Are Digital Bibles good or bad?

According to figures released by the Publishers Association this week, the sale of physical books is up, while sales of eBooks have fallen. According to these latest statistics, the share of total book sales accounted for by eBooks has fallen 17%.[1] Stephen Lotinga, chief executive of the Publishers Association, commented, “There is generally a sense that people are now getting screen tiredness, or fatigue, from so many devices being used, watched or looked at in their week. [Printed] books provide an opportunity to step away from that”.[2]

However, when it comes to reading the Bible, research by Barna Group for the American Bible Society suggests the trend is going the other way. While the majority – 76% – of those surveyed said they preferred to read a printed Bible, this was 8% lower than the survey undertaken in the previous year. The use of digital Bible is increasing: half of all Bible readers in the survey said they’d used the internet on a computer to read the Bible while 35% used a Bible app on their smartphone.[3] In 2015, downloads of the most popular Bible App, YouVersion, reached 200million.[4]

How should we view the increase of reading our Bibles digitally? One of the interesting things, as shown by the Barna research, is that people are reading the Bible digitally in addition to their physical Bible. Usually, for reasons of convenience (a smartphone is small, portable and fits in your pocket) a Bible on a smartphone means that more and more people have the Bible with them wherever they go. That’s a welcome change! Moreover, Bible apps such as YouVersion encourage Bible reading through a variety of daily Bible reading plans. The American Bible Society has developed a free to use web-based tool that allows churches to create and brand their own digital reading plans for their church (www.journeymaker.org). Given that many of us spend our lives being prompted to do things by the smartphones in our pockets, it makes sense to use these tools to programme in Bible reading to our daily lives!

However, academic research seems to suggest that when it comes to reading well, paper beats digital. In his article, “E-reading and the Christian Bible”, Tim Hutchings quotes various research projects that show that those reading digitally lose out: they don’t comprehend the text as well and they are less able to remember and retrieve what they have read.[5] When it comes to the Bible, this has huge implications for our lives. Moreover, digital reading, it seems, leads to fragmented reading: we search and scroll through the text to find what we want, just as we do with all online content. There is a concern that in reading digitally, we lose a sense of context, reading fragments, rather than the whole of Scripture.

One of the great success stories in Bible Engagement in Scotland in the past few years has been Community Bible Experience by Biblica, the publishers of the NIV. While accompanied by a range of digital resources – including eBook and audio – the focus of this resource is a reformatted, printed Bible. With headings, chapter numbers, verses and double-columns removed, the invitation is to read the Bible afresh, with weekly get-togethers for participants marketed as more of a book club than a Bible study. This remarkable resource has encouraged over 4,000 people around Scotland to read the New Testament for themselves.

The history of our nation is inextricably linked to the reading of the Bible. As we recognise 500 years of the Reformation, we do well to remember the tremendous impact of the Bible on Christianity around the world. Because of that impact, our great priority needs to be getting the Bible into people’s hands. Whether that is a digital copy or a physical book matters not, it is still a cause for rejoicing. Our prayer must be that, once in people’s hands, the Bible is read, understood, and flourishes within their hearts.


[1] “UK Publishing has record year up 7% to £4.8bn”, Press Release, Publishers Association, 26 April 2017.
[2] “‘Screen fatigue’ sees UK eBook sales plunge 17% as readers return to print”, The Guardian, 27 April 2017
[3] “State of the Bible 2015”, American Bible Society, 2015.
[4] YouVersion Bible App Celebrates 200 Million Installs, YouVersion, Press Release, December 2016
[5] “E reading and the Christian Bible”, Studies in Religion 44, no. 4 (2015): 423-40.