Full Transcript of Episode 19: Bible Engagement and Its Impact on Spiritual Growth
Lizette Beard: [00:49] Podcasting from Nashville, Tennessee, this is “Keep Asking,” the weekly podcast that helps you dive in a bit deeper and wider into the research providing insights into today’s church and culture. Welcome back, everyone. I’m Lizette Beard. I’m here with my co‑hosts, Scott McConnell and Casey Oliver.[00:50] In today’s podcast, we are continuing our conversation about Bible engagement, pulling from a little bit of our research that we did on Americans and their Bible reading habits and views, but also looking at some other research that we’ve done in the past on the real impact that Bible reading has.
[01:10] To kick off, let’s talk a little bit about just reading. One of the things I noticed in our project that we did on why people have not read the Bible, nine percent said that they don’t read books. That’s a real issue. If they’re not a reader, then reading the Bible is not something they’re going to do.[01:35] What kind of book readers are you? What do you like read? Throw it on out there. Let’s let the listeners get to know us in our super personal, folksy kind of way.
Scott McConnell: [01:48] I’m actually a very slow reader, and so I probably read less than I did when I was younger. As a young person, I read a lot of biographies. I liked to understand a lot about people’s lives.
Lizette: [02:21] How about you, Casey?
Casey Oliver: [02:23] Some of it, I read some in just the spiritual growth encouragement type of space, so living‑for‑God type of books. I also read a lot of articles that are in that space. I go on Christianity Today or wherever, and I read a lot of articles. With a lot of books, I’m a reader who starts reading books.
Lizette: [02:49] [laughs]
Casey: [02:49] I’ve probably half‑read 50 books that I’m currently like, “Oh, I wanna go back and finish that at some point.” It’s one of those things where I feel like it’s easy for me to put something aside, and then say I’ll come back to it.[03:03] That’s something I’m working on a little bit, is trying to be somebody who, “I’m gonna read through this” and decide that I’m going to do that and keep doing it.
Lizette: [03:11] Sometimes, if a book is not very good ‑‑ which I’m not saying about the Bible, I’m talking about other books ‑‑ it’s OK to let that go. I’d break into “Let It Go” from “Frozen,” but I don’t think that would work out very well.
Scott: [03:23] Once you get the main point, why keep reading? They have to be giving you something compelling to keep it going. That’s why to me some of those biographies or those narratives, there’s a reason to finish. You want to know the rest of the story. Some of the teaching books, sometimes it’s easy to go, “I think I got your main point” and set it down.
Lizette: [03:46] When I was working on my master’s, actually my reading bone broke, and I switched over to audiobooks. Now I can pretty much listen to anything and enjoy…I can’t say wide variety because I’m still in this series of school doing a lot of regular reading.[04:05] I have found that comedy audiobooks can be really nice to break that, or spiritual encouragement audiobooks. I felt like I needed to work in something. Since Casey was being the godly one, I thought, “I need some bonus points in this area.”
Scott: [04:26] I would agree. As I’m looking for time to read, sometimes it’s like a long drive or something seems like the right time, and I can’t read and drive at the same time, or at least I shouldn’t.
Lizette: [04:36] [laughs] I don’t even want to know.
Scott: [04:39] That’s been what’s driven me to listen to some audiobooks. Of course, with even Bible apps nowadays, you pull up YouVersion and right at the bottom is a play button, and, “Oh, by the way, you could switch it to any language you want.”[04:54] If you meet somebody who speaks another language, you can show them that their language is right there, and the word is a click away.
Lizette: [05:03] This is a little bit of a sidetrack, but I actually find that reading in French if it is something in the Bible, if I’m having trouble concentrating, because I’d learned French to go overseas ‑‑ I studied French before I went overseas. I learned French while I was overseas.[05:25] Because I have to focus my attention so much, it is almost like I can focus better and get more out of the text in reading French. Anyway, that’s a complete side but bonus information. [05:42] One of the questions we had in the research was, “How have you typically approached reading the Bible on your own?” I’m going to spitball here and guess that, Scott, you’re systematic?
Scott: [05:58] Yes.
Lizette: [05:58] Tell us a little bit, not to divulge a whole bunch of your personal, but what’s systematic for you?
