Stop Bringing Your Bible to Church! (and don’t look at the screen either)

This post is the first in a series of “Media Ecology Experiments” which is about using media and technology in a different way to help understand how it affects us and our faith.
The Flower Fades and so Does the Word of God
A few months ago, I found myself in church without a Bible. In the rush to get the family out the door, I didn’t want to make us any later by hunting for my Bible – plus our church gave us a handout with the sermon passage anyway. This backfired when our church decided to stop printing the handouts to save money in the economic downturn. Thankfully, they still put the Bible text on screen whenever the pastor referred to it.
Sadly, I noticed that when the words were on screen my eyes just bounced from word to word acknowledging that the words the pastor spoke matched the words on screen. When the words faded from the screen, they faded from my mind as well. I would try to remember, but my mind was so used to having the text available, it just refused to memorize it. I tried bringing my Bible again, but the same thing happened. My eyes would flit about the page, but the words would not penetrate my mind, much less my heart.
An Experiment That Was Really an Exercise
So I decided to do an experiment. I intentionally left my Bible at home and when the pastor began to read from the Scripture, I would – get this – close my eyes and just listen. I was joining my ancient Christian brothers who, without printed Bibles and projectors, only accessed the precious Words of God through their ears.
Without printed words to guide me, I felt a bit helpless at first, like a kid riding a bike without training wheels for the first time. But after a few tries, my mind seemed to put back online a tool it hadn’t used since I was a kid – my imagination.
The picture was a bit dim at first, but the harder I worked the more brilliant and lifelike it became. I started to picture a house with people eating inside. The house’s owner was a man named Simon the Leper. Jesus and the disciples were there fellowshipping together. But then, in came Mary with her alabaster jar. What a tense and powerful scene!
Kill the Easy Button
As a web developer my job is to make a website so clear that people don’t have to think to use it. The problem is that much of our lives are spent using devices that make things so easy, we begin to atrophy.
We see this clearly with our bodies. Fast food and desk jobs make us fat. So we invent and use machines that are the opposite of easy (weight machines, treadmills, etc.) in order to exercise and rebuild our bodies.
However, it’s harder for us to see how “easy buttons” affect our mind and soul. That’s why I recommend that we occasionally try using our technology in different ways to see how it affects us. Today someone might see me at church without a Bible and think that I don’t care about the Scriptures. But in fact, the reason I don’t always have my printed Bible is that I care so deeply about God’s word that I don’t want it to remain on the page or on the screen. I want it to penetrate so deeply into my mind that it changes me from the inside out.
If you try it this weekend please share your experience.

This post is the first in a series of “Media Ecology Experiments” which is about using media and technology in a different way to help understand how it affects us and our faith.

The Flower Fades and so Does the Word of God

russian bible projectedA few months ago, I found myself in church without a Bible. In the rush to get the family out the door, I didn’t want to make us any later by hunting for my Bible – plus our church gave us handouts with the sermon passage anyway.

This backfired when our church decided to save money and stop printing the handouts. Thankfully, they still put the Bible text on screen whenever the pastor referred to it.

Sadly, I noticed that when the words were on screen my eyes just bounced from word to word acknowledging that the words the pastor spoke matched the words on screen. When the words faded from the screen, they faded from my mind as well. I would try to remember, but my mind was so used to having the text available, it just refused to memorize it. I tried bringing my Bible again, but the same thing happened. My eyes would flit about the page, but the words would not penetrate my mind, much less my heart.

An Experiment That Was Really an Exercise

So I decided to do an experiment. I intentionally left my Bible at home and when the pastor began to read from the Scripture, I would – get this – close my eyes and just listen. I was joining my ancient Christian brothers who, for centuries without printed Bibles and projectors, only accessed the precious Words of God through their ears.

Without printed words to guide me, I felt a bit helpless at first, like a kid’s first attempt  at riding a bike without training wheels. But after a few tries, my mind seemed to put back online a tool it hadn’t used since I was a kid – my imagination.

