible most days during the week—up from one in eight (12 percent) in 2020. Why are these Americans turning to God's Word? The data suggests they want to be "closer to God." They reported seeking "comfort" and "wisdom." As they read, the majority say they feel "comforted," "peaceful," "encouraged," and "hopeful."
Encouragingly, 95 million Americans are "test-driving the Bible" as well. We call this group the "Movable Middle." These Bible Users are either friendly or neutral towards the Bible, but they are not yet committed. This middle group has jumped from 26 percent of the population to 37 percent in the past year.
So, what does this mean for the church?
As God has promised, His Word "will not fail to do what I plan for it; it will do everything I send it to do," (Isa. 55:11, GNT).
God uses Scripture to impart His wisdom, guidance, and comfort. As long as we have the promises of Scripture, we are never without hope.
This pandemic has shown many of us our vulnerability. Underneath our rough exteriors are hearts yearning for love, peace, and acceptance. I believe Americans can find hope through God's Word, experienced in a vibrant Christian community. Believers can help guide our searching nation from deep loss to great hope.
In Isaiah 61, we see the prophecy that culminates in the coming of Jesus:
The Sovereign Lord has filled me with His Spirit.
He has chosen me and sent me
To bring good news to the poor,
To heal the broken-hearted,
To announce release to captives
And freedom to those in prison. (61:1, GNT)
These verses present an opportunity to join Jesus in that mission of declaring good news and healing and freedom. This year of disease, division, and unrest has wounded us—even as it now offers fresh opportunities to declare a future of hope to our neighbors in need. As social distancing gives way to the rediscovered community, I'd challenge us to be aware of those in the Movable Middle who are—perhaps for the first time—considering God's role in their lives.
The Bible has comforted Americans for centuries, and God continues to speak through it. In 2021, as our world moves from the isolation of COVID-19 to a new normal, many have opened God's Word and found Him there. How will we come alongside them to live out the hope they find in those life-changing pages?
Perhaps this is our once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Dr. John Farquhar Plake is the Director of Ministry Intelligence at the American Bible Society.