The Bible: Mass Distribution and Massive Ignorance?

The Bible: Mass Distribution and Massive Ignorance? March 22, 2016

Over at the Weekly Standard I reviewed John Fea’s excellent new history of the American Bible Society (ABS). At the end of the review, I reflected on the dilemma of mass Bible ownership versus declining Bible “engagement.”

As the ABS observes its 200th birthday, it has become more clearly aligned with a broadly defined evangelicalism than it has been for a century. That adjustment has been both self-conscious and controversial among the ABS leadership. ABS leaders have also become concerned that the agency has, for too long, focused simply on shipping as many Bibles as it can. Touting the ABS’s own “billions and billions served,” as it were, is no longer sufficient: Especially in America, the Bible remains pervasively owned, but little read, except among a devout minority. With the advent of the Internet and smartphones, access to the Scriptures in physical or electronic form is no longer an issue for much of the world’s population. The problem is focusing a prospective reader’s attention (or what the ABS calls “engagement”) on the Word of God.

Christians have no doubt that the Bible is “living and active,” as the Book of Hebrews puts it. But millions of dust-covered Bibles on American bookshelves don’t do much to enliven souls or even to preserve an American national culture. Addressing that neglect of the Bible may be the greatest challenge the American Bible Society has ever faced.

For two hundred years, many conservative Protestants have assumed that mass distribution of the Bible was one of the keys to evangelizing the nation, and the world. And why not? Access to the Bible in the vernacular was, aside from salvation by grace alone, the defining issue of the Reformation.

Novo Testamento azul, bolso, Gideões Internacionais no Brasil. By JaymeJeronymo, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain.

Of course, not all people have ready access to the Bible in their own language yet, a problem that inspires the heroic work of Wycliffe Bible Translators and similar organizations.

But with the saturation of free nations with the Bible, and the advent of online versions and popular Bible apps, I wonder if we have reached a turning point where, for much of the world, individual access to the Scripture is no longer a problem?

The appealing thing about giving out Bibles and Bible apps is that you can quantify distribution. But has Bible knowledge, or “engagement” with the Scripture, kept up with the scale of distribution? Few would answer ‘yes.’

I would never question the value of Bible distribution, per se: even if just one businessperson might find a Bible in their hotel room during a “dark night of the soul,” Bible distribution is a good thing.

But the church, and parachurch organizations like the Gideons and the ABS, need to reflect more on what fostering ‘engagement’ with the Bible is going to require. One indispensable ingredient in such engagement is a rigorously biblical teaching diet in our churches. It is difficult to justify three-point “life application” sermons that skim lightly over the text, when so many in our churches lack basic familiarity with Scripture. Outside of sermons, churches and believers will have to renew their efforts to invite friends, students, and co-workers to Bible studies, Sunday Schools, and small groups. This is tough, time-intensive work, though, and Bible “engagement” is normally less susceptible to quantification than giving out copies with no follow up.

The mass availability of hard and e-copies of Bibles, paired with pervasive ignorance of Scripture even among professing Christians, has made it more conspicuous that distribution is only part of the work with regard to proclaiming and teaching the Word.

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