Apps Of The Apostles: Do Millennials Read The Bible In The Digital Age?


Do millennials still care about the Bible?

A survey of 'The Bible and Digital Millennials' is currently being undertaken by the CODEC Research Centre for Digital Theology at Durham University. The research hopes to produce "a snapshot of how the Bible is used, viewed and thought about by Christian digital millennials (that is 18-35 year olds who feel at home in the digital world eg use social media, shop online)."

Earlier this year the American Bible Society (ABS) and Barna Group published the findings and insights of six years of research into Bible engagement in the United States. Last year the Evangelical Alliance (EA) published its research into the spiritual habits of young adults in the UK.

These studies don't answer every question about millennials' spirituality, nor could they: the 18-35 year age group is still a very diverse one and religious attitudes and habits are extremely complex. But millennials like me can still reflect on how our attitudes to the Bible may have changed, and if we need to change ourselves in response.

More engaged – in the Church anyway

The finding of the US study was actually somewhat surprising. Although it is well documented that millennials are leaving the Church in droves, the research suggested that those who stay are actually more likely to take faith and the Bible seriously than those from other demographics. For example, the survey showed that practising millennials are more likely to believe the Bible came from God and read it multiple times a week than any other generation (87 per cent). The vast majority – 96 per cent – of respondents believe the Bible contains everything a person needs to know to live a meaningful life and 55 per cent said Bible reading is more important than church attendance.

However, this increased reverence and engagement is only evident inside the Church. If Christian millennials have an increasingly high view of scripture, then non-Christian millennials have an increasingly low view of it. Sixty-two per cent of them have never read the Bible, while the most common descriptions of it include "story" (50 per cent), "mythology" (38 per cent), "symbolic" (36 per cent), "fairy tale" (30 per cent) and "historical" (30 per cent).

One in five say the Bible is "an outdated book with no relevance for today" (19 per cent), while more than a quarter say the Bible is "a dangerous book of religious dogma used for centuries to oppress people" (27 per cent).

Such characterisations, for anyone who talks to non-Christians, watches the news or has been to Church, should not be totally surprising. Furthermore, since few Christians truly live in a complete bubble, it would be strange if there were not some overlap between attitudes from non-Christians and attitudes of Christians. Both live in the same culture, so shared attitudes, even with differences of religious belief, should be expected. Might some Christian millennials therefore be increasingly less inclined to take the Bible seriously, or see it as more as a collection of stories than the literal, inerrant, absolute word of God? From my experience, that kind of approach may not be widespread, but is increasingly common among young adult Christians, while many Church leaders and theologians reconsider past approaches to interpreting Scripture and applying it today. 

My own experience is that regular Bible reading and study is less common among the millennial generation. In the Barna survey 50 per cent said that silence and solitude were more important than church attendance, while 49 per cent that prayer was more important. EA's survey suggested that around 63 per cent of young adults in the UK are praying daily, while only a quarter are reading their Bibles daily. The vast difference here between UK and US millennial attitudes to Bible reading is worthy of note. 

Why might prayer take precedence over the Bible? It may be a sign of shifting attitudes: if the Bible is taken less seriously, then there will be less of an interest in reading and studying it daily. Another reason may be more experiential. Millennials may be more interested in experience than mere words or abstract knowledge. Prayer invites people into a unique, profound interaction with the divine, while the practices of silence and solitude offer unmatched solace from a noisy, hyperactive and stressful world. Prayer and silence are ancient practices, not niche or dangerous 'new age' alternatives to orthodox faith. Could it be that in this regard, the more experientially minded millennials have something to teach the rest of the Church?

The digital age: positive progress or tragic decline?

A decisive influence on millennials and the Bible is of course the advance of the digital age, and the evolution of social media. Do technological advances and changing ways of reading the Bible mark positive progress, or tragic decline?

The digitisation of the Bible into apps that you can access with just a touch on your phone has transformed the way we access Scripture. It's far more accessible, and reading plans like 'The Bible in One Year' lay out the relevant passages and our progress clearly and helpfully. You don't even need a pen to highlight verses. As such, 66 per cent of millennials most often read the Bible on the internet, and 51 per cent via an e-reader/app. One in four of those who said their Bible reading had increased attributed that to the availability of the Bible on their phone/tablet.

Curiously though, even though the sight of young adults glued face down to their devices is now a common one, millennials are still more likely to read the Bible in print (81 per cent), or aloud in church (78 per cent).

The Digital Bible: a help, or a hindrance to the spiritual life?Reuters

Teachnology may be a hindrance, not a help, when it comes to hearing from God. Could it be that the digitisation of the Bible, while improving its accessibility, can also inhibit its perceived value in our lives? Millennials are bombarded daily by news updates, social media, and digital entertainment all viewed on a screen. We're overwhelmed with words, and over-saturated with screens. Making the Bible an 'app' alongside News, Facebook, and email can desacralise it, potentially reducing it to simply more 'content' to be absorbed on one's device. Spiritual life may become less about "Have I heard from and spoken to and rested in God today?" and more a question of "Have I absorbed the latest reading?" Indeed in competition with the relentless 140 character outbursts available on Twitter, a lengthy reading from the Bible may seem comparatively arduous and unappealing.

That may be one of the reasons that print is still the Bible's most popular form: it reminds one that the Bible is more than just its words, and that its form will influence the way in which we approach it. 

As culture rapidly evolves, we inevitably change with it – we are of course part of it. Then again, some things don't change as much as one might expect.

In a digital, increasingly secular age where you'd think the Bible would be soon left behind, many seem to still take it pretty seriously. Not simply as an abstract book of commands either, but rather as part of its inherent, profound claim that God speaks, and can be trusted. Or as Isaiah 40:8 says: "The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God endures forever."