The disconnect crystalized 12 years ago when I (Dru) started teaching an introductory Old Testament class to freshmen. Every semester, devout Christian students would report to me that they read their Bibles every day. They could even recite key verses from memory. They were fluent in Christian theological clichés. Yet despite their constant engagement with the Bible, they were shocked by what we found in Genesis—such as there being some things God appears not to know (Gen. 11:5; 18:21; 22:12)—not to mention Judges.

I began to realize that their poor grasp of Scripture wasn’t necessarily due to a lack of reading, although that’s also a large problem in the US. From 2021 to 2022, Bible engagement—scored on frequency of use, spiritual impact, and moral importance in day-to-day life—fell 21 percent among American adult Bible users. It was the American Bible Society’s largest recorded one-year drop in its annual State of the Bible study. And almost 1 in 5 churchgoers said they never read the Bible.

But for my students, many of whom read the Bible daily and have chosen to attend a Christian college, their poor grasp on and application of Scripture seems to be due to the way they engage with it. It is a way many American Christians have been reading the Bible for decades: through “daily devotions” or “quiet time.”

The way daily quiet time is typically practiced today is unlikely to yield the fluency required to understand and apply biblical teaching. Only when devotional time is situated within a matrix of Scripture study habits can it regain its power to transform our thinking and our communities.

How could my students be reading the Bible so much yet have so little understanding of the Torah, pay almost no attention to its focus on the new heavens and new earth, and be confused over concepts like salvation and evil? CT previously discussed the Lifeway Research statistics that reveal this trend of Bible illiteracy among the wider population. Their daily devotion to Scripture seemed to distance them from understanding key parts of it.

“As a whole,” Ed Stetzer wrote in 2017, “Americans, including many Christians, hold unbiblical views on hell, sin, salvation, Jesus, humanity, and the Bible itself.” Like many American Christians, my students didn’t seem to understand details required to grasp the whole sweep of Scripture.

When I pastored a church in the early 2000s, these theological concepts were considered basic matters that my 80-year-old parishioners (some with only high school diplomas!) seemed to understand deeply and apply to their lives and ministries. Like my students, these Christians from the Greatest Generation also practiced short devotional readings every day.

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However, thanks to various forms of study over time, they often understood the context of the passage they were meditating on—what came before and after it. They might have read one small passage every day, but they did so to integrate it into their wider understanding of Scripture gleaned from more robust engagement outside of daily reading.

But my students who do not practice more robust forms of traditional Bible engagement—such as inductive Bible study, yearly Bible reading plans, the lectionary, or lectio divina—have few tools to help situate a daily meditation on a verse such as “What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Rom. 8:31). Such microdosing of Scripture without a grasp of the whole can easily distort our interpretations. Time-tested traditions of long-form Scripture engagement expose us to and familiarize us with the contents of Scripture.

Only when devotional time is situated within a matrix of Scripture study habits can it regain its power to transform our thinking and our communities.

When my freshmen described their daily quiet times, I began to understand some of the disconnect. They lacked extended communal readings of Scripture where it was safe to interrogate the text and puzzle over its meaning.

For them, Scripture reading was an individual’s responsibility with a necessary outcome: God showing the reader something from the passage that is immediately relevant to his or her life. Many were playing Bible roulette every morning, letting the Scriptures open to any page and asking God to show them what they should learn from the verses. Some of them would read just one verse a day. Others read a passage, or maybe a chapter.

Even when this practice superficially resembles their grandmother’s or great-grandfather’s daily habit, its effects can be entirely different. Most of my students, even the ones who had some sort of church or institutional Bible training, were caught off-guard by basic questions that I was asking about the Bible in their hands. Without context and more understanding, their thin study of Scripture only compounded their ignorance and misunderstanding over time.

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This phenomenon of reading without understanding is becoming more widely apparent. The Center for Hebraic Thought, the organization Celina and I lead, hosted a conference on Bible literacy in October 2021, gathering leaders specializing in Bible engagement and education. Nearly two dozen organizations were represented, including American Bible Society, The Gospel Coalition, Council for Christian Colleges & Universities, and Museum of the Bible, as well as seminary faculty, You-Tubers, software designers, and Bible curriculum experts.

When I told them stories about my devout students who misunderstood the Torah and the Gospels, everyone agreed they had seen this same phenomenon in their own spheres and were equally concerned by the apparent inefficacy of many Christians’ devotional reading habits.