The picture was a bit dim at first, but the harder I worked the more brilliant and lifelike it became. I started to picture a house with people eating inside. The house’s owner was a man named Simon the Leper. Jesus and the disciples were there fellowshipping together. And then, in came Mary with her alabaster jar. It reminded me of the powerful and vivid scenes from the land of Narnia that my mind created before the films came out.

Kill the Easy Button

As a web developer my job is to make websites so clear and easy that people don’t have to think to use it. The problem is that much of our lives are spent using devices that make things so easy, parts of ourselves begin to atrophy.

We see this clearly in the effect that fast food and desk jobs make have on our bodies. An entire industry now exists that machines that are the opposite of easy (weight machines, treadmills, etc.) to help us exercise and rebuild our bodies.

However, it’s harder for us to see how “easy buttons” affect our mind and soul. That’s its important for us to occasionally try using our technology in different ways to see how it affects us and our minds. After experimenting for a few weeks, I’ve begun bringing my Bible again. But sometimes I decide not to, and someone might see me at church without a Bible and think that I don’t care about the Scriptures. But in fact, the reason I don’t always bring my printed Bible is that I care so deeply about God’s word that I don’t want it to remain trapped in the technology of the page or the screen. I want it to penetrate so deeply into my mind that it changes me from the inside out.

Give it a shot this weekend and share your experience.

(more on reading the Bible in church)

Update: Please don’t take this post as a literal recommendation that you should never bring a printed Bible to church or that bringing or not bringing a printed Bible is good or bad, better or worse. The point is to encourage us all to temporarily experiment with using media and technology in different ways to see how they affect us and how dependent we are on them. Most of us only label something “technology” if it is less than 2 years old. However, printing, even though it is over 500 years old, whether we realize it or not is a technology which profoundly influences our thinking and behavior. Likewise, TVs and projectors though several decades old also affect us significantly. My encouragement is to try using these tools in ways different from their prescribed uses in an attempt to better understand them, yourself, and the Words of God.

Published by

John Dyer

In my day job, I work at Dallas Theological Seminary, and at night I write Bible software for countries whose leaders could be called "overlords." This one time, I wrote a book about technology and Christian faith. You can find out more about what I'm up to at http://j.hn/.

33 thoughts on “Stop Bringing Your Bible to Church! (and don’t look at the screen either)”

    1. Sam X, I think that fits into using media in an intentionally 'cool' way (fewer words) as opposed to a 'hot' way (paragraphs of text). Apparently when a listener/reader has to fill in some of the details themselves, they tend to learn more.

  1. Interesting – I am the opposite – maybe it has something to do with learning styles. If I do NOT take my Bible to church, my mind drifts. If I DO, then I pay better attention, flip to all the passages references, etc. Our pastor is trying to encourage more people to bring their Bibles – even my kids (6 and 7, not the 3 and 1 year olds) take theirs every week!

    1. Amanda, it's great to hear from you! I hope you don't mind me moving your comment from Facebook to here so more people can see it.

      I bet your little ones are adorable bringing their Bibles to church – how sweet! What a great family tradition.

      Regarding learning styles, I think it's great that you've experimented with various media and found what helps you concentrate and retain the Scriptures. That's exactly what this post is about! I hope everyone tries it for at least a few Sundays.

  2. Wow, what a great idea! I'm a former Church Media Director (now future church planter) so I'm always paying attention to different ways churches do things, especially on screen. Like you, I've been to mostly churches that post the scriptures on-screen or in the notes. But there have been a couple of times that I've been in a service where the pastor asked everyone to close their eyes and listen to a passage. You definitely absorb things differently when you do that.

    This would be a great experiment to try. I'd love to see what people think of this technique.

    Thanks for sharing (love the blog by the way).