Scott: [06:06] It’s changed over time, but for a good while now I’ll read through a book of the Bible at a time. I’ve been alternating between the New and the Old Testament. I’m in the Book of Amos right now. I don’t require myself to read a chapter or more in a day.[06:24] Today, it was half a chapter. It was reading enough until I got a thought. I saw something. I felt like I was hearing a complete thought about God’s relationship with Israel at that time.
Lizette: [06:40] Are you enjoying Amos? Because Casey and I had a conversation the other day that I’ve recently just come to a good place with the minor prophets. [laughs]
Scott: [06:50] What did they ever do to you? [laughs]
Lizette: [06:52] I know. Again, this goes back to what we mentioned in a previous podcast. It was they always seemed really whiny. [laughs] There a little melodramatic. I get that that’s my problem, not their problem, because they had reason.[07:10] Seeing the story I’m to a place where, when I was going through those at the end of last year, I can honestly say it was the first personally meaningful time through there.
Scott: [07:25] I find that most books of the Bible, I may dread them going in, but they come to life once I’m in there. I often look for the descriptors, “OK. It’s pretty clear God’s mad at Israel. What are the descriptors? Why? You know, and are any of those true of me?”[07:45] To see a verse today where it’s saying in Chapter 5 that, “You say that I’m with you,” but the implication that God is giving right there is that He’s not because they’re not seeking Him. That wake‑up call there, “Am I or are we going through the motions, saying God’s with us when in fact we’re not actually seeking Him, so He’s not that close?”
Lizette: [08:11] As I was thinking about that, the systematic, and the benefits that come with that, and maybe who’s typically systematic, I’m coming to the assumption, because I’ve not done this.[08:25] My hypothesis is that listeners to a podcast dedicated to research on church and culture would probably tend to be the people who would land more on the systematic side of reading than the flip‑open method. Is that…? Would you…?
Scott: [08:38] I don’t know. They might be listening to these out of order.
Scott: [08:41] They’re tuning into the ones that look interesting.
Lizette: [08:45] That’s fair. The responses in the data that were actually more popular than systematic were, “Look up things when I have a need,” and, “Look at verses suggested by others.” What stood out to me is that those are situational. It’s what’s going on around them.[09:12] That’s what’s driving people and quite possibly very faithful people in here. “For when I have a need” Christians are more likely to select, and those with evangelical beliefs are more likely to select that than those without evangelical beliefs. [09:32] If you’re a leader, and anyone can jump in here, what can we say or what insights do we see from this to help shape the perspective of our listeners who may be systematic and maybe their goal is, “Let’s get everybody to be systematic,” but other folks are in a different space?
Casey: [09:57] I guess an awareness of the fact that they are, that’s a good first step because, like you said, we might think, “Oh, if you have these beliefs, if you’re, if you have evangelical beliefs, that means that you say the Bible is the highest authority for what you believe.”[10:13] You’re probably working your way through the whole of Scripture and trying to say, “Well, how does this, you know, apply to me? What is this saying? You know, h‑, how is God speaking to me on that? How do I make this an authority over me? Am I listening to that?” [10:25] We saw, even with that group, it’s only half of them who are saying they’re systematically reading through every day. Even that first step of awareness, of saying, “Oh, you know, I have people and a space other than where I’m trying to get them to,” instead of assuming, “Well, they say this is important, so they must be doing it.”
Scott: [10:45] We also see from our research that many Christians and definitely many Americans have not read the whole Bible, and so they haven’t heard the whole message. In fact, just under half of Americans say they’ve read half or more of the Bible, but just one out of five Americans say they’ve read all of it.[11:05] Reading a passage once, you often don’t catch everything that’s going on. As you read it again, you’re in a different place in your life, and so it can have new meaning, and you can relate to that passage in different ways. People who are not reading systematically, they’re not in the Bible on a regular basis are missing out on a lot of the richness that’s there.
Lizette: [11:30] Casey, one of the answers that we saw ‑‑ and I don’t want to spend too much time on it ‑‑ one of the reasons people gave for why they haven’t read the Bible more is they don’t see how it relates to them. I think that’s problematic.[11:49] If a leader or someone in ministry wants to impact people and get them excited about it, what do we know from previous research that ties in the impact or that reading the Bible actually does change?
