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The iChurch Cometh

By Christina Quick
Jan. 13, 2013

When Tad Finch steps behind the pulpit to address his congregation of 115 people, he carries a Bible and an iPad. He opens the Bible during his message, but he relies on the iPad to keep notes organized and project his points and Scripture text to a large screen at the front of the sanctuary.

Finch recently acquired the technical gadget as an anonymous gift from a church member.

“Most everyone in my congregation knew I wanted to go paperless in preaching at some point in the future and felt like the iPad would get me to that place,” says Finch, pastor of Rock Church Assembly of God in Pendleton, Ind.

Johannes Gutenberg revolutionized Bible study when he invented the movable-type printing press in 1440. For the first time, the Scriptures could be reproduced quickly, easily and inexpensively. Ordinary people had the opportunity to hold God’s Word in their hands.

For centuries, Christians have turned to the printed Word for spiritual guidance. But today another sea change is transforming the way many people read and even preach: the digital age.

Pastors aren’t the only ones in the church world tapping into the new technology. Look around a sanctuary on a typical Sunday morning and you’re likely to spot a number of congregants following the Scripture on electronic notebooks, smartphones, e-readers and similar devices.

“It’s going to be an interesting journey in the years ahead as we go more and more digital,” says Steve Pulis, student outreach director for Assemblies of God National Youth Ministries.

The pixilated handwriting may already be on the wall. According to a recent Pew Internet survey, during the past year more than 20 percent of American adults read e-books. When accounting for other long-form digital texts, such as magazines, the number rose to 43 percent. In October, Newsweek announced its decision to transition to a digital-only format after nearly 80 years as a print magazine.

However, the printed page is far from endangered. Among those turning to e-books, 88 percent still read print books as well, the Pew study found.

Book and Bible publishers are quick to point out business is good for print volumes as well as digital formats. And for all the attractive qualities of digital texts, it’s hard to imagine an app ever having the same sentimental value as a dog-eared family Bible with Grandma’s handwritten notes in the margins.

According to a 2012 study by the American Bible Society and the Barna Group, most people in the United States own at least one print Bible. By comparison, 15 percent have downloaded a Bible app onto a phone. Only 8 percent of those surveyed said they prefer a digital Bible format, compared to 83 percent who favor print and 7 percent who prefer audio.

Nonetheless, the digital movement is noticeably gaining momentum among Bible readers. Between 2011 and 2012, the annual survey noted an increase in the number of respondents who said they read the Bible on a computer, searched for Scriptures or Bible content on a smartphone or cellphone, read an electronic version of the Bible on an e-reader, and listened to a Bible-related podcast. The percentage of respondents reading print Bibles remained steady at 89 percent.

Some Christians worry reverence for the Scriptures will diminish if the Bible comes to be viewed as just another app competing for space alongside a plethora of games, music and e-books. Pulis says he understands such concerns.

“When we do our family devotions, we do it out of a physical Bible, even though we all have digital versions,” Pulis says. “I want my sons to see me with God’s Word. I want them to walk up and have no doubt what I’m reading. There may come a day when you can pick up your iPad and it means the same thing, but we’re not there yet.”

For the past three years, National Youth Ministries has sponsored the One Month Challenge, an event that encourages students to take printed Bibles everywhere they go for an entire month. Pulis says the idea is to make a statement, because a physical Bible naturally draws more attention than a Bible icon on a digital device.

“I want students to make it clear when they step into their schools that they’re following Jesus,” says Pulis, who participated in the One Month Challenge himself. “People notice when they see someone carrying a Bible — probably because they’ve got one at home.”

Pulis says carrying a printed Bible made him more aware of God’s Word throughout the day and even provided a few evangelism opportunities.

“It’s not common in today’s culture to carry a Bible everywhere, so it definitely gets noticed,” Pulis says. “It’s also a physical reminder for me to live what I’m reading and studying.”

Pulis says technology provides some exciting new opportunities for Christians as well. Many digital Bible versions allow readers instant access to commentary, cross-referencing material, words searches, devotions and alternate translations. With a few clicks, users can also share verses with their friends through social media.

“I can do things with digital technology that wouldn’t have been possible before,” Pulis says. “I can now carry a whole library of Bible material with me.”

Pulis carries an actual Bible to church, but he also uses digital devices during the service.

“I may hear a great quote and tweet it in the middle of the service,” Pulis says. “Typing it out and sending it actually helps me retain it long-term. At the same time, I’m aware that if I read other things on my Twitter feed or check Facebook while I’m there, the technology becomes a distraction. As in other areas of our lives, we need to maintain balance and exercise discipline.”

Jeff Sharkey, a software engineer at Google in Mountain View, Calif., says technology opens a world of possibilities for Bible readers by providing instant access to God’s Word. Yet he says nothing can replace the old-fashioned habit of “downloading” verses into the mind through memorization.

“Technology enables access to the depths of Scripture from the palm of your hand,” says Sharkey, who memorized four books of the New Testament while participating in Bible Quiz as a youth growing up at Central Assembly of God in Superior, Wis. “But it will never match the relevance of memorized Scripture recalled by the Holy Spirit.”


CHRISTINA QUICK is a freelance writer and former Pentecostal Evangel staff writer.

Email your comments to pe@ag.org.