Josh, a listener in Bel Air, Maryland, asks, “Dear Pastor John, today most people have an iPhone or an iPad with a Bible app. Is it okay to use a digital Bible (an ESV app, YouVersion, etc.) during church? How about community group? Is there a specific context when a digital Bible is just not acceptable? Just how important are paper Bibles for Christians today?” So, there’s a mix of questions bound up here for you, Pastor John.
My answer is going to seem strange to those who remember me saying how, back in the early days, few sounds were more pleasing to me as I stood to preach than the swish of five hundred Bibles.
All the pages opened as I said, “Let’s turn to the text.” Everybody’s Bible turns, and you can even hear them. That is a beautiful sound in the congregation, and I don’t think there is a similar sound for the click, click, click of your iPhone or your tablet.
What Is the Word?
Here is my answer: I hope it is okay, because I do it. My wife does it, and my daughter does it, at the church we are attending now. So, am I just biased and self-defensive now, or is there real warrant for that?
It seems to me that there are two issues here in the public use of digital Bibles. Number one is, What is the word of God? The second one would be, Are there downsides and upsides to reading a digital Bible in public?
The answer to the first question is that the word of God is not paper and ink, but the words in their grammatical context — whether on paper or on a screen. The reason I say “in their grammatical context” is because words by themselves don’t have any meaning. They only have meaning when they are connected with other words.
We learn the rules that govern how words get meaning in context, and God provided those contexts as he put paragraphs together in the Bible. We have to say, “The word of God — that we can understand — is the words in their grammatical context.”
So, I don’t think there is any intrinsic reason for not reading your Bible digitally or on paper. That is my answer to the first question. There is nothing sacrosanct about paper as opposed to screen.
This one is a little more difficult — namely, are there downsides or upsides to reading a digital Bible in public? I think the main downside to using your phone or a tablet in public worship or in small group is distraction.
People around you may not be used to it, and it may not be typical for them. They may be dazzled by you taking out your mini television in the middle of the service and turning it on. It just may make them think, “Whoa, that is bizarre. Are you going to watch TV while the text is being read?”
Another distraction is that you may be tempted. This may be even worse. You may be tempted to read text messages or to click an email that just buzzed on you. You want to see if it is really an emergency — blah, blah, blah. That would be a significant loss of reverence and attention to the word of God during a moment in which God Almighty addresses his people in the reading of his word.
Fight the Irreverent
Having said those downsides, which are real, I think the issue of distraction is mainly owing to the newness of it and not the intrinsic nature of it. There are other ways we could be distracted, and we have gotten used to and over those.
The coming of the digital reading of the Bible is inevitable. Therefore, I think that any pastor or small group leader who tries to prevent it is fighting a losing battle that he cannot win — and that he should not fight.
Instead, this is something pastors should really give heed to. Small group leaders and pastors should preach and teach about how to use them, how to think about them in reverence. What would reverence mean? How do you digitally use your phone reverently in worship?
There are irreverent uses. Answering your phone while the pastor preaches is irreverent, and there would be others. So, I would say that instead of trying to prohibit it, let’s teach on it and bring it under the meaning of worship.
Linger, Then Share
We could also ask, “Would it be irreverent to try and capture something the pastor just said in a tweet on your device, in order to get it online immediately?” I think it should wait, which raises a whole new question about note taking.
People used to have their notepads, and the pastor would even hand out sheets. He would encourage people to take notes. Now, of course, people have their little iPad right there in front of them. They can type right on it, and I think that is inevitable.
If we are really going to care about note taking, then we had better not tell people, “Well, you can only take notes by writing on paper.” Now, as soon as I say that, it is only two clicks away from being sent out. My sense is that we would do well not to be thinking that way.
We should be thinking, “God is addressing me right now. I am dealing with God Almighty.” It is a wonderful thing to be able to tell somebody about what God is doing in you, but let it have its hour-long effect on you. Then, after prayer and due consideration, share with the world what you heard and saw in God’s word.