I have noticed that fewer people are bringing their Bibles to church. Some may leave them at home because they know the preacher’s text will appear on the PPT screen, while many others actually are carrying their Bibles to church—on their cell phones. This is definitely more convenient than lugging The American Patriot’s Study Bible to church (and safer theologically as well), but I have a few questions about this new trend. I don’t have a cell phone (except a trac fone which I use for emergencies), so I am asking input from those of you who do.

1. Is it hard to concentrate when reading the Bible off your cell phone or book reader? You know that you are one click away from checking email, surfing the Internet, returning a text, or bombing angry birds. Do these temptations distract you from focusing deeply on the biblical text?  Do you notice a difference when you read the Bible in a physical book and when you read it on your digital device?

2. Is it hard to remember that you are reading God’s revelation when you are reading it on the same screen that you check email, surf the Internet, return texts, and bomb angry birds? In Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman observed that television mashes everything together into its single genre, so that a news report on a devastating earthquake is immediately followed by a lighthearted advertisement for laundry soap. Postman thought that such trivial ads lessened our sensitivity to the serious news, and soon we begin to see television newscasts as yet another form of entertainment. I can guess what he might say about the many more things we do with our screens now.

I am not suggesting that there is no place for reading the Bible off a computer or phone screen. I have typed many Scripture passages onto this blog, which I assume were read from a screen. But I do think there is a danger in making our cell phone or Kindle the main way we read the Bible. There are children today who will grow up without ever owning a tangible, bound copy of the Word of God. The only Bible they will ever know will exist in cyberspace, fighting for a place among their other apps. Will these children have a difficult time believing that they are reading the eternal, unchanging Word of God? Will the digital age—and the many useful downloadable Bibles that it produces—inadvertently undermine our understanding of the authority of Scripture?


Add yours →

  1. Dr. Mike,

    I’ve recently started using my phone and the Youversion app to take notes and references while the service is going. Good news is that I don’t get good enough cell service for email or other things to be bothering my while I use the device.
    My bible has gotten pretty marked up (even it being a wide margin edition) so I appreciate being able to take notes over verses I’ve already noted. Plus I feel like I am taking more notes on the sermon then just jotting quick responses in the margin.

    So I am actually (i think) paying more attention to the sermon etc than I used to as I’m taking more notes. Plus I like the reminder notice to keep up w/ my daily reading plan

  2. Dan Jesse (@djesse50) January 25, 2012 — 2:38 pm

    I wonder if the same type of thoughts occurred when the Bible was bound and put into the laity’s hands. Would they lose focus on what the cantor was vocalizing by trying to follow the text?

  3. Often, I read my Bible on my android tablet and use it in church. I have not noticed the problems that you suggested. I use the tablet for many things, most of which are actually productive rather than time wasting games. When I am being productive, I am focused on my task and generally am not distracted by other apps. If distraction is an issue, I would still have the issue even if I did not use my tablet as my Bible; even if using a “hard copy” of the Bible, I could still be tempted to check a text or something else. The biggest distraction during church is probably not technology related, but thinking about everything else that has to be done in life.

    On the other hand, I have found my tablet keeps me focused. During church, I follow scriptures by reading the Bible on my tablet, but I also take notes. I rarely took notes before because I did not know what to do with them after the sermon. Eventually, they would end up in the trash and were never used again. Now, my notes are digitally stored, not cluttering up my Bible or desk, and can be referred to in the future. Taking notes helps keep me focused. Having a newborn baby in the house has resulted in many sleepless Saturday nights and drowsy Sunday mornings. Taking notes has helped keep me focused even when I am tired.

    As an aside, this Sunday I am starting a new Sunday School series and will be using my tablet for my notes. I am looking forward to seeing how it works.

    Bryan Schroll

  4. I’ll confess… my initial reaction was, “Wittmer’s a bit young to start being a technology curmudgeon.” But as I read your post, I found myself agreeing.