My students were not Bible literate. They didn’t really know the stories, characters, ideas, and themes in the Bible, much less how the literature itself fits together and argues for a particular view of the world. And as Christians, we must aim beyond basic literacy. We hope to know and practice the thinking and instruction of Scripture fluently, extending its wisdom into all the areas of life that it doesn’t directly address.

For example, someone who is Bible literate will know that ancient Israel’s justice system as described in the Torah did not involve incarceration or police. But someone who is Bible fluent will know that this fact doesn’t automatically mean that we must eradicate all jails and police forces. Instead, the Bible-fluent person will be able to discern the underlying principles in the Torah—the deep structural themes and guidance that would inform and shape our thinking about crime, policing, and incarceration today.

Literacy focuses on knowing the vocabulary and grammar of Scripture—what is in the Bible and how the literature works. Fluency is the ability to think alongside the repeated teaching of Scripture and extend its thinking and practices into modern situations—where all the variables may be different from those in the ancient context but the principles are the same.

If mere literacy were the goal, people would just need to know most of what the Bible contains. But basic knowledge of “Bible facts” is insufficient. Scripture itself demands that God’s people meditate on and practice its instructions as a community to become wise (Deut 4:10, 30:9–10). God told Israel that his instruction through Moses was so all of Israel—men, women, foreigners, natives, young, and old—would become “a wise and understanding people” (Deut. 4:6). Jesus claims that practicing his instruction will do the same (Matt 7:24) but merely knowing the texts will not (Luke 18:18–30).

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If we cannot fluently apply biblical principles, extending the thinking of Scripture into matters of cryptocurrency, police and prison reform, sexual and gender identity, and everything else the biblical authors did not directly address, then we are not the wise and discerning people God desires us to be.

Image: Unsplash / Aaron Owens / Roberto Nickson

For many Christians, particularly evangelicals, the morning quiet time is “perhaps the most basic of all spiritual disciplines,” writes David Parker in a 1991 issue of Evangelical Quarterly. “Daily devotions” are so fundamental to many evangelicals’ concept of a relationship with God that they can’t imagine faithful Christianity without it. But its current iteration—at least in the US today—is only about 150 years old.

Many evangelicals make the case for daily devotions by citing Matthew 6:6: “Go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen.” But this passage doesn’t account for the particular form quiet time generally takes.

Today’s quiet time typically involves bringing a Bible into a private place, “doing so first thing in the morning, not using prescribed written forms of prayer, [but] sitting quietly, and expecting God to speak to you with concrete guidance for the day,” writes Greg Johnson, lead pastor of Memorial Presbyterian Church in St. Louis, in his dissertation From Morning Watch to Quiet Time.

Johnson traces the modern practice of quiet time to the 1870s, when American evangelicals merged two previously separate Puritan devotional practices: private prayer and private Bible study. This fusion of prayer and Bible study morphed into “morning watch,” which emphasized intercessory prayer. From there it became “quiet time,” which deemphasized intercessory prayer in favor of quiet listening or meditation. This new emphasis on individuals receiving daily insights from God transformed the nature of the Bible engagement taught to generations of American Christians.

Daily devotions have been characteristically solitary and have not usually involved rigorous study of Scripture. Instead, readers often focus on one chapter or even a few verses per session, from which they may expect to receive God’s guidance for their personal life in that moment. Daily devotions typically include a period of prayerful “listening” for God’s voice, which is believed to manifest either in the verses read that session or via direct communication to the mind of the listener.

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Though this listening may be expectant, it is essentially passive. It’s often guided by a tacit belief that God’s Word speaks and transforms through sudden insights directed at individual readers, rather than through sustained study and active questioning in community.

This private daily ritual benefited greatly from the publication of the Scofield Reference Bible in 1909, an accessible and widely sold individual study Bible on the market. The Scofield Bible reflected and promoted the spread of dispensationalism among American Protestants. Dispensationalism had animating power, Greg Johnson told us in an interview, because it gave people a framework for reading the Old Testament and implied that readers were reengaging with major biblical ideas that Protestants had overlooked.

The use of the Scofield Bible in the dispensationalist movement encouraged an individualistic approach to Bible study. Or at least it inflated readers’ reliance on their own independent interpretation of Scripture. Mark Noll notes in America’s Book: The Rise and Decline of a Bible Civilization, 1794–1911, “As they deepened their belief in the ability of plain people to grasp the Bible’s plain meaning,” the Bible-only populism of the dispensationalist movement actually upheld “an elite corps of teachers guiding others step by step in reading the Bible ‘on their own.’”

