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How big data can transform Americans’ engagement with the Bible

How big data can transform Americans’ engagement with the Bible

American Bible Society

Big data has made tremendous breakthroughs in how we see, understand and live in the world. Thanks to data science – the ability to analyze massive sets of data – drivers can use apps like Waze to avoid traffic and road construction; track their steps and sleep with Fitbit to optimize their health and fitness; and customize treatments for diseases through precision medicine and pharmacogenetics.    

Big data has helped solve some of our most significant challenges, so why isn’t every faith leader engaging with data to solve their unique challenges and directly address the spiritual needs of their community?

According to the 2019 State of the Bible, nearly half of all adults are Bible users, either reading, listening to or using the Bible at least three times a year outside of a church service, which isn’t surprising, considering the average American household owns at least three Bibles. But more than half of adults (56%) express a desire to use the Bible more often.

What this incongruity shows is that Bible access isn’t a problem for most Americans. Still, many people yearn for more from the Bible and guidance on how to apply the Bible to their lives. More than three out of five adults (63%) believe that the Bible contains everything a person needs to know to live a meaningful life. At the same time, four out of five say the values and morals of America are declining, but only 28% turn to their Bible for comfort during a crisis.

The problem is that people don’t know where to look for answers. Those who are curious about the Bible and looking for guidance on what to read aren’t going to their pastors. They’re going to the internet. Google has become the de facto guide for the spiritual formation of the developed world today.

But Google is not a spiritual guide. Google’s search results are ranked based on popularity, advertising and relevance to a user’s past searches. To help people grow in their journey with God, especially younger Americans, faith leaders must rely on new and innovative tools and techniques specifically geared toward faith and very intentionally built on integrity, truth and wise counsel.

The good news is, big data on the spiritual lives of churchgoing adults are available. At American Bible Society, we are using surveys and other research techniques to gauge the strengths and growth opportunities for various churches, cities and communities. Typically, churches assess their effectiveness through attendance and donations. But now we are using tools to gain objective, reliable data that can help churches lead their congregations on a more effective transformative journey and strengthen their engagement with the Bible.

For example, beginning in 2005, Willow Creek Community Church in Barrington, Illinois launched a survey that ultimately reached over 2,000 churches and 500,000 congregants. Over the course of a 10 year study, the team worked to understand key metrics around congregational health. What they found was that many churches were growing attendance, but they weren’t really always growing and empowering the people coming through their doors. Using the new data, church leaders made informed decisions and ultimately produced significant increases in Bible engagement, congregational satisfaction, and overall spiritual growth.

On an individual level, data can be used to help people advance in their unique spiritual journeys. The Bible can be an intimidating book, especially to younger generations. As a former university campus pastor, I was constantly being told by students, “I know the Bible has advice that can help me, but I don’t know how to find it.”

New technology, like apps, create accessible ways to find and understand responsibly curated scripture. That becomes an onramp for people’s long-term engagement with the Bible. Some apps I have found to be particularly effective are the YouVersion Holy Bible app and the goTandem Bible engagement app, which provides personalized biblical content based on your unique needs.

In our work with faith leaders, we at American Bible Society are developing a tool called SERMA – the Scriptural Engagement Resource Matching Algorithm – that uses 17 specific questions to help congregants figure out where they are in their spiritual journey. Just like Instagram and Netflix use algorithms to match people with products and content they’re interested in, churches can use algorithms to match people with the faith resources that would benefit them the most. With the growing complexity of today’s world, faith leaders are encountering new situations - from immigration to the #MeToo movement - that their previous experience may not have adequately equipped them to address. But effective outside resources are becoming increasingly available.  

As a faith community, we can lead the way by using data to adopt biblical metrics that make us more effective leaders. Ideally, we don’t just monitor how many people are coming on Sundays, but also how many lives are being changed in the process. This is a long-term but attainable goal for the Christian community in America.

The Bible needs a place in public discourse. It needs to be a meaningful part of everyday conversation, so people are better equipped to handle the complex emotional and moral challenges of today’s society. Whether it’s through a printed book or a digital resource, people can come to see Scripture as a beloved resource that gives them wisdom and hope. They just need to know where to start.

Dr. John Farquhar Plake is the director of ministry intelligence at American Bible Society.