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Years before Newsweek magazine proclaimed the decline and fall of Christian America, Woodrow Kroll worried about the skyrocketing number of self-professed Christians who owned but rarely, if ever, read the Bible.

So in 2004, Kroll, president of Back to the Bible, the Lincoln-headquartered international Bible ministry program, established the Center for Bible Engagement, an organization dedicated to studying, understanding and solving what he calls "the plague of Bible illiteracy in America."

Countering that illiteracy is the main focus of Back to the Bible as it marks its 70th anniversary, said Tami Weissert, vice president of media and communications for Back to the Bible. The organization has never been about church attendance, tithing or even "religion." It's always been about helping people develop "a personal relationship with God," she said.

Back to the Bible got its start in 1939 when a young preacher from Oklahoma walked into Lincoln's KFOR radio station and spent his last $65 for a week's worth of air time. Thomas Epp believed he could help people work through the confusion and conflict of the world by spreading God's Word through short devotionals.

His audience quickly grew. Radio stations from all over signed up for his program. Later, Back to the Bible expanded to include television and print.

In today's era of technology, Back to the Bible is using podcasts, vidcasts, emails, texting, Twitter, Facebook and the new 411GOD daily cell phone call to bring scripture and spiritual reflection into the time-starved lifestyles of Christians.

The organization's expanding repertoire of ways to spread the Word is fueled by Kroll and the findings of the Center for Bible Engagement, said Michael Krause, vice president for the center.

Over the past 20 years, Kroll noticed a continuing decrease in the number of people reading and using the Bible.

"He was burdened to understand why, and start a movement to stop the trend," Weissert said.

Bible illiteracy is not just a spiritual or religious problem, it is a cultural one, Weissert said, citing findings from the Center for Bible Engagement's surveys of more than 40,000 mostly Christian Americans ages 13 to 90:

- 97 percent said they did not know what the Bible is ("how we hear from God") or what it is for ("a guide for life"). "Many knew it was a cherished book, but they couldn't tell us why," Weissert said.

- 65 percent of people who identified themselves as Christians say they have no time to read the Bible. When asked why, they cited busy-ness, exhaustion, mood, money issues, that they didn't know where to start or found it boring.

Among those who said they do read the Bible, some said they do so out of "guilt," "duty" and "because I am supposed to."

- The survey finds no measurable difference in the behavior between the Christian who reads the Bible fewer than three times a week and a non-Christian person.

- However, there is significant difference in the behavior of someone who reads or listens to the Bible four times or more a week, and someone who doesn't. Four-times-a-week readers are less likely to give in to temptations such as pornography, gambling, adultery or drugs.

Furthermore, people who read/listen to the Bible four or more times a week describe themselves as better able to discern God's voice speaking to them, the survey found.

Perhaps most surprising in the findings was that fewer than 1 percent find that traditional faith-based activities such as church and worship promote their spiritual growth.

Churches need to change their strategy from teaching content to teaching people why they need and how to have a personal relationship with God, according to a new Center for Bible Engagement report. Back to the Bible plans to help with that through its own programs such as Powered by 4 emails and 411God cell calls, and by working with ministers across the globe.

Because the reality, according to Weissert, is it all begins with reading the Bible - even if it is only for one minute a day.

"The Bible is the living active word of God. … It is God speaking directly to us," she said. "It is how we get God into our personal life."

Reach Erin Andersen at 473-7217 or eandersen@journalstar.com.

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