If you’ll do me the favour of indulging me—and if you’re a regular reader then you often do so and I’m grateful for it, or if you’re a supporter then I’m thankful for your help to keep my site advert free—I’d like to tell you about a personal bugbear. Though the title may have given away where we’re going.
Imagine a scene with me. It’s a Sunday, you’ve made your way to your local church like you do most weeks. Perhaps you’ve come a beautiful neo-gothic façade, or an ancient building of Norman stone that hunkers into the landscape. Perhaps you’ve come to a converted building that could be any conference centre were it not for the word “church” in big letters on the side. Or, perhaps, like so many, you’ve come to a community centre or school hall that a team of volunteers have attempted to dress for worship—though practically they’ve mostly put out chairs and maybe covered over some of the more objectionable posters.
You’re ready to worship God in song and word, in bread and wine, whatever that looks like in your context. Perhaps if it’s broadly structured like my non-liturgical church (I know, I know, we all have liturgies, but you knew what I meant), you’ll sing for around half an hour, maybe punctuated by prayers and scripture readings, whether planned or spontaneous, then have a handful of notices, then someone will preach from the Bible before either you take the Lord’s Supper or there’s some sort of altar call.
Say I’m the preacher that day. I get up, make whatever introductory remarks I have and invite you to turn to the passage I’m going to be preaching on as I begin to read it.
Here’s where we get to my personal bugbear: nobody moves. A handful perhaps flip through their Bibles, a few more pull out their phones—maybe to open a Bible app, maybe to scroll Facebook because they’ve heard my preaching before—but most sit and wait for the passage to appear on the screen.
My bugbear is this, most people don’t bring a Bible to church with them. I have no idea if this is common outside of my context, but it’s common in the churches I know well. Perhaps this is a complete failure of leadership, including mine, feel free to judge us as you like. I think it’s a problem.
Why don’t people bring a Bible with them? I’m sure there are a host of reasons. Perhaps they simply don’t have one and can’t afford to buy one—that’s not their fault, though the church should just give them one. Perhaps they forgot it, again fair enough, it happens. I don’t think that’s what is happening in most cases.
We stick the verses we’re preaching from up on the big TV screens we set up in the school we meet in. I suspect most people do with whatever form of projector or screen they’re working with. It then becomes plausible to not bring your Bible. We put them up for those we are attending but aren’t Christians, or are very new Christians, or have forgotten their Bible or whatever it may be. It isn’t meant to replace looking at the text for yourself, but this has unintended consequences, like most things do.
The other factor is those little black glass distraction devices we keep in our pockets. We don’t bring Bibles because we look at the app on our phones. I am, as you will have picked up if you’re a regular reader, concerned about the effects that smartphones have on us and the way that they subtly form and change us.
It’s a good thing that Bible apps exist. It’s available wherever you are, assuming you brought your phone—and though I do love the times I leave the house without my phone they’re almost always the times I’ve deliberately taken my Bible with me. Phones even do some things better than a paper Bible: for example, they have a search function, which can be very useful. Something like STEPBible from Tyndale House also provides the user with a host of helpful language tools, and for free, though the desktop version is better than the app. I use it regularly as part of my Bible study and am thankful to God for it. My paper Bible can’t do this.
However, neither can my paper Bible do anything else except give me the word of God. My phone does many things, including be wonderfully distracting. The nature of reading on a screen compared to reading on paper is noticeably different, they inspire different kinds of attention and focus. It’s not necessarily that one is better (though for deep and focused work, there’s no comparison, paper wins), but they are different to each other. Is the kind of skim reading that phones encourage and are perfectly designed for what you want while the preacher preaches on a Sunday? I’m not so sure.
It’s much easier in a Bible to glance at the material around the text we’re looking at while continuing to listen, and it encourages us to keep the text open in front of us for the whole time the preacher is speaking, not just as they’re reading the text. I think these are good things, not least because it allows us to satisfy ourselves that what we’re being told comes from the text.
I wonder if, with Tony Reinke, rather than not bringing our Bibles it’s our phones we should be leaving behind on Sundays.
Of course, the most painful challenge here in my personal bugbear is for myself. Clearly my preaching is not making people want to be in the text, there is some personal reflection required here, I’m sure.
But friends, bring your Bible to church with you. And then read it. I can promise you this: however ‘good’ the preaching is or isn’t, whatever we mean by that, if you read the word of God and meditate on it, it will do you good.
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