Our daughter is in middle school, and recently she deleted the Bible app from her phone. I was glad.
She didn’t make this decision because she no longer wants to read the Bible. (In fact, she’s more engaged in Bible study now than before.) And she didn’t delete the app out of frustration with how poorly it works. (YouVersion’s capabilities get better all the time.)
She let the app go because, in her words, “The Bible app is like Instagram.” The social media component overtook the initial reason for having the app in the first place. The whole experience became about scrolling through the pictures her school friends would post, sometimes with Bible verses attached—some unrelated, some humorous, and some serious. The verse pictures and the constant commentary on each others’ posts got to the point when she felt God’s Word had morphed into just another means of self-expression and connection online.
I don’t know what to make of this development.
Our son is in high school, and his experience with the Bible app has been remarkably different. He maintained a streak of reading God’s Word every day for an entire year when he adopted reading plans and joined with his student pastor and a few teenagers who agreed to use the app’s functionalities to hold each other accountable.
Likewise, my own experience with the Bible app has been positive. I use it to survey different translations in English, and I dip into the Romanian translations as well, to see how some of them render a verse. It’s true that I don’t read the Bible primarily on the phone, but it’s handy to have God’s Word so accessible.
The Bible as an App
I’ve written before about the strengths and weaknesses of engaging God’s Word on a smartphone. Research on Bible engagement among Americans shows that more than 90 percent of regular Bible readers prefer print to digital. That percentage holds true even though more than 90 percent of Bible readers also indicate that they engage with the Bible on digital platforms and through an app.
In my review of Jeffrey Siker’s book Liquid Scripture: The Bible in a Digital World, I looked at a few ways a digital encounter with the Bible can shape our approach to God’s Word. My initial thoughts on this topic have been limited to the subtle changes in expectation we have when we read the Bible on a phone. The newer element, a mishmash of God’s Word with social media aspects, is new to me.
That’s why my daughter’s experience was so different from mine, and from her brother’s. Last fall, she told me that certain kids were teasing others in the comments under Bible verse images. More recently, some of her friends began posting Bible verses out of context, with strange backgrounds and photos, meant to provoke juvenile snickers. The whole atmosphere had become one in which people left “likes” and comments on images (or refrained from doing such, leading to bewilderment and questions as to why).
In talking with my daughter, I realized that all the anxious thoughts, weird postings, and strange obsessions that accompany social media platforms like Instagram had arrived on the Bible app itself. And while she enjoyed the connection she made to a few friends, the distraction of so many competing voices and the drive toward self-expression proved overwhelming. So, for her, it’s back to the printed Bible exclusively for now.
The Cheapening of Scripture?
I asked my friend Chris Martin, an astute observer of social media trends, for some thoughts on how apps affect the way we engage the Bible. He posted an article on the topic.
When we consider the relationship between the Bible and social media, we would do well to consider media theorist Marshall McLuhan’s famous words “The medium is the message,” meaning, “How you communicate something dramatically shapes what you’re communicating.”
The social internet has made communication cheap, fleeting, and driven by that which is most entertaining not that which is most valuable. How do we share Scripture on the internet without letting it simply become another form of entertainment?
I have come to the conclusion that Christians would be poor stewards of God’s Word if we didn’t share it with others through this medium, but we would be wise to do so with care and with special attention given to the temptation we will face to use God’s Word as a means of personal gain. We should share the wisdom and truth of the Bible on the internet—how could we not?!—but we should not use it as a prop in the ongoing production in which we are all either actors or patrons.
We shouldn’t be afraid of how social media may cheapen Scripture—the power of the Word of God cannot be thwarted by the medium itself. However, we should be concerned about how our sinful hearts may seize Scripture in one hand and the social internet in the other toward a sinful effort to make much of ourselves. This is a temptation that will always lurk in the shadows as long as we lust for attention and influence, which are the twin currencies of our digital world.
There’s no question that Bible apps are a blessing in terms of accessibility and reach for getting God’s Word to as many people as possible. And even if I’m not pro-Bibles-online as a replacement for engaging the Bible in print, I’m grateful for the capabilities of these apps.
I do wonder, though, what the Instagram-ification of YouVersion will mean for the next generation of Bible readers. Does this type of online environment lead to a deeper engagement with God’s Word? Or does it distract from hearing the voice of God?
Based on my own experiences and our son’s positive engagement with the Bible on YouVersion, here are a few suggestions that can keep the Bible app from becoming just another social media platform:
- Keep the friends you connect with on the Bible app to a very small number of people you know in “real life” who are serious about Bible reading. This way, you minimize the distractions that come from scattershot commentary.
- Use the app’s functionality to keep you in the Word, engaging different reading plans by yourself or in community with others. Be aware that some reading plans are heavy on devotional material and light on Scripture. As a supplement to your normal Bible reading, this is fine, but you don’t want the words of others (however helpful) to become the main course.
- Be careful not to post verse images simply to get a reaction from others on the app. It’s easy to slide into a showy faith when there’s social incentive for posting Bible verses on a regular basis.
- Consider keeping the printed Bible as your primary place for studying God’s Word, and use the app as a helpful supplement. Why? The form of digital engagement is not neutral, and we need to be aware of the losses we will experience if we shift to online Bible reading as the primary or only way we encounter the Bible in the future.
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