In other words, the sense of independent study was propped up by the commentary alongside the biblical text. Ironically, “Scofield’s bible guided readers by proclaiming their freedom from guidance,” Noll writes.

In contrast to sermons and group Bible study, daily devotions became exercises in inward, individual formation, sharing tendencies with the secular modernism of the era. Quiet-time advocates began identifying the main benefit of daily devotions as “a transformed self rather than a transformed world,” Johnson writes in his dissertation.

While personal character formation is essential, in isolation it aligns better with modernist tendencies than with the biblical focus on character formation through habits, rituals, and guidance from the community. This inward focus can also cast the formation of justice in communities and systems—a primary concern of the biblical authors—as adhering to individualistic ethical principles.

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Some quiet-time practitioners began treating the Bible more as a meditation tool than as the authoritative teaching of God and his people. During quiet time, contemplation would progress to confession and biblical meditation, which would culminate in the recording of any divine guidance received that day. The reading, as Johnson observes, might be just a short Bible passage or a devotional commentary—not an extended study of Scripture as a unified body of literature.

Today, daily quiet time often doesn’t involve Scripture at all. As CT has noted elsewhere, 2023 Lifeway Research revealed that although 65 percent of Protestant churchgoers spend time alone with God daily, only 39 percent read the Bible during that time. If this statistic means that Christians are trading hurried and fragmented devotional reading for holistic group Bible study, then perhaps so much the better. But the drop in overall Bible engagement in the ABS study suggests that more Christians simply aren’t reading it.

Image: Unsplash / Kelly Sikkema / Zane Lee

By the late 20th century, daily quiet time had become a fixture of orthodoxy in some sectors of Christianity. Christy Gates, the national director for Scripture engagement for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, claims that the practice of “DQT” (daily quiet time) in campus ministries eventually became the low watermark for one’s spiritual life. Asking about someone’s “walk with God” came to mean “Are you doing your daily quiet time?”

Gates emphasized that even when ministries teach the practice of group Bible study alongside DQT, as InterVarsity does, group study will typically drop off while DQT persists. Why? She thinks DQT is related to our religious individualism that desires for God to reason with us directly. In the past, daily worship featured a family or community asking God for provision, but today it primarily consists of individuals asking God to talk to them. The danger is clear: Listening for God’s insights from Scripture and in prayer without communal accountability can produce a tenuous understanding of Christianity.

Christians who emphasize DQT as a necessary spiritual practice will typically point to Jesus’ times of isolated prayer as a model for this ritual: “Very early in the morning … Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed” (Mark 1:35). Of course, when found by his frustrated disciples, Jesus then explains why he left the village: “Let us go somewhere else—to the nearby villages—so I can preach there also. That is why I have come” (v. 38, emphasis added). Luke also points to Jesus’ habit: “But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed” (Luke 5:16). Jesus was, as usual, either finding respite from the demanding masses or moving on to the next place, for “that is why I have come.”

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It’s reasonable to see Jesus’ private prayer as a ritual that we should emulate. At the very least, it appears to be a wise practice that emerges from Scripture, even if quiet prayer time and Bible reading isn’t ever commanded of the Hebrews or of Jesus’ earliest followers.

But contemporary experts on Bible engagement agree that daily quiet time, which we have come to couple with daily Bible reading, can distort our understanding of Scripture. The parachurch ministry leaders we interviewed had already identified daily quiet time and devotional reading as one’s sole form of Scripture consumption to be potentially problematic in their communities of ministry.

The Bible professors, seminary administrators, and pastors, as well as those at the American Bible Society, Our Daily Bread, Cru, and InterVarsity, all told us they want to foster daily Bible engagement. But they also aim to reshape this engagement for people like my freshmen, the ones microdosing on the Bible every day but not understanding what they are reading.

There is no universal measurement for Bible literacy. Neither is there consensus about what degree of knowledge constitutes literacy. The ABS measures what it calls “Bible engagement” (“engagement” meaning frequency of use, impact, and centrality in morality) in its State of the Bible studies. But someone could rate high on “engagement” while not actually knowing that much about the Scripture’s own theology or basic assumptions of the biblical authors. Further, the anecdotal evidence suggests that Bible literacy has been on an increasingly steep decline.