    I like the convenience of accessing Scripture on my smartphone. And I can tell you that in places like sub-Saharan Africa, where more people have cell phones than landlines or computers, it has the potential to exponentially increase access to the Bible.

    I can also say I’ve never been tempted to play Angry Birds during a sermon. (I don’t relish being elbowed in the ribs by my wife.) But I DO have both the Bible and Angry Birds on my phone, and there IS something weird about those two things occupying the same space.

    I’ll add one more potential drawback:

    It’s difficult (if not impossible) to read more than a couple of verses on a 3-inch screen. Our Bible reading (to the extent we read it at all) is fragmented enough already; I worry about fragmenting it further.

    Though I guess I could start bringing my iPad to church instead…

  5. These are helpful–thanks!

    Ben, I am a bit young to be raising these questions, but I do have Amish family, if that explains anything.

    Dan, you rightly note that there is a tradeoff with every technological change. The printing press was a great boon for education, but it probably did diminish our ability to memorize and appreciation for the sound of language (most people read out loud even to themselves before the mass distribution of printed texts). I think it’s interesting to at least bring up the potential drawbacks in our current shift from literary to digital culture.

    Bryan and Jonathan, you are both very disciplined guys, and I wonder if that is why you are able to make the technology work so well for you. I am not sure if other people have realized your same level of success, but you are fine examples of how technology should be used. And Jonathan, in case I forget, I hope you have the best Lincoln Day ever! Or President’s Day, or whatever they are calling it now.

  6. Dr. Mike

    Thanks I’m looking forward to President’s day, maybe one day i’ll get the day off work as well 🙂

    Its interesting to look at the way technology is changing so fast. Jeff Jarvis (journalism professor at CUNY and on some of the tech podcasts i listen to) has been doing a lot of thinking/writing about the current change in relation to Gutenberg’s disruption of the printing press. How social media (i think I passed along the article about would Luther use Twitter) is disrupting all of life like Gutenberg’s printing press and how things are changing (journalism and authorship) are being affected at perhaps the same rate it did w/ Gutenberg.

    There are some disappointing things about apps (sometimes they require an internet connection to work, cost as much or more than a Bible does) etc that I hope get worked out quickly. One of my biggest frustrations is i haven’t seen one linked w/ a concordance or commentary that would further enhance the sermon/bible study. Still need separate apps for that

  7. I have noticed more and more of people using tablets in church, including (but not always) my pastor. From a convenience standpoint, it is infinitely faster to look something up, and in all different versions. However, there is something special about holding any book in your hand. As you mentioned Mike, it’s tangible. I highlight many passages/verses in my Bible, and even make notes occasionally. Ultimately, I believe it comes down to our use, dedication, and memorization of God’s Word. I keep my Bible with me at all times, partly because I too do not have a smart phone or tablet to pull Scripture up on the drop of a dime. I also find it easier to read (and memorize), as stated, and free from other distractions when it text form. Here is a cool little comparison between our cell phones and our Bibles:


  8. I use the Kindle for bible reading pretty regularly. It’s pretty useless beyond reading books so I don’t have the distractions of someone using a Smart Phone or Tablet. My biggest frustration, though, is the inability to flip to another part of the Bible quickly, so I don’t really use the Kindle beyond trying to do a lot of reading from a single book. I usually use a print copy for study and listening to sermons.

    I love the idea of taking notes on a tablet (another reason to get one). The Kindle is a bit slow for any lengthy note taking.

  9. Good observations, Dr. Wittmer. I will add that i read recently somewhere (can’t remember the reference, probably because I read it online—continue reading…) that reading books on NOOK, Kindle, iOS devices actually inhibits your ability to memorize. More importantly, our brain actually “maps” the words and sentences and paragraphs on a tangible book page in a way that apparently can’t happen (at least well) on eInk/digital devices, which helps us memorize.

