I love Bible apps. Anything that gets people reading the Bible, especially if it is coming to them in their own language, is alright with me. I use them all the time. I have especially found Bible apps helpful when sharing the gospel with people who have a different first language to me. Being able to access a multitude of versions, in different languages, is a boon for evangelism. There is nothing quite like reading the Bible in your own language (a point many Brits miss, having had the Bible in English since the mid-14th century and, more recently, a wealth of translations from which to pick).
Nonetheless, I want to offer a handful reasons why you should prefer a hard copy Bible over your smartphone in church. I want to be clear this is not a hard and fast rule. There are some circumstances where using your phone might be preferable. But as a general rule of thumb, can I suggest we are better using paper Bibles rather than phones.
Smartphones may distract; paper Bibles help interact
You may put your phone onto silent and pull up your Bible app with every intention of only looking at it during the sermon. But, inevitably, alerts from text messages come in and emails hit your inbox. Even if we steel ourselves and refuse to open them, the banner at the top usually flashes up something of the message. Even if we aren’t looking at the banner, there is the icon staring at you demanding to be opened.
Your paper Bible, on the other hand, won’t be drawing your attention to any messages other than the one to which the preacher is directing you. You will have the Word of God open and nothing between you and it. The preacher will refer to particular verses and you will have it to hand without fear of being drawn away by other things.
Smartphones may discourage; paper Bibles tend to encourage
It is more heartening for the preacher to see people with Bibles rather than phones in hand. Though, no doubt, many people are on their Bible apps, there is always that nagging doubt that some might just be faffing around on Angry Birds. That nagging doubt turns into strong suspicion when, having sat behind people in the pews during the pre-sermon, the preacher has already witnessed some watching videos of funny cats on YouTube.
But there can be no denying what people are doing when they are holding a paper Bible. When the preacher refers to a verse and heads look down at the book, then look back up to hear why the verse is relevant, this encourages the preacher. He gets a sense that the congregation are actually following what is being said. Everybody wants to feel like they are speaking to people who are listening. Hard copy Bibles give a much clearer sense that you are listening than a phone in your hand.
This even goes beyond the preacher. Those sitting nearby are far more encouraged when everybody else appears to be listening. If we want to encourage others to engage with the sermon, if none of us look like we’re listening, they’re unlikely to want to listen either. Having paper Bibles gives that impression far more readily than a phone in hand. Everyone can see people looking into a Bible and know what they are doing. It isn’t always clear those on phones are looking at the pertinent verses of scripture.
Smartphones impede learning; paper Bibles improve learning
An ability to flick between the pages of the Bible and find the appropriate chapter and verse is like a sixth sense for some. That is because, like me, they were brought up in Christian homes to read the Bible. They did ‘sword drills’, learnt memory verses and had special songs to remember the order of the books. Over time, you were not far away from being able to drop the Bible open in your lap to the appropriate passage.
Something that struck me since coming to Oldham – it was’t super-surprising but it was clearly noticeable – is how alien navigating the Bible is to those who are not from Christian backgrounds. Our Iranian converts, raised in Islam, understandably find it difficult to find passages. They’ve never had to navigate their way around a Bible. Turn to Ezekiel chapter 9 is not easy when you have no idea where Ezekiel comes in the running order. Is it Old or New Testament? Near the start or the end?
You might think the answer to this is smartphone apps. You don’t need to know the order, you just type in the book. Whilst this is true, it doesn’t cement in the mind where anything is in the same way as physically turning the pages to get there. There is something about having to go through the arduous process of turning to the contents pages, remembering enough books to give you some sense of direction and then flick through the Bible to find the passage that makes you remember. Having to do this every week, often several times, has a habit of helping the information stick in a way that scrolling a thumb down a screen simply doesn’t.
The only way to learn to navigate the Bible is to spend time doing it. Smartphones just don’t help that sort of information to take root, even if it does make it a few seconds quicker (at least initially) to find the passage.
Let me say again, I’m not against smartphones in church. But most churches have hard copies of the Bible available. It is rare, in a UK church, to find yourself without any access other than your phone. Again, though it’s not a hard and fast rule, using a hard copy Bible helps your concentration, encourages both the preacher and others in the congregation and it help you to learn how to navigate scripture. For all those reasons, I think we should prefer the use of hard copies in church.