Casey: [12:07] We absolutely know that it does relate to them, obviously, from a theological perspective, but also in our research we see that, overall, reading the Bible is the number one predictor of spiritual maturity.[12:21] This is from our Transformational Church Discipleship research, that we see that when people are reading the Bible, in a number of different attributes, from obeying God and denying self to seeking God, to being unashamed, to believing sound doctrine… [12:38] Even in the attributes where it’s not a direct influence, we’re still seeing things related to reading the Bible, so studying the Bible or being in a Bible study group, how those things are pushing people onward and predict some really positive spiritual maturity outcomes.
Lizette: [12:55] When you say attribute, what’s an attribute?
Casey: [12:59] We’re building a variable there saying, “Well, here are some, here are a few items, questions that are related,” and so we’re saying all these are about some underlying…That’s why I’m saying attribute ‑‑ that thing that’s the underlying variable below, “OK. We asked a couple of questions, but these are really about this thing.”
Lizette: [13:24] Don’t get grouchy with me, because here’s the next question. What’s a variable?
Casey: [13:29] A variable is a…
Lizette: [13:36] I’m totally psyched that you’re paused. Would it be a thing you can measure or a thing that could be counter?
Casey: [13:43] Listen, I don’t want to use the word thing because I know people don’t like it when the word thing is…
Lizette: [13:46] I think thing is great. [laughs]
Casey: [13:46] It’s a thing that can have different values. It could be yes or no. It could be one, two, or three. Something that takes on multiple values, that’s a variable.
Lizette: [13:55] Scott, you were more involved in this project. Would you say attribute? Would you feel comfortable saying characteristic when we’re talking about these things, characteristics or qualities?
Scott: [14:08] Yeah. It’s an area of following Christ, kind of a descriptive area. The way they took shape is what Casey was talking about, is there’s an underlying pattern of actually several elements that make up that attribute.[14:26] Yes, a variable, an element, is a data point. It’s something we can ask somebody specifically if it’s something they believe, if it’s something they do, if it’s something they desire to do. As we ask about those things, we get some variables to work with. That’s when Casey does his magic. [laughs]
Lizette: [14:44] His magic is all important. My magic, if you heard the other podcast, is manipulation. Back to, Casey, what you were talking about. Those are important things that you’re talking about, those characteristics, those attributes.
[15:00] Going back, “Which of the following describe the Bible?” 35 percent in our survey of Americans said, “The Bible is life changing.” It’s easy to think, “Well, OK. That’s probably the Christians” or, “That’s probably the whatever.”[15:14] When you look at the breakdown that you did, Christians are more likely to select, “The Bible is life changing” than other religions and nonreligious, but that’s still at 46 percent. Am I correct in understanding that that means 54 percent of Christians said, “Nah. I’m not gonna check that”?
Casey: [15:42] Yeah. It’s a little tricky sometimes with “select all” questions. It’s one of those things when sometimes the people who have already checked two or three, they might feel like, “OK. Well, I’ve, I’ve covered my bases a little bit. You know, some of these other ones describe it better maybe than life changing.”[15:56] Maybe they felt like “Good source of morals,” which I’m not sure that’s the ideal response, but we saw that that’s something that people selected a lot, and I think it is that as well. Sometimes people feel like in a select all, “I’m gonna check these ones that feel like they’re the best descriptors, rather than yes/no on every single one.” [16:16] If they didn’t select this, they would say it’s not life changing.
Lizette: [16:23] Anything else that you saw in this other research on the change or the results that we saw in people reading the Bible?
Casey: [16:34] Getting back to the idea of, “Well, what are we actually talking about when we say this predicts, you know, it’s the number one predictor of spiritual maturity?” That can sound confusing to people.[16:46] The idea that these are related, and we know that it’s not a completely independent/dependent relationship where, “Oh, if we just get them to do this thing, then all the other stuff works itself out.” [16:59] There’s something cyclical that happens in a lot of these where, “OK. Hey, if they’re reading the Bible, then they’re becoming a little bit more unashamed of their faith in that,” or they’re seeking God a little bit more. [17:09] Then, as God is working in their lives, they’re saying, “Oh, now they’re feeling really convicted and compelled, like, ‘Oh, I really wanna read the Bible more.'” We can’t look at one and say that the other ones aren’t being affected, or it’s not all cause and effect there, but we see that people who are reading the Bible all that other stuff does seem to be happening at higher levels as well.