    Not only is there the potential for a decrease in the use of Scripture because of such devices, the greater threat is the potential for a decrease in the *memorization* of Scripture, or at leas the ability to retain it. That, I think, will create more problems than simply having digital copies of the Scriptures.


  10. Mike,

    I love your blogs, and you do raise some good points for a segment of society. BUT …. I must say that I disagree with you on this one.

    I think this iBible ship has already sailed and more and more people will be using iPads and other book-reader devices in church (and Bible studies or church classes) as they become even more popular going forward. While there is no doubt that technology (smart phones, tablets or other devices) can certainly cause distractions, so can kids or many other things at church. I have even heard some people say that study Bibles (with extensive notes/commentaries) can be distracting during sermons too.

    I certainly see this as a long transition process – and physical books being around for the decades, but banning new technology in church would be like turning off microphones – not a good idea.

    Another interesting (related) question: Should a church offer free wifi for attendees to use more iPads for those who don’t have 3G or 4G?

    I suspect this is coming – and will be commonplace in 5-7 years.


  11. Thanks, Dan. You are the expert on technology (I learned much from your book, “Virtual Integrity”, so I am inclined to defer to your perspective). I completely agree with you that this ship has sailed, but I do think it’s worthwhile to ask questions about its seaworthiness. I certainly am not advocating banning people from bringing such technology into church. However, I think that it would be a disaster for churches to offer free wifi to people during the service (except perhaps on occasions where you want people to text comments and questions during the service). Imagine trying to build community, let alone preach the Word, to people who have so many distractions at their fingertips.

    This semester I’m trying an experiment. All of my classes are technology free. A student can use a laptop to take notes, but the wifi switch must be off. I prefer that students use the break to get to know other students, but if they need to use their phone or check their email they can do so, as long as they leave the room. I guess I’m kind of treating them like we treat smokers. So far they’ve responded well, and I think we’re all better for it.

  12. Mike…
    1. Yes it can be distracting and tempting in church… I admit that But I’m distracted to doodling when I have a pen in hand and paper. Actually when I doodle or fidget I tend to pay attention better (just look at all my seminary notes!). I too take more notes during sermons. I have even gone on to the Internet to look up a quote pastor is using… And cut and paste it in to notes. I tried using my nook because it won’t surf the net and I have no games. But it is harder to navigate. Besides I find myself looking up info on my iPod Touch if I didnt hear the passage or quote. But you are right… It is tempting and distracting at times
    2. No… It doesn’t seem strange at all. No stranger than reading scripture on line. I watch sermons on TV sometimes too. Doesn’t seem strange the same TV broadcasts Dennis the Menace reruns (go RTV). But what I want to know…. Are your books available on the Nook? Or would it not read the same?8D

    Another observation…. My Bible usage has shot up since I got it electronically. I read it more often because it is with me. I am horrible with verses references so the search function is awesome!
    I do like to carry my cool red ESV. Is it because it’s my Bible or the cool color and design? Hmmm
    Well this was brought to you by ipodTouch

    Good day!

  13. Mike:
    I don’t find using my Nook distracting during church services. As stated above by Steven Kopp, eReaders don’t lend themselves to distraction. However, the current eReaders don’t have the speed to allow me to jump between texts, to keep up with the flow of the service or the sermon. A tablet probably will overcome this problem.

    So I have gone back to a printed Bible in church, just for the sake of speed.

  14. Mike—

    I used my iPad for Bible reading for a while, but have since switched back to the Dead Tree Edition.

    On the pro side of the argument, it’s much more convenient and portable to bring the iBle to church, especially compared to lugging around the ESV Study Bible. And not only do I have the same study notes as my DTE, but I also have instant access to additional study notes, translations, languages, commentaries, graphs, charts and other resources. It’s an excellent tool.

