On February 16, one day after ISIS beheaded 21 Coptic Christians in Libya, “beheaded” was the fourth most-searched term on Bible Gateway.
The weekend after the US Supreme Court’s same-sex-marriage decision in June, searches for “homosexuality,” “abomination,” and “Sodom and Gomorrah” spiked. (So did “rainbow.”)
And in September, on the day of the total lunar eclipse, the No. 1 search was for “blood moon.”
Bible Gateway’s year-in-review data, based on 1.6 billion pageviews and more than 160 million visitors, reveals how people engaged the Bible on demand in 2015.
To start with, we tracked the popularity of Bible passages on a daily basis throughout the year. The results look a bit like a Rorschach test; but on closer observation, a few Bible-reading patterns emerge:
Most obvious is the predictable seasonal popularity of certain Bible passages, notably the Gospels at Easter. And as we've seen in past years, a significant number of Bible readers do make it all the way through the Bible (or a specific portion of it) by the end of the year.
Conventional wisdom (not entirely unfounded) holds that most eager Bible readers, fresh off a New Year's resolution to read through the entire Bible, hit a wall after Genesis. But our data shows that a strong core of Bible Gateway visitors—enough to show up clearly on the data—persevere throughout the year.
That said, you may be more likely to complete a Bible reading project if you stick to something less ambitious (New or Old Testament in a year, but not both) or more focused (note the consistency of the "Proverbs in a month" reading track).
Here's another way to look at the relative popularity of specific Bible passages in 2015:
The New Testament continues to be read with much more frequency than the Old Testament. This chart suggests that beyond the foundational accounts of Genesis and the powerful appeal of the Psalms, Christians struggle to connect much of the Old Testament to their lives today. There's a particularly noticeable engagement gap regarding the books of the Old Testament prophets, whose words and actions are connected to specific (and lesser-known) moments in the history of Israel.
The individual Bible verses that proved most popular in 2015 were:
- John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
- Jeremiah 29:11: “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
- Philippians 4:13: “I can do all this through him who gives me strength.”
- Romans 8:28: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”
- Psalm 23:4: “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”
- Philippians 4:6: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.”
- Romans 12:2: “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”
- Proverbs 3:5: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.”
- 1 Corinthians 13:7: “[Love] always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”
- Proverbs 3:6: “[I]n all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.”
These are perennial favorites that made up most of last year's Top 10. They also overlap strongly with our list of the 10 Bible passages that Bible Gateway visitors highlighted and took notes about. (Many can also be found on YouVersion’s list of most-popular verses for 2015.)
John 3:16 came in first in all four countries we examined—the US, Canada, the UK, and Australia. Similarly, Jeremiah 29:11 came in second in every country. Philippians 4:13 came in third in every country except the UK, where Psalm 23:4 won out.
The UK heavily favored Psalm 23—the first six verses all appeared in its Top 10. Meanwhile, the same three verses rounded out the Top 6 in the other three countries, although in different order. Romans 8:28, Psalm 23:4, and Philippians 4:6 appeared as No. 4, No. 5, and No. 6 in the US; No. 5, No. 4, and No. 6 in Canada; and No. 4, No. 6, and No. 5 in the UK.
These verses are predominately of reassurance and comfort. They fit with the most common keyword searches at Bible Gateway. “Love,” “faith,” “peace,” and other positive and comforting search terms dominate that list, which has a strong devotional focus and shows little sign of the “culture war” rhetoric you might expect from the tone of American cultural and political discourse this year.
Although our data shows that most Bible Gateway visitors apparently turned to the Bible with personal faith and relationships in mind, major cultural events are reflected in the stats when we check daily keyword searches:
Some, like the homosexuality searches, are predictable. Others are less so; for example, the spike in “Jezebel” in October or “Tabitha” in June.
Overall, I'm encouraged by these statistics. To be sure, they point to challenges for the church. There's a clear disconnect between Bible readers and parts of the Old Testament. That's not surprising news. More noteworthy is the very clear inspirational focus of the most-popular verses. It is wonderful to see the resonating power of these beautiful verses confirmed so strongly in our report. But reading through them, I can't help but notice that while these verses certainly reflect what most of us want to get out of God's Word, they're not thematically representative of the entirety of the Bible.
Years ago, Collin Hansen noticed this trend while reading through popular verses from Bible Gateway's 2011 list (a list that overlaps heavily with 2015's):
Overall the list represents a nice cross-section of Scripture and tells an uplifting story of God’s work in the world. From this list we learn that when most people turn to Scripture, they’re often looking for encouragement. They cling to these verses trusting that God is working for their good, giving them strength, planning their hopeful future, and calming their anxieties by answering their requests. If nothing else, these results help those of us who regularly preach and teach the Bible understand how many Christians and even non-Christians use the Bible.... [But] you won’t learn from this list why God needs to redeem the world he created. You won’t learn why his love is so significant.
There's a good challenge there. We don't necessarily want to convince you to switch your favorite Bible quote from John 3:16 to a downbeat verse from Lamentations. But there is value—and theological significance—in venturing outside those familiar, comfortable verses and into the less popular corners of Scripture. In 2016, try searching out the justice-obsessed sermons of those neglected Old Testament prophets.
Andy Rau is content manager for BibleGateway.com.