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"In an age of anxiety" - popular Bible verses, 2019

YouVersion and BibleGateway have both released their lists of popular Bible verses for 2019. They have gone for a slightly different format this year.

Before you read the article, what's your favourite verse?

BibleGateway have listed the most viewed or searched for Bible verses for 2019. Five of the top ten verses are various verses from Psalm 23, demonstrating the Psalm's popularity among Christians but perhaps also among those who hear the Psalm at funerals or other events within the Church. Indeed, if you added up all the usage percentages, Psalm 23 would be the most popular Bible passage of 2019 on this largely web-based platform.

However, if we only give one mention to Psalm 23, then the most popular verses are:

1. 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.

2. Jer 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.

3. Phil 4:13: I can do all this through him who gives me strength.

4. Ps 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. (Ps 23.6 was 7th, Ps 23.5 was 8th, Ps 23.1 was 9th & Ps 23.3 was 10th)

5. Rom 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.

6. Rom 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.

7. Matt 6:33: But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

8. Isa 41:10: So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.

9. Phil 4:6: Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.

10. John 14:6: Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

John 3:16 and Jeremiah 29:11 have regularly appeared at the top of the lists of popular verses on BibleGateway. This is probably due to their popularity within contemporary culture and John 3:16's historic role as a concise summary of the Christian faith - the verse even has its own special day. John 3:16 remains the most popular verse - 17% more popular than Jeremiah 29:11. However, along with John 14:6 at the bottom of the list, it represents a kind of propositional or doctrinal text, which points to the outworking of God's love within the ministry of Jesus.

All of the other verses in this list reflect the shift to therapeutic concerns which I noted in my recently published study of popular Bible verses on social media over the last decade. This kind of verse tends not to mention God's activity or Jesus' ministry - especially not his death and resurrection. Instead, they tend to reflect a moralistic view of the Christian faith and focus on the reader's own moral or psychological behaviour. Sometimes, God is mentioned as an aid to that activity or the reason for acting in a particular way.

Interestingly, John 14:6 appears in 10th place in this list (15th in the original). It is viewed or searched almost half the amount of times that John 3:16 is viewed or searched. But it does provide a form of propositional voice and is distinct in making Jesus the active subject of the verse - this is something he said and refers to his own identity.

Overall, the trend seems to be similar - a web-based shift towards Bible verses representing the therapeutic impact of the Bible on us and our need to respond to this impact. Often we are the subject, we are the agent of our own transformation, although as we note the benefits are because of God's faithfulness and abiding presence. He is there but almost like the force in Star Wars - a mysterious presence rather than an active agent in our transformation.

YouVersion have chosen not to give a global list of popular verses this year but instead have highlighted a verse for the year: Philippians 4:6 (which appears 9th in the list from BibleGateway above). This verse is listed as being popular across a number of countries: UAE, Brazil, and China and in Indonesia was the most shared verse image (see below). Overall YouVersion refer to this verse as "The Bible verse shared, bookmarked, and highlighted most often by the global YouVersion Community during 2019."

The popularity of the verse clearly reflects increasing global anxiety. YouVersion founder, Bobby Grunewald commented:

"Our desire is to help people grow in their relationship with God by encouraging them to read the Bible and seek Him every day. We're encouraged to see so many people turning to the Bible in response to their worries, remembering what God has done in their lives, and choosing to trust in His faithfulness."

YouVersion continues to grow rapidly, especially in countries with Christian minorities. This may well be a factor in the popularity of Philippians 4:6. The verse seeks to persuade an anxious reader to resolve that anxiety by turning God in prayer. Interestingly, a report released in late 2019 argued that although 33% of Christian young people who attended church once a month felt anxiety, this figure was reduced to 22% amongst those who attended more regularly - more church, less anxiety. This has been reported both in the UK and USA. Indeed, other reports have noted the benefits of faith engagement for mental health and well being.

It may well be then that there is more happening here than people sharing their favourite Bible passage online. By doing that, people seem to be confirming the importance of this verse in their faith practice - taking our worries to God affects our sense of well-being and we want to tell you all about it. It is faith in practice - the practical outworking of faith or performative belief which Abby Day and others have pointed to in recent research on the sociology of religion. People share faith experience which works for them.

But Philippians 4:6 isn't necessarily popular across the whole internet. If you do a search for the verse on Google Trends via verse reference that it certainly doesn't appear as popular as verses such as John 3:16 or Jeremiah 29:11:

In this graph, the popularity of the verse reference for John 3:16 is emphasised. Most people probably don't know where the other verses come from. As such, we need to shift from Bible references (nerdy Christian things) to strings of the first five words from each verse.

The change is interesting. It reflects a graph I discussed at the back of the book - the increasing importance of Jeremiah 29:11 which now exceeds the popularity of John 3:16. People know the words if not the verse reference. Indeed, we see the popularity of the verse at the beginning of the new year on the far right of the graph. But we note the lack of popularity here for the wordstring for Philippians 4:6.

What's happening here is that we are trying to compare apples and oranges. Google Trends looks at all websearches. BibleGateway looks at all interactions via its website. YouVersion is looking at all interactions on its application. The differences change the audience each time. Google Trends offers a global picture of the popularity of verses. BibleGateway limits that picture to those who have been on their (Christian - Bible focussed) website. YouVersion limits the picture to those who have downloaded and made use of their web application. Different audiences create different popular verses!

Overall we might extrapolate, for fun, just for fun, that the general public make Jeremiah 29:11 because of its therapeutic, hopeful agenda. Of course this says nothing about their exegesis of that verse in context. But taken as a solo verse, it is hopeful and offers good things. It is a classic therapeutic verse. Those who find BibleGateway through putting a general verse string or reference into their web search box (usually BibleGateway get first or second ranking on the search results), then these people prefer the more doctrinal and propositional John 3:16. Those who have downloaded the YouVersion app, in its many languages, formats and with the many Bible versions and plans it offers, point to the performative faith aspect of Philippians 4:6. Different horses for different courses.

But this also highlights the need to be aware of the different affordances of different Bible apps/programmes. There are different cultures across these different Bible apps or search tools and those difference cultures seem able to change the popularity of different verses simply because they are engaged within the specific environment offered by the company and the different audiences which are attracted to the site.

What would be intriguing is to find the most popular Bible verses on the internet.

That's a more complex research proposal. Anyone want to sponsor us to do the research???


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