If Bible literacy is declining, even for those who read devotionally every day, then what is the way forward? Most of the parachurch ministries we talked to reported that they have been considering methods that provide a wider perspective of Scripture. These include ancient Scripture reading rituals that many evangelical churches have rarely practiced (such as lectio divina, the Daily Office from The Book of Common Prayer, and so on). But the practice most mentioned by ministry leaders was the public, or communal, reading of Scripture.

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In some ways, this form of Bible engagement is the opposite of quiet time. Rather than reading, communities listen to long stretches of Scripture together—sometimes 30 minutes to an hour long—either using audio Bibles or having people read aloud. Bible professors have long noted that the natural habitat of Scripture is in the ears of gathered Christians, not the eyes of individuals. The effects of long-form Scripture engagement on Bible literacy are all anecdotal at this point.

From Moses to Josiah to Nehemiah, communal Bible reading was normal at key points of Israel’s history. Public reading of Scripture occurs at Sinai (Ex. 19:7), during Josiah’s reforms (2 Kings 23:1–2), and for all the returnees to Judah in Ezra’s day (Neh. 8), among other instances. And the synagogue practice of reading the Torah and Prophets every Sabbath (Luke 4:16–17; Acts 13:14–15) emerged around the third century prior to Jesus.

All of these public readings included explanation and communal response. As Brian Wright argues in his book Communal Reading in the Time of Jesus, the public reading of literature that swept the Roman empire also included Christians and their sacred texts. For the early church, that would have included not only listening together, but also questioning and reasoning together about what was heard.

So when Justin Martyr (A.D. 155) reports that early Christians gathered on Sundays to read the Scriptures “as long as time permitted,” we are to imagine that those communal readings did not merely end with an amen in unison. These early Jewish-Gentile Christian communities likely wrestled through what they had heard in order to understand it as a community.

Long-form engagement with Scripture is nothing new for the church. The Jewish Jesus sect of the first century was raised on weekly and lengthy Torah and Haftarah (Prophets) readings alongside the singing of Psalms. From the medieval lectionary of the Roman Catholic church, also used by the Protestant Reformers, to Robert Murray M’Cheyne’s 19th-century annual whole-Bible reading plan, broad and regular exposure to Scripture was one crucial component of widespread and low-level Bible literacy in the history of the church.

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One could imagine how odd our daily devotions would look not only to ancient Israelites but also to ancient Christian and Jewish communities. What would they make of a devout follower who reads a few sentences of Scripture alone daily and then asks God to reveal something for me and for today? This ritual appears even more bizarre when the reader doesn’t have a holistic grasp of the Bible’s narratives, themes, theology, and more.

If many American evangelicals cannot imagine a thriving spiritual life without this daily devotional-style Bible reading, then they likely cannot imagine the spiritual life of most Jews and Christians throughout history—and of many Christian communities in the world today—who lacked easy access to a personal Bible. We must rethink our image of devotion and our ways of reading Scripture, and reacquaint ourselves with the essential behaviors that have always characterized God’s people.

We may need to shift the devotional center of gravity away from solitary practices and toward communal ones.

Maybe we should follow the example set by the early church that Justin Martyr described, reading the Bible at length together and discussing the difficult questions it raises, rather than passively listening or uncritically relying on theological commentary. We can welcome loving, humble disagreement for the sake of mutual improved understanding. We should train ourselves to let our discomforts and confusions about this ancient text bubble to the surface so we can push past the quick and easy answers that often sweep our biggest questions under the rug.

And it’s precisely these questions and felt needs that guide us toward a better grasp of the continuity between the Old and New Testaments, the consistent character of God, and the relevance of Scripture for every area of life, and not narrowly “for speaking into my life today.”

If today’s common rituals of Bible engagement are not working, then we must disrupt them in favor of deep learning practices. These new habits could consist of communal listening, deep diving, repeated reading of whole books of the Bible, or some other strategy. But the assumption that daily devotions alone will yield scriptural literacy and fluency no longer appears tenable, because it never was.

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The goal is not to ditch quiet time. We have been given easy access to the whole of God’s instruction, and times of solitary prayer and reflection are part of a well-rounded Christian life. But we may need to shift the devotional center of gravity away from solitary practices and toward communal ones.

We hope to see Christian families and churches recreate a culture of vigorous communal Scripture engagement that would cause quiet times to overflow into the practices that produce just and peaceful communities.

Dru Johnson is a professor of biblical and theological studies at The King’s College in New York City. He and Celina Durgin direct and edit The Biblical Mind, published by the Center for Hebraic Thought.

[ This article is also available in español and Português. ]

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