Lizette: [17:31] You say predict. Are you using witchcraft when you…?
Casey: [17:37] I can’t say yes because we’re on a Lifeway podcast.
Lizette: [17:40] That is correct.[17:41] That would be the incorrect answer. Predicting, that’s a bold statement.
Casey: [17:45] Sure. We’ve got some response variable. Again, I’m going to try to say it. We’ve got this thing, this variable that we’re trying to predict, so we’re saying, “Are you doing this thing or not?” if it’s a yes or a no type of thing or maybe, “How often are you doing this thing?”[18:07] Or we say there are a lot of other variables, a lot of other things that could help explain whether that’s happening or not happening, or how often it’s happening, or whatever we’re trying to predict there. [18:19] We’re using regression there and some model selection to be able to say, “Well, of all these potential explanatory variables, here’s the ones that help explain whether that thing is happening or not best.” [18:32] What we saw over and over again was reading the Bible rising to the top there as being the most predictive even in the presence of several other variables of spiritual maturity.
Lizette: [18:43] I’m going to have you break that down a little bit ‑‑ regression and then model selection. Pretend ‑‑ I’m not going to say me, because I was a little too self‑deprecating in the earlier podcast that made it sound like I was mentally impaired ‑‑ but pretend there’s a 10‑year‑old here.[19:01] I’m not implying our listeners are 10‑year‑olds, but you have a master’s in stats.
Casey: [19:07] We know we have listeners with varied backgrounds in terms of [inaudible] .
Lizette: [19:12] Why is regression important? Because I hear you guys saying that all the time.
Casey: [19:16] It’s just a tool. Sometimes, it’s the best tool. Other times, there are other tools in your toolkit that work better. What that tool does is you’re saying, “Hey, we really want to know, you know, we wanna see how other things relate to this one thing, this one thing that we care about, you know?”[19:34] We care about, “Are they obeying God?” All these different ways, we care about that. What relates to that? We might look at correlations, and we might say, “Oh, well, you know, when this thing is higher or this other thing is higher,” and we could say that for a hundred other things that we looked at. [19:53] Then, instead of being left in that place of saying, “Oh, there are a lot of things that seem like they go up and down at the same time obeying God goes up and down,” that model selection piece is being able to say, “Well, on the presence of these other things.” [20:04] Even once we know, “Are they involved in service or not?” even once we know, “Are they taking these other action steps?” still even knowing all of that, reading the Bible still matters a lot.
Lizette: [20:20] When you’re measuring all those things, and you’ve got all the things in a bucket, reading the Bible bubbles up as really important?
Casey: [20:29] Yeah. You’d say, “Hey, you know, yeah, even if we know all these other things, reading the Bible still matters.”[20:35] Once we know reading the Bible, maybe some of those other relationships we see are more spurious or conditional upon, “Oh, you know, really this thing we see correlates well with obeying God is really just because it also is something that people who read the Bible are also more prone to do,” so it’s through reading the Bible that those things are related. [20:55] That gets thrown out. The model selection and the ones that matter the most wind up rising to the top.
