By Aaron Earls
Netflix or Nehemiah? Disney+ or Daniel? When confronted with the choice, Americans including Christians are choosing streaming over Scripture.
Bibles saw growing sales earlier this year but have since felt slumping usage. In the meantime, streaming services have drawn in more viewers during the pandemic.
What does that mean for churches as they begin to gather again and restart Bible studies?
Hope of spring showers
As the pandemic altered life in the U.S. this spring, Bible sales saw dramatic increases. Lifeway reported a 62% increase over last year. Other publishers and sellers noted similar trends.
In April, as the pandemic stretched into the second month, Pew Research reported 24% of Americans felt their faith had grown during the coronavirus outbreak. Even 7% of the religious unaffiliated say their faith grew.
The vast majority of those who regularly attended church in person (82%) said their church was providing means to watch worship services online or on TV.
When Lifeway Research asked pastors in April what concerns were top of mind, the most frequent responses were staying connected to the congregation (30%), church finances (26%), technological challenges (16%), offering pastoral care from a distance (12%), and helping members without access to technology (11%).
For many pastors, those hopes of renewed Bible reading and spiritual growth from home seem like distance memories as new research shows Christians have become less engaged with Scripture during the pandemic.
Gone as well are concerns about connection and technology. They’ve been replaced by worries over church division and personal exhaustion.
Reality of summer heat
As the pandemic and shelter-in-place edicts have stretched on, Americans and even Christians have turned less to Scripture and more to streaming.
Streaming services have seen significant growth, as 28% of consumers report adding at least one new service since February. The five major video streaming services (Netflix, YouTube, Hulu, Amazon Video, and Disney+) all saw an increase in total hours viewed.
Viewers themselves admit they are watching more now, with 3 in 4 overall and 80% of those under 35 saying they have watched more streaming content since the pandemic began.
Often times this added binging has taken away and even taken the place of Bible reading.
When Pew Research asked how they coped with the coronavirus outbreak, 89% of Americans say they watch TV or movies at least weekly. Around half (55%) say they pray, and 29% say they read Scripture at least once a week.
The numbers are even more stark when comparing daily activities. Three in 4 Americans (73%) say they are coping with the pandemic through daily TV viewing. Only 43% say the same about prayer, and just 17% turn to the Bible each day.
While Christians are more likely to turn to the Bible to help deal with COVID-related stress, they’re still less likely to do so compared to watching TV or other activities, according to Pew Research.
To cope with the coronavirus outbreak, Christians are more likely to turn to watching TV or movies (90%), spending time outdoors (85%), talking on the phone or by video with family or friends (72%), and exercise (64%) than reading Scripture (42%).
In the American Bible Society’s (ABS) annual State of the Bible study, they found people who use the Bible at least once a week had held “fairly steady right up to COVID-19, and then COVID-19 messed everyone up,” John Plake of the ABS told Religion New Service (RNS).
The percentage of Americans, the ABS considers “Scripture engaged” dropped from 28% to 22.7% between January, when they first began their study, and June, when they updated their study to reflect the impact of the pandemic.
“What we saw between January and June was that 13 million people in America, who were previously really engaging meaningfully with Scripture, no longer were, and that was a serious drop off,” Plake told RNS.
Lifeway Research studies found close to a third of both regular churchgoers and evangelicals by belief say they read the Bible daily—fewer than those who say they check Facebook or watch YouTube each day.
Churches need to re-engage many individuals who regularly sat in pews each week and previously spent time in Scripture study on their own.
While Americans may have more Bibles in their homes than before the pandemic, they are reading it less frequently.
Drawing these formerly disciplined individuals back into regular Bible reading, small group study, and physical church attendance may be more difficult than church leaders assumed at the beginning of COVID-19.
AARON EARLS (@WardrobeDoor) is online editor for Facts & Trends.