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Evangelical churches have higher percentage of 'practicing Christians' than mainline, new poll finds

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A new survey reveals that evangelicals account for a higher share of practicing Christians than their mainline counterparts.

The American Bible Society released the seventh chapter of its 11th annual State of the Biblereport Thursday, titled “The Bible in the American Church.” Data in the chapter was based on a survey of 3,354 adults conducted in January.

The chapter differentiates between self-identified Christians and practicing Christians. A practicing Christian is defined as one who “identifies as a Christian, attends a religious service at least once a month, [and] strongly agrees their faith is very important in their lives.” In contrast to practicing Christians, who “have incorporated the faith into their life and routine in a transformative way,” self-identified Christians are those who “simply say they believe.”

The study found that practicing Christians account for 42% of those affiliated with the evangelical tradition, 31% of historically black denominations, 28% of mainline Protestants and 22% of Catholics. Additionally, two-thirds of practicing Christians (67%) are Scripture engaged, 29% are in the movable middle, while 4% are Scripture disengaged.

An earlier chapter in the report outlined the different categories of “Scripture engagement,” which respondents were placed into based on a “Scripture engagement scale” created from responses to a questionnaire about the frequency that they read the Bible, the impact it has on their life and the centrality of its influence on the user’s choices and decisions.

Bible Engaged Christians achieved a score of at least 100 on the Scripture engagement scale. They were defined as those who “interact with the Bible regularly,” the values and principles of which “mostly influence their relationships with God and others.”

Those in the “Movable Middle” received a score ranging from 70 to 99 on the Scripture engagement scale and “range from those who sporadically interact with the Bible on the low end, to those who periodically open the Bible as a source of spiritual insight and wisdom.” The “Bible disengaged” scored less than 70 on the Scripture engagement scale and “interact infrequently with the Bible,” which has “minimal influence on their daily lives.”

The survey also found that three-quarters (75%) of practicing Christians read their Bible at least once a week, while 84% read the Bible at least monthly. By contrast, just 28% of non-practicing Christians engage with the Scripture on at least a weekly basis, and 39% read the Bible at least once a month. The groups with the highest rates of practicing Christians engaging in weekly Bible reading were evangelicals (93%), historically black Protestants (87%) and mainline Protestants (80%).

A plurality of practicing Christians (46%) believe that “the Bible is the actual Word of God and should be taken literally, word for word,” while an additional 40% agree with a statement asserting that “the Bible is the inspired Word of God and has no errors although some verses are meant to be symbolic rather than literal.” A plurality of self-identified Christians (34%) sympathize with the latter point of view.

Baby boomers account for the plurality of practicing Christians among evangelicals (34%), historically black Protestant churches (35%) and Catholics (36%). The only denomination where millennials comprise a majority of practicing Christians is mainline Protestants, where 27% of millennials fall into the category, followed by 23% of baby boomers.

While 50% of practicing Christians reported that the amount of Bible reading they have engaged in has increased over the past year, just 21% of self-identified Christians said the same. Increases in Bible reading were largest among evangelical practicing Christians, 55% of whom said they spent more time with the Bible in the past year. A majority of historically black Protestant practicing Christians (54%) also reported a growth in Bible engagement over the same time period.

Reacting to the data from the latest chapter of the State of the Bible report in a statement, John Farquhar Plake, the director of ministry intelligence for the American Bible Society, said, “Across all traditions, the Church needs to recognize that there are a growing number of people who call themselves Christians but don’t actually know how to interact with the Bible or live a life dedicated to Christ.” Plake expressed optimism that the number of practicing Christians will increase going forward.

“The data show us a real opportunity to step into that gap to actively encourage and disciple believers to engage with God’s Word,” he added.

Ryan Foley is a reporter for The Christian Post. He can be reached at: ryan.foley@christianpost.com

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