Scott: [21:01] I think that that makes our recent data even more important, because if Bible reading is this important, if it can have this impact on your life spiritually, so many different areas of your spiritual life, then when we see that only 49 percent of those with evangelical beliefs…[21:17] To have evangelical beliefs, it means that you’re saying that, “The Bible is the highest authority for what I believe.” Only 49 percent of people with evangelical beliefs are actually reading the Bible systematically. We only see a little more than 4 out of 10 evangelicals saying they’ve actually read all of the Bible ever in their life. [21:38] When we see that disconnect, it’s a bit of a wake‑up call for pastors because this is one of the key elements of being engaged in the church, being engaged in following Christ. We’re seeing a gap where what we’re saying needs to be done and what people are actually doing is a big gap. [22:02] It’s a wake‑up call that engagement isn’t always what we want it to be. We can’t assume that what we’re wanting is what’s actually happening. We actually have to ask. We need to ask people if they’re engaged and on what level, because we’ll often hear a couple of Amens when we share a truth in church, but silence is not affirmation. In our culture today, silence is politeness. [22:27] [laughter]
Scott: [22:32] There’s an element in which people aren’t necessarily saying that Scripture reading is bad, but they’re not on board as far as, “I’m ready to…I’m doing it.” A lot of times, we miss that. For other ministry leaders, the same implication is there, that your followers, your employees, your donors may not be as engaged as you think they are.[23:01] If you don’t have some metrics, if you don’t have some questions that you’re asking to see how engaged they really are in your mission and in some of the actions your mission is built upon, you’re not going to know how pervasive that is. [23:18] Even though that may be your main message, if your ministry is sharing the gospel verbally, how many people are actually doing that? If your ministry is rectifying injustices, how may people are actually engaging in that? If you don’t have those metrics, if you’re not asking those questions, we can assume the engagement is much, much higher than it actually is.
Lizette: [23:43] All of this is good news because it’s the Bible. See what I did there? We’re talking about the Bible reading influencing other areas of discipleship and spiritual growth, but we also saw on that study that there’s areas of spiritual growth that impact higher Bible engagement.[24:07] Some of those included within the area of Bible engagement, obviously reading and studying the Bible were the top ones, but I though this one, the third highest impact, “Confess my sins and wrongdoings to God and ask for forgiveness,” so the more likely someone is to do that, then their Bible engagement goes up. [24:29] I see that as helping us move outside of the…I don’t want to say the coldness of data because these two people in the room would not think data is cold, but helps us look back and say, “OK. There’s something going on there.” [24:45] When someone is putting themselves before the living and active word of God, and then they’re being transparent, confessing their sins, asking for forgiveness, they’re putting themselves in a place for that relationship. [25:00] That’s what is happening with God. We can see it, we can observe it, we can measure some of this, but then there’s something way beyond what stats or data and research can do. [25:15] A couple of others that are reminders that Bible engagement is also whole‑life engagement, one of the things from our Transformational Discipleship study, “Praying for the spiritual status of people I know who are not professing Christians” has an impact. [25:37] The more you can encourage people to be doing that, that helps also increase the likelihood of higher Bible engagement, so I think whole‑person prayer and more openness to God at work in their lives.
Casey: [25:55] I think that this is one of those places where I feel like there is that positive feedback loop too. We want to look at it and say, “This causes this,” or, “This causes this,” but I think they cause each other too.[26:05] When you’re reading the Bible, and when you’re convicted of your sin, you’re led to confession. When you’re confessing your sins, you feel right with God, and you feel that closer relationship to Him, and you’re led to His word. [26:19] I feel like you can get into those cycles of positive feedback happening where this leads to this, which leads to even more of this. That could happen. That is one of the things we see in here, as well as that idea that these concepts are related, but we think probably related in both directions.
Lizette: [26:36] We’re not assuring anyone of prosperity gospel, correct?
Casey: [26:40] I was [inaudible] . We’re not.
Casey: [26:42] I think that we’re able to say that one of our positive outcomes was not anything related to getting rich. That one didn’t show up in there.
Lizette: [26:57] I didn’t want to sound like we were giving a formula for always getting positive outcomes, but that’s OK. Also tormenting you a little bit. Thank you, guys. This was good.[27:11] [background music]
Lizette: [27:11] I hope it was good. We’ll actually let the listeners tell us that. We would love your feedback. If you would go in to iTunes and rate and review, we would appreciate that. Also give us your feedback via Twitter ‑‑ Twitter is probably the best place ‑‑ @smcconn, @StatsGuyCasey, and @LizetteBeard.[27:33] You can find out more about our research if you go to lifewayresearch.com. Thanks again. We’ll see you next time. Bye.
- Americans Are Fond of the Bible, Don’t Actually Read It by Lifeway Research
- Bible Engagement in Churchgoers’ Hearts, Not Always Practiced by Lifeway Research