    1. Brad, a lot of churches (including my own) have recently begun introducing ancient church elements like candles and liturgy into the service. I think it'd be awesome if a church did a few Sundays where they emphasized the Church's ancient orally learning and encouraged everyone to put away the handouts, printed Bibles, and projectors. The link above to "Between Two Worlds" has some great resources for reading Scripture aloud

  3. My experience is similar to Amanda's. I'm a very visual learner and need that visual anchor. I'm often frustrated that the verses aren't displayed on the screen for a longer period of time, because I'm frequently still reading/reflecting/re-reading when the verse is removed and, as you said, fades away. Maybe you're most strongly an aural learner and thus need to focus on your hearing in order to get the greatest comprehension?

    1. Brian, great question.

      Due the television and the internet, it seems that all of us are shifting toward being visual learners, whether we were born that way or not. Since we learn through visual media so much more often than purely oral media (there is always a handout, a book, or a powerpoint, no matter where we go), we all have decreased oral learning abilities simple because we don't use them.

      Even if I am innately a visual learner, it can help stretch my mind to work a different part of it. Researchers recommend doing "mind hacks" like brushing your teeth with your other hand to create new synapses in the brain.

      It sounds like you've tried not bringing a Bible to church and only using the screens, but it really is a different experience seeing neither the words on a page or on screen and only hearing. I find that I do better when I hear, but don't read or read, but don't hear. It's when both happen at once that I get confused.

  4. There is certainly merit to your suggestion, but I think your title pushes a bit too hard. We should seek to hear the Word in different ways, but it seems having our Bible with is in worship shouldn't prevent us from doing that. Not having them with us on Sunday morning has real drawbacks.

    We are in an era where the guy in the pulpit and the media director possess a lot of power in the worship service, too much in the view of this liturgically-inclined Christian. With the demise of expository preaching in too many churches, I find myself too often needing to check the context of the the sermon text to see if the preacher is using it faithfully. Even when that concern proves unfounded, there is often great benefit in seeking related texts to the one on which the sermon focuses. And, when the sermon proves to be thin gruel, one can always focus of the text itself for nourishment.

    I've also been blessed with a Sunday morning experience beyond the worship service in which we frequently share with one another from the Bible. While I wish my memory were sufficient to carry those passages I most often wish to offer, it is not. Without my Bible, I have too much of myself to offer, too little of Christ.

    We seem to be in an era where commentators make sweeping pronouncements about how to do church, whether or not they are warranted. Your brief experiment is intriguing, but the tenor of your piece make it seem like you are offering up wisdom you have not yet earned.

    1. As with your presentation at Bible Tech (wasn’t there, just listened online), I think you have a very, very valid point. As a developer myself, I have thrown myself headlong into checking out all the latest Bible study tools available and loved it. However, I have definitely noticed my attention and retention spans have dwindled. Like Matt says, I have a hard time calling to mind the Scriptures when I want them.

      In contrast to Matt, however, I see this as a problem, not as a reason to bring my Bible with me. I’ve started going to church from time to time without my Bible and find that I am better able to listen to the message being preached. In particular, I am generally better able to critically answer a sermon of “thin gruel” or, more often than not, realize that the “thin gruel” was just an unfortunate bit of an overall terrific, Christ-honoring message.

      We are too quick to think on our own these days and not allow others to speak or clarify their thoughts. We should seek to allow ourselves to be quicker to listen, first to the Scriptures and then to those who are selected by God to teach, than to jump directly in and try understanding on our own. Individual study is great, but don’t forget that Christ prayed we would be in community and unity with one another, each with gifts differing to support the body as a whole.

    2. The title of the post isn't meant to be taken that everyone should literally never bring their Bible to church ever. The idea is to remove it for a few Sundays to see how dependent on the technology of print (and projection) we've become since Gutenberg invented it.

      It's easy to be critical of new technology and new media, but it's harder to see how older technology still impacts us. I love print and digital Bibles, but I also lament that unlike believers for hundreds of years, I have not memorized the Pentateuch so I am dependent on my print Bible to talk about it.