    Which is ironically why I stopped using it. Yes, I found it far too distracting. The problem wasn’t email/Words with Friends/Twitter/&c., but that I was too busy digging into other great resources to listen to my pastor. I’d be off on some cross-reference bunny trail while my pastor was taking the text in a different direction. Those other resources aren’t bad, but if I’m going to take the role of the local church seriously, I need to leave my iPad at home.

    Additionally, it was too distracting for the Luddites sitting in the pews behind me, and is much harder to use for note taking than an ink pen and Moleskine.

    Oh, and not only does my church have free WiFi but they also include a QR code in the weekly handout. Scan it with your smart phone for instant access to Bible passages and note-taking tools at YouVersion.com. We’re hip like that.

  15. The word of God is still the word of God when it rolled off the printing presses of the sixth century or displayed on my smart phone.

    As a personal practice (and out of respect for my pastor) I do silence my iPhone and I make an effort not to text, email, or surf during the church services.

    Having the word of God in my pocket is a nice convenient.

  16. Josh:

    Just curious if you’ve noticed any impact that free wifi may have on community. I’ve only been there a couple of times, and I wasn’t paying attention to that part, but I wonder if you find more than a few people staring into their phones rather than getting to know the person beside them. Again, I don’t think we’re putting the wi-fi genie back in the bottle, but I am interested in any side effects this may be having on us.

  17. I read it off of my iPhone and iPad. I love it. I utilize YouVersion so I can see mulitple versions at once. All of my highlights, bookmarks and notes are synced. I also take notes on my iPad so it allows me to carry only one thing.
    I love it and I have found no problems with it. When I want to go back and look something up, it’s quicker and more portable. I can sync my notes to Evernote and index them there, which has been a great study tool.

  18. Good questions…and observations! As a pastor, I have found another issue, when visiting churches: putting notes/texts on the screen has severely curtailed people even carrying their Bible to church. I wonder if they ever open it… I remember something my Pastor-Dad used to say: “The rustle of turning Bible pages in church is music to a preacher’s ears.” I agree.

    Few of our Church Family have e-Bibles. I sure can understand the convenience of having it so accessible. I have no problem with it…and this man DOES carry a “Hard Copy” to church!

  19. My e-reader is simply that, an e-reader. Not made to surf the net or send e-mails or anything else. If I want to jot down a note or two, I still need a pad of paper and a pen.

    I have, however, noticed a problem whether I use a “hard copy” or an e-reader. Sometimes I get so carried away writing my notes that I miss the next several points in the sermon,….. Oops!

  20. Dan Jesse (@djesse50) January 29, 2012 — 9:13 pm

    For those that find the temptation to use their technology for more than reading the Bible and taking notes read this article: http://www.boston.com/news/education/higher/articles/2010/11/26/during_boring_classes_texting_is_the_new_doodling/

    I think the title says it all. I don’t think this research is completely right, it is interesting to look at.

  21. Dan Jesse (@djesse50) January 29, 2012 — 9:15 pm

    That was the wrong link. Sorry.

  22. Since I have been on a three month sabbatical from pastoral ministry, I have been a guest at several churches and usually have just used my Android Bible. It is intentional on my part as I want to escape some of the usual patterns of thinking that accompany my leather-bound study Bible. What I noticed was that I focused more intently on the words of the text and wasn’t distracted by my hand-written notes in the margins or the editor’s notes at the bottom of the pages. The other interesting thing I noticed is that I saw many people using their e-Bibles and seemed very involved in the teaching time.

  23. I was thinking about this further: I wonder if we are merely getting hung up on our perception of what constitutes a “Bible.”

    I think I am in total agreement with the comment made above, and I quote:

    “The word of God is still the word of God when it rolled off the printing presses of the sixth century or (is) displayed on my smart phone.” – Timothy Spradling

  24. “the printing presses of the sixth century” Tell us more, please. I think that is about 9 centuries too early

  25. Just quoting the guy above, – but now that I think about it, maybe that should have been the sixteenth century? I dunno. I’m just guessing.

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