Faith community, small group participation dropped during pandemic: survey

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A new survey has found that among Bible readers, participation in a community of faith, such as small groups, has dropped significantly, largely due to the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns.

The 176-page report from the American Bible Society and the Barna Group examines many themes related to the Bible and its role in the culture, such as measuring Scripture engagement, discipleship, well-being, technology use, and social and political identities.

Researchers found that in January, 49% of Bible users indicated that they were part of a faith community with whom they could explore and talk about spiritual topics. That figure dropped to 39% in June.

Likewise, 43% of Bible users in January were participating in a small group where the Bible was the central focus. By June, only 32% were involved in a Bible-focused small group.

Mike Seawright, an associate minister at Truro Anglican Church in Fairfax, Virginia, just outside Washington, D.C., told The Christian Post that while he does not know what the post-pandemic church looks like, he doubts it will be a return to "normal" as was known before COVID-19 swept the globe.

"I find myself wondering if there is an opportunity for us to turn away from the individualistic, consumer-oriented Christianity that often drives the contemporary American Protestant expression of Christianity, and turn toward a more participatory expression of faith," Seawright said.

"I do think pastors spend far too much time worrying when we ought to be spending that time learning (and teaching our congregations) to pay attention to what God is doing. And at the end of the day, the good news is still that Jesus is King, regardless of the upheaval in the world around us."

He added that a particular temptation exists to try to be “ahead of the curve,” to be fresh and innovative. This creative impulse can be good but can also disrupt the primary calling as Christians which is to follow Jesus.

"I think we can put so much pressure to do, do, do, always moving to the next idea, that we never actually grow roots, or get to know our neighbors. I can’t help but wonder if there might be an invitation in this season to 'stick to the old roads,'" he said, referencing the words of musician and songwriter Andrew Peterson. "To read the Bible and do what it says, to love our neighbors well, to serve joyfully, to preach faithfully, to learn again to pay attention to the Spirit."

The question facing churches in these unusual times is not "what should we do?” but "who is God calling us to be?” he said.

Approximately 80% of U.S. households possess at least one Bible, the study noted, and just under 70% indicated that they use the Bible occasionally.

"In June, most respondents (65%) indicated their use of the Bible had 'stayed the same,' while one in five (21%) said it had increased and only one in 10 (10%) said it had decreased," the State of the Bible researchers found.

"Compared to January, the proportion showing change in their use of the Bible decreased slightly from a combined total of 33% to 31%. While nationwide changes in Bible reading habits were negligible, people who were personally impacted by COVID-19 were more likely than average to increase their use of the Bible."

Among practicing Christians, a majority (around 84%) agreed that the pandemic has strengthened their faith. Non-practicing Christians were more likely to disagree (53%) that the pandemic has strengthened their faith than agree (46%). 

The American Bible Society's State of the Bible report was structured differently this year because of the complications and unusual church dynamics that the pandemic caused.

For nine years, ABS has released its annual Bible report around the Easter holiday, when many Americans are thinking about Christianity and the Bible. This year, instead of a single report, the group released an ebook in July and subsequent chapters are being released each month until December.

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