  5. This is WONDERFUL. What a terrific thought experiment. Say, have you ever heard of the Media Ecology Association? http://www.media-ecology.org If not, please check us out. If you have, I hope you are planning to come to our convention in St. Louis next week. You'll have a good time discussing this experiment with colleagues who think about the same kinds of things. Facebook me! Stephanie Bennett

  6. I'm a bring-no-Bible kind of church-goer. Know just what you mean by seeing the story in your mind's eye. Great way to own the material. But, like Amanda illustrates, it's probably more learning style than anything else. I'm an auditory learner; I can't remember a darned thing I read by the time I get to the end of the page. Thanks for sharing. Hope your story gets people thinking.

  7. Matt,

    I had a few questions about some of the things you said in your comment.
    1. First, you say "I find myself too often needing to check the context of the the sermon text to see if the preacher is using it faithfully." I couldn't think of being in a church where I feel I must always go back and check everything the pastor says to see if it is "in context." It seems that would be more of a distraction then verses on a screen, etc. I would hope you are in a church where the pastor is preaching the Word of God faithfully, and you can trust that what He is saying is truth. (of course we are all human, and even the most Biblically faithful preachers make mistakes in preaching the text. ) As someone who struggles with picking apart every sermon he hears, I have to keep going back to God and letting Him change my mind so I learn to hear God in any sermon – not just mine.

    2. You also mention "
    I've also been blessed with a Sunday morning experience beyond the worship service in which we frequently share with one another from the Bible." I am curious – do you always have to look up the context of every verse that everyone shares? This to seems as it would take away from hearing people where they are. (yes hearing) I find when I am with a small group of people who are sharing what God is teaching them through the Word; I want to correct everyone person after they speak – telling them what the verse "really" means. Again – I am always begging God to change this about me.

    3. You mention "your Bible" several times. I'm curious what translation you use? There are some people (many whom I go to school with) that will debate you in great length about the version of the text you use. (even among the several different Greek texts) Could it be that the translations (And how we often times think "our" translation is the best one) be a distraction as well?

    4. Lately, you say " but the tenor of your piece make it seem like you are offering up wisdom you have not yet earned." I'm curious what you mean by that. When you say that the author of this post has not earned the wisdom he is sharing, what are you implying. At first glance this comment comes up a bit harsh – I"m not sure if that was your intent or not. Do you know the author of this site in "real" life? Do you know what wisdom he has, or hasn't earned?
    (I say that because I am a personal friend of the author, and I often ask for his wisdom on many different subjects. He is a Godly, and wise guy, who loves the Lord, and other people. He also has a great deal of life experience, which I feel gives him a good amount of wisdom. Sorry if I sound a bit defensive, but being he is a friend of mine, in "real" life, I can attest to the authors wisdom. – and a heart that lines up with his wisdom.)

    Interested to hear your thoughts on these questions.

    In grace, and truth –
    Rick

  8. John,

    Someone may have already mentioned this… I didn't have time to read all the responses, but historical liturgical practice encourages that worship attenders NOT follow along with the scripture readings in the liturgical service. As you mention, there was a time when it was that way by necessity. The idea is that when you read the text yourself it creates more of a personal experience that can actually be distracting from the unique corporate experience of hearing the word in community. In this tradition parishioners are encouraged to read the texts beforehand! Meditate on them, be prepared! But then listen in and as a community when they are read in that context. I like it!

    Here's what our family does (at our liturgical church). We print off the Old Testament, Epistle and Gospel readings and someone in our family reads them to the rest of us in the car on the way to church (we rotate that job). I make a few comments to suggest the main idea of each passage and we draw connections between the readings. Then my kids get to vote on which passage they think our pastor might use as his main sermon text (they can also choose 'all' or 'something completely different'). Winners earn a prize once we get to church and look at the order of service to find out who guessed right.

    In the service, I don't even pick up my bible during the readings… sometimes I close my eyes… but usually I fix my eyes on the altar at the front of our church, which is beautiful and includes a striking statue of Christ… or possibly one of the large stain glass images to the sides. Once we are settled into the actual sermon time, I crack open my bible and follow along just like the old Baptist/Bible Church boy I was brought up to be. :-)

    Russ

    1. Russ, always great to hear from you.

      I love stories like this from people who've thought well about how to use Bible media. I'm guessing that most of us are not nearly as intentional as you and your family. Thanks for the great example – I hope to follow it when my kids get old enough.

