When I started working in university ministry, I thought I knew the issues facing Christian students: money, church attendance, dating unbelievers, overseas holidays, grades. What I didn’t expect was a run-in with the digital Bible.
With the advent of the smart phone the way we access our Bibles drastically changed. The YouVersion Bible app was launched back in 2008 and has been downloaded over 420 million times. Where once we had to lug our dog-eared NIV84 to church, we now casually saunter in with over 60 English translations at our fingertips.
The advantages of digital Bibles are many and obvious. Want to read a passage on the go? Just whip out your phone. Can’t remember where that verse is? Just search the keyword. Navigation is instantaneous, it’s one less thing to carry, and you can pull it out when you’re evangelising.
Yet despite all of these advantages (and they are advantages), it seems to me they largely boil down to a personal convenience which ultimately costs us more than it gains.
Here are just three ways our digital Bibles are costing us more than we know.
1. Digital Bibles distract
Last year I was doing a Bible study on campus with two students. I was paper, they were pixels. At one point I asked a question and neither responded. I assumed they were thinking. After a long moment, I realised I was wrong. One was scrolling through Instagram and the other was on Messenger. I couldn’t believe it. But after some thought, I realised I could. The same thing happened in every other study group I led; it just wasn’t as obvious in a larger group.
Recently, I sat next to a girl at church who was studiously following a sermon with the passage on her phone. But then came that inevitable moment: she got a text message. So she replied. And then checked Facebook, and then checked Instagram. At this point she’d taken me down with her, and the preacher was now preaching to two fewer people.
Lest we point the finger, we have to acknowledge that most of us have been there. What astounds me, however, is that we don’t seem to care. We keep allowing it to happen. Yet when we go to the movies, we turn down the lights, put away our phones, and stop talking. We remove everything that would distract us from the main event. So why don’t we do the same when God – our God! – speaks? The answer is simple: we don’t value his voice as much as we should. Will using a paper Bible fix this heart issue? No. But as a practical action (dare I say, discipline?), it removes the noise and allows us to listen to his voice without unnecessary distraction.
2. Digital Bibles cut away the context
I’ll take it for granted that we’re all on-board with the idea that context determines meaning. My concern is that digital Bibles not only prevent us from seeing the context, but, in doing so, ultimately prevent us from considering the context.
On average, you can only see around four to seven verses on your phone screen. Scrolling doesn’t give you more, it just changes the ones you have. You simply can’t see enough at any one time to discern themes or map out a writer’s argument, especially when it spans chapters (Apostle Paul, I’m looking at you!). So unless you’re already familiar with the wider context of a passage, the use of a digital Bible hampers your ability to understand it. Not so much of a problem for those of us who grew up with paper and then switched, but wildly concerning for the younger generations—digital natives who’ve never known any different.
This practical problem is compounded by a generational one. In the Information Age, the default way we learn is no longer in context, from the top down. Instead, we retrieve specific facts, building our knowledge base from the bottom up. Once upon a time, if you wanted to know something about art history (a topic I remain blissfully ignorant of) you had to go to the local library, find the art history section, then the appropriate encyclopedia (@Gen Z, it’s like a paper Wikipedia), look up the index, find the artist or period in question, and then finally read the article. Today, thanks to Google, I just type in: “which artist cut off their ear” and I’m instantly told Vincent van Gogh. Case closed. I’m back to writing this article. What’s the problem? My instant answer has been stripped of its context. I still have no idea who van Gogh was or when he lived or what he painted. All I can conclude is that he was possibly suffering from mental illness. I remain (blissfully but now also disturbingly) ignorant of art history.
The result is that many people below the age of 25 have grown up in a world where some of the basic skills of comprehension (like scanning for repeated words, mapping the logical progression of ideas, situating factoids in their wider context) have not been taught to them but rather done for them.
Taken together, what we see are younger generations who (1) have had key skills for comprehension trained out of them and (2) are using a format of the Bible that reinforces that stunted growth.
Does this mean that we can’t use digital Bibles? No. But we need to use digital Bibles less, not more, lest we let our instinctive impulse for convenience reinforce a program of behaviour that robs us of opportunities to grow in our understanding of Scripture.
This stands especially true for youth and young adults ministries. To do nothing is not a neutral action. We need to challenge the status quo and encourage them to bring their paper Bibles to youth, church and Bible study. We need to instil into them what our era has distilled out of them. We need to give them back the context.
3. Digital Bibles limit our retention
A digital Bible provides fewer markers for our memory than its paper equivalent. Today it’s widely accepted that our memories are visuospatial in nature. We remember things not just by seeing them but by locating them spatially. It’s why we remember how to get to places via landmarks rather than recalling maps.
A paper Bible exists in three-dimensional space. It has a certain size and shape and weight and thickness that subtly changes depending on which part you’re reading from. Each page is individually numbered and distinct in appearance and format and, significantly, the format and position of the words on the pages never change. There’s no zooming, scrolling, version-switching or hyperlinking. All this means that the paper Bible engages more senses and in an entirely consistent way. The result? Stronger memories and therefore greater retention.
A digital Bible offers none of those things. It is a disembodied text, stripped of the sensory advantages of a paper Bible, itself subject to change (at least in appearance) at the whim of its user.
So, when you sit down at church and the person next to you pulls out their paper Bible as you pull out your phone and both look up the same passage, you are not reading the same thing. Or at least, you’re not reading it in the same way. The paper user has the advantage and the digital user is short-changing themselves of an opportunity to store up more of God’s word in their heart.
Admittedly, research suggests that the benefits of print tend more toward the marginal than the magnificent. You won’t become a walking concordance through some passive use of a paper Bible. Nonetheless, there remains a clear and consistent advantage, especially in the case of nonfiction texts. So the choice to use a paper Bible wherever possible is, in a very real sense, exercising our Christian responsibility to “redeem the time” (cf. Eph 5:15-16), because it maximises our retention.
The cost of our convenience
I am not advocating for the wholesale rejection of digital Bibles. But in consistently choosing them over paper Bibles, we are inadvertently robbing ourselves of the opportunity to store up God’s precious and life-giving word in our hearts, contenting ourselves to sip from the fountain when we could be drinking deeply from it.
Ultimately, I want my students to bring their (real) Bibles on campus, even if it “hurts my back” or they “don’t have space in my bag”, because I want them to be diligent students of the Word, rather than casual readers. Where we have the choice – and those times are more frequent than we might suppose – let’s use our paper Bibles.
This article has been co-released with The Gospel Coalition Australia.
 Someone might say, “Well, that’s why I use a tablet,” but the net effect remains the same: you only see the parts, not the whole. It’s not until you physically hold the entire Bible in your hands that you get a sense of the Bible as one book rather than a series of disconnected passages on a screen.
 Drake Baer, ‘The Scientific Reason Actual Books Are So Much More Memorable Than E-Books’, 12 July 2017, viewed 29 February 2020.
 Jill Barshay, ‘Evidence Increases for Reading on Paper Instead of Screens’, The Hechinger Report , 12 August 2019, viewed 29 February 2020.