by Mike Phay
It took me a while as a pastor, in the early days of iPads and smartphones, to get used to people staring at their screens during a sermon. “How rude,” I thought. “Do they seriously think I can’t see them? These are adults, acting like teenagers!” Not being the regular preacher at the time, I was appalled at the ever-increasing number of faces that I would see lit by glowing screens each time I filled the pulpit.
It took me a while to realize that these folks weren’t being rude. They were just reading their Bibles!
So be encouraged, Pastor. Your people aren’t ignoring you. They’re just multi-tasking. Because really, who can resist the urge to check e-mails, text messages, and sports scores, while simultaneously checking the preacher’s factual accuracy? (And yes, Preacher, have no doubt: you are being fact-checked in real-time.) Notwithstanding the evidence showing that there is no such thing as truly efficient multi-tasking,* glow-faced congregations offer at least a kernel of encouragement for weary pastors.
Beyond this congregational screen fetish, what continues to surprise me as a preacher are the folks who – though attentively engaged with the sermon, as evidenced by their consistent eye contact and encouraging nods – are sitting empty-handed during a thoroughly Scripture-saturated expository sermon. This Bible vacuum in a worship service concerns me for several reasons, so allow me to offer four reasons why every believer should bring their Bible to church (and every Pastor should encourage their people to do so):
Reason 1: Bring your Bible to church to battle your own consumerism
I occasionally enjoy watching cooking shows on TV, but rarely (never) do I watch them in the kitchen, follow the directions, or in any way work to imitate Rachael Ray or Emeril Lagasse in preparing a tasty meal. No, usually I’m admiring the food and hoping that someone in my family will cook something similar for me. This is the epitome of consumeristic passive entertainment, which – perhaps surprisingly – is not what church is about at all.
There are so many parts of our culture that work against our active engagement in life, including the screens that we tote into the sanctuary. Most of the rooms in which we hear sermons are set up like auditoriums: an audience, sitting in forward-facing seats, watching or listening to a “performer” on a stage. How is this different from a concert, a lecture, a comedy show, or a movie? In the setting, not much. And unfortunately, our culture regularly conditions us to enter into these settings as passive consumers, rather than as active participants.
An antidote to this consumerist identity would be to regularly bring your Bible to church and actually use it during the sermon. Actively engaging with the Book in your hand – and yes, I’m talking about a bound, paper-paged, non-digital Bible – is the first step to being an active participant in the preaching of the Word. Because of the Holy Spirit’s work of illumination, when you actively engage the Word of God, you are willingly opening yourself up to the work of the Holy Spirit. And this is not just a work in the mind, but in the heart and character as well.
As a member of your church, push yourself to get out of the consumeristic habit of passive attention. Don’t treat the sermon like a cooking show. It’s not eye (or ear) candy, it’s a meal. And while you’re eating it, your pastor is trying to teach you to feed yourself. So be an active, rather than a passive, listener. Engage with the Word intentionally, and you will find the Word engaging you in both a mysterious and a powerful way.
Reason 2: Bring your Bible to church so that you will better retain what you hear
How many times have you walked out of a church service and within 30 minutes couldn’t recall what the sermon was about? There are probably a myriad of reasons for these memory lapses (including poor preaching), but have you ever asked yourself what you have added – or failed to add – to this lack of retention?
There were many reasons that God the Son became incarnate, one of which was our own physicality and dependence upon our senses. In order to learn and retain what God was trying to show us in Christ, we needed a flesh-and-blood, living, breathing human that we could see, touch, smell, and hear. “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life…