  9. Ive done that too my friend… sometimes it's a nice change from my usual "inductive study note taking in the bible" way of listening….

  10. Perhaps its your background as a web developer, but I found this statement:
    "But after a few tries, my mind seemed to put back ONLINE a tool it hadn’t used since I was a kid – my imagination,"
    to be the most interesting. Not to say that your experiment wasn't fascinating, but the use of a computer term to describe the processes of one's mind truly tells the tale of our current age. Despite the literal words of the term, i.e. "line," we as a society may be breaking free from the rational cause and effect and left to right thought processes that have dominant since Gutenberg. Slowly but surely, I feel that our modern technologies are facilitating a new way of thinking and interpreting our world. So perhaps you won't have to work so hard to change from the inside out.

    Fascinating experiment, and keep up the good blog.

    1. Brian, I love that you noticed that. I didn't have it in when I originally wrote this for another publication and audience that wasn't as web-savvy, but I added it because I thought the metaphor was more apt for this blog.

      I always want to make sure that whenever we talk about the benefits of a new way of thinking or new technology, that we also remain aware of the short-comings of the new and the benefits that still exist the old.

  11. John –

    Just found your blog via your recent post the Media Ecology Association list… a group I'm currently a member of because I'm writing a related masters thesis, although I'm doing it from a seminary, which is prolly more unusual.

    Believe it or not, I'm particularly looking at the impact of information media on the doctrine of scripture. So your post is pretty awesome.

    I haven't found many others as curious as I am about this topic… so it's nice to find your pad. I'll be sure to keep up. If you like, I have a number of posts on media ecology and theology related stuff over on my blog.

  12. Very interesting idea, listening rather than reading along. We use different sets of mental lenses when we are reading than when we are listening. Reading is more critical/deconstructive, while listening is generally more aesthetic. We read for understanding, we listen for pleasure. Reading (even reading along with someone else) is more impersonal, listening is more communal.

    Years ago I asked my pastor to tell me each week what he would be preaching on the next Sunday. Then I could memorize it during the week to be prepared to listen. But he so rarely knew, quite often he didn't know what text he would use until Saturday evening. So I gave up asking. But when he was able to tell me, it made me a more receptive audience for his sermon.

  13. I have to throw my 2 cents in. I'm running computer graphics nearly every Sunday. I've got it all in front of me and yet, because I'm focusing on the next point, I miss it all. I generally have to go back and listen to the weeks sermon a second time to hear the Word and not miss it.

    Great post John.

  14. this is certainly a valuable experiment.

    martyn lloyd-jones encouraged a similar excercise when he prohibited his congregation from taking notes.

    we can't always have our notes with us, but we always have our brains. let's learn to use 'em!

  15. While I can understand your motivation for internalizing the passage, what I fear is over-zealous pastors that think they can interpret the Bible perfectly and decide to make some changes to the text to make it easier for the congregation to see what they see. It think it is good to have our Bibles out so that we can make sure what our pastors are telling us is correct. Pastors are not without faults. I'll stick with my Bible.

  16. Hi, Thank you for the post. The bible says to meditate on the word. Sadly many Christians do not fully absorb the word. The Bible should be read slowly line by line …Pause..meditate on the word then ..continue.

    King David said “I meditate on your word day and night”

    Church often becomes like you are watching a play or theater show. It is the “fastfood” “entertain me” mentality why often we do not feel the presense of God.

    SpiritHappy works with teens and adult who struggle with depression and one of the things we teach is to slw down back into the natural stillness of God

  17. I am new to religion, church…
    I do not have my own personal Bible, yet! I will borrow a Bible during services, but I have found that I have the best feeling (I am not sure if it’s spiritual..) when I close my eyes and just listen…
    It’s sometimes too powerful!
    Thank you~

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