Rachel Barach #CNMAC13 presentation: Reimagining the Word
Reimagining the Word
General Manager, Bible Gateway
#CNMAC13 November 9, 2013
Christians use “The Word” to mean a lot of things - the Bible, Jesus Christ himself, the Gospel message; in this talk, the phrase indicates the Bible, the
sacred writings of Christianity, as defined by the accepted Biblical canon.
The Word is digital.
Back in 1993, Bible Gateway made Bible search and reading freely available online.
20 years later, there are hundreds of Bible search and study websites, and more than 1000 Bible-related apps in the US AppStore alone.
For many of the more than 1.5 billion smartphone users in the world, getting searchable Bible text, in their language, for free, is merely a tap or download
The Word is accessible.
In other words, digitization has meant mass distribution.
Youversion, the popular Bible app, recently reported more than 100 million downloads.
Bible Gateway also has millions of app downloads, but has traditionally been more popular in the desktop...BG currently averages more than 17 million
unique visitors each month just to the website.
These are only two of the many, many options for Bible reading and study online, or via mobile app, not to mention full-fledged Bible software packages.
With all those choices, it’s no wonder that polls have shown people to believe that having the Bible available to them digitally has helped them to read it
hours spent reading the Bible digitally in 2012
Because reading the Bible is just a tap away, we have no excuses for not reading it. And many are. In fact, in 2012, just on Youversion and Bible Gateway
alone, more than 400 million hours were spent reading the Bible.
The American Bible Society recently completed a study on Bible engagement in the US, called State of the Bible 2013 - it showed that 41% of Americans
read the Bible “online” this year - up 4% from previous years.
And perhaps even more staggering is that all of this Bible reading isn’t happening “silently.”
The Word is shared.
More than 31 million verses were shared from Youversion alone in 2012. Combining just Youversion and Bible Gateway stats for 2013, we may be on pace
to see more than 80 million verses shared this year.
This is all great news! We are seeing a new level of true Bible engagement and evangelism, right?
That’s certainly what we want.
Is this Bible engagement?
But is it actually happening?
The truth is, all this digital accessibility, all of these hours spent reading Scripture on our laptops and mobile devices, all of these verses broadcast out to
our friends via social media may not be having the impact one might expect on Bible engagement and Christian maturity - on our understanding and
application of Scripture, on biblical literacy, on our connection to church and Christian community, on our lens for seeing and serving a broken world…
The churches in America face no greater challenge
than overcoming biblical illiteracy, and the prospects for
doing so are formidable because the stark fact is, many
Christians don’t know what they believe or why. Our faith
is not rooted in Scripture. We revere the Bible but don’t
read it. Some observers maintain that the Bible has not
in any profound way penetrated our culture.
George Gallup, Jr.
George Gallup - the foremost researcher of religion in America - said these words back in 1997. But Youversion and Bible Gateway didn’t have these big
numbers back then - so this isn’t true anymore, right?
Randy Frazee, a pastor who works at a large church in Texas with Max Lucado, used this very quote in his claim just 2 years ago that biblical illiteracy is still
the “dirty little secret of the church.”
I mentioned a few slides back that online reading of the Bible is up 4%. But according to that same study, print Bible readership is down 4%. The number
of people that believe that the Bible is sacred literature is down 6%. 61% of people say they wish they read the Bible more - but that’s also down 6% in 2
years. And 17% of people are now antagonistic to the Bible - up 7% since 2011.
With the Bible more digitally accessible and shared than ever before, why are these numbers going in the wrong direction?
Here are a couple of possible reasons:
The Bible isn’t easy.
There are many different authors and literary styles, it was written over a vast period of time, in languages many of us don’t speak, referring to historical
and cultural contexts that are unfamiliar to us.
And then there’s the content. The Gospel is a stumbling block, and we know it.
It’s admittedly not supposed to be easy. It is the Word of God, after all. What is available to be unlocked inside this book is the mystery of God himself.
Even the most holy and educated Bible scholars struggle…
In other words, just because the Bible is accessible doesn’t make it understandable.
That’s all the more true under the constraints of social media.
We necessarily soundbite and re-translate Scripture to fit into 140 characters or make use of popular hashtags. And while on the one hand, that increases
the distribution of the Word in our modern world, it’s also taking something away - we don’t gain a comprehensive understanding of this complex book
when we snip it down to only the pieces we want to read, and only one bit at a time.
Don’t forget, people with agendas to debunk Christianity also have access to the Bible and social media, and they use soundbites, too.
That doesn’t mean we should stop sharing. It just means we can’t take for granted that the boundaries of social media will never allow us to fully capture
the power and mystery of God’s Word, and that every Bible verse soundbite likely includes some degree of personal interpretation, for better or worse.
Facebook makes us depressed.
Finally, there’s the argument that social media itself is a bit poisonous.
A study conducted this year by the University of Michigan conﬁrmed results found in an older study that “social networks make us anti-social,” that the more time we
spend on the Internet - and Facebook in particular - the lonelier and more depressed we feel. The theory is that when we review Facebook, we compare our friends’
highlight reels with our realities - which isn’t fair, but it’s what we do. And it leads to negativity, resentment, isolation, alienation.
Which is the opposite of the outcome we hope to achieve with our online evangelism efforts.
So, how do we
reimagine the Word?
It would be nice to have a tidy bullet point list of new and creative ways we can pair technology with the Bible to solve this challenge of Bible engagement and cultural
impact. But there is no pat answer. We need to explore and solve this together. And so I offer this charge:
How can we - the Church, Christian leaders who are focused on how we should use technology to better meet the needs of God’s people - how can we, creatively and
locally, lock into the power of God’s Word to reimagine how we communicate it in this digital age?
I offer only a few guidelines for this process and exploration:
Revere the Word.
Remember your reverence for Scripture. Don’t mistake words for THE WORD. John 1:1 reminds us that the Word was God. So, let us revere Scripture and
worship God in so doing.
Read your Bible. That is an excellent way to honor it.
Study and share not just the verses, but the context, the history, the complexity. And don’t over-interpret. Let the Holy Spirit speak.
Pursue authentic relationship.
Multiple verses in Scripture remind us that the Word lives in each of us; so don’t mistake engaging with Bible text for engaging with the Word as
manifested in each other.
Don’t hit the send button on an email or tweet when what you need to do is pick up the phone and talk to your friend in need; don’t substitute a status
update for meaningful relationship.
Don’t just broadcast when you can disciple.
The Church is the antidote to
isolation and alienation.
Finally, remember that the Church is the antidote to the isolation and alienation of this digital age. Multiple times in Scripture (like Hebrews 10:24-25),
God commands us to pursue true community. The church was built, by Christ, to bring us into communion with him and with each other. Because God
knows that we are better together, that in a community of authentic relationships guided by his Word, we mend each other’s brokenness, and we have
both the mandate and privilege of building one another up, of engaging with the Word of God that we find not just in the Bible, but in each other. And so
we have the right tool!
…so is my word that goes out from my mouth:
It will not return to me empty, but will
accomplish what I desire and achieve the
purpose for which I sent it.
Isaiah 55:11 (NIV)
God is in control, friends. His Word is ﬂawless. Fear not, trust him. God’s Word, in whatever form it takes, will without fail accomplish his purpose.