Instrumental in my life for answering the call to pastoral ministry was inheriting my grandfather’s Bible after he passed away. It was an old red-letter King James, tattered and falling apart at the seams from being stuffed with church bulletins and sermon outlines. The leather was perfectly smooth from weathering the elements. The pages were wrinkled from constant use and note-taking. There were highlights and markings on almost every page. In the blank pages before the laminate maps, he kept a small diary of his care for my grandmother as she battled and eventually succumbed to dementia. He wrote Scripture references to turn to when he was experiencing grief, pain, or trouble.
As I flipped through the pages, I thought back on the legacy he left behind, how the gospel had gripped his life, how God sustained him through trial, and how his most treasured possession was the Word of God. Reflecting on my own life at the time, the Lord helped me realize that this was the legacy I needed to leave, not a selfish pursuit of the American dream or fame in my profession. Soon after, I quit my accelerated master’s program in biology and shipped off to seminary.
In today’s world of digital media, screens, and always-connected internet, I’ve come to recognize the value of paper Bibles - yes, the ones made from dead trees and cows. In the past few years of pastoring and shepherding congregations in worship and youth in Bible study, I’ve noticed a few advantages of using hard copies of the text.
1. Distractions - Smartphones are amazing pieces of technology. They keep us up to date on the news and what our friends are up to, connect us to our jobs, help us track our diets and exercise, and thousands of other useful things. But, they can also be a source of great distraction. There is great convenience in having the entire Word of God in a 20 MB app to reference and search whenever you need it. But how many times has your quiet time been interrupted and derailed by a simple notification drop-down or text message? (Speaking of which, who in the world needs to be texting at 6:00 a.m.?) Or, when you’re sitting in the pew listening to the sermon, how tempting is it to just minimize your note-taking or Bible app for just a quick peek at Instagram, or even to tweet something great the pastor said, only to find yourself lost in distraction or struggling to regain focus? Paper Bibles can help us overcome these distractions by removing the media, the blips, bings, and boops that so easily lure us away from what God is saying to us.
2. An Air of Authority - I love, let’s say… “forceful” preachers. The ones that aren’t afraid to physically emote to dangerous levels when they preach. Our pastor carries his Bible around on the platform as he walks, and when he emphasizes a Biblical truth, he’s smacking his Bible on every word or holding it up in the air. The theatrics help drive the point home. There’s no screen to worry about breaking. There’s no clunky tablet to balance. Furthermore (and this is going to sound as untheologically based as it is), there’s just an air of authority that a paper Bible produces. I can’t explain it. When someone reads from a paper Bible, people seem to focus in more.
3. Context - Most Bible apps break chapters for easy searching and navigating. This is wonderful for glancing over chapters when searching for something. For example, if you can’t remember if the parable of the two sons is in Luke 14 or 15 the search functions on a digital device are great. But the advantages of hand-held electronic Bibles can also lead to two abuses. The first is that breaking up the text by book, chapter and verse can create the pitfall of reading out of context. When we hone in on a verse without its proper context, we take our first step towards doctrinal error. Having the surrounding text of a paper Bible can help remind us to read passages in context. Furthermore, paper Bibles remind us that the Bible is one book comprised of many parts. We should be reading the Scriptures in their canonical context. This corrects the second abuse.
I remember as a child going to “Bible Drill” on Sunday nights where we learned how to memorize the books in order, their categories (like Pentateuch, Major Prophets, Gospels, etc.), writers, and how to look up passages quickly. But all of this was contained in one volume. We can’t read the end of Malachi that speaks of the Lord’s coming in vengeance if his people don’t repent without then turning the page to Matthew 1 and beholding Immanuel, God With Us, who shows mercy in Christ. With a little bit of training as a child, I can now find references faster in a paper Bible than the time it takes to search on my phone.
4. Legacy - As I mentioned earlier, a paper Bible is something to leave to your children. The notes you’ve taken, the verses you’ve highlighted, even the wear and tear on the tome speaks volumes to the next generation. It shows where your priorities were, what you valued, and the desperate need you had for the Scriptures. It’s not that easy to hand down your software. When you die, your passwords and logins probably go with you. Your subscription might expire and your notes, highlights, and bookmarks can digitally evaporate. A quality paper Bible is a true “Buy It for Life” product (in more ways than one!)
Hear me out. I’m not saying we need to toss our smartphones and laptops in the trash and start living like Puritans again. No, software like Logos and Accordance have massively aided scholarship and sermon preparation over the past couple of decades. We don’t have to spend hours rifling through commentaries, lexicons, and other text to help us get one more nugget of information. We can look these things up in seconds now. What a gift God has given us to allow us to be alive in the Information Age!
But with every new advancement in technology, the devil will always find new ways to do spiritual battle with us. We need to be careful with how we use technology and the dangers it can pose to our spiritual lives.
What I’m saying is, the next time you walk into the pulpit, consider what you carry with you.
What do you think? How have you used a paper Bible in your ministry?
Austin Collins serves as the Ortega Campus Worship Pastor at First Baptist Church of Jacksonville, Florida. He graduated from Southern Seminary in 2018 with a Master of Divinity in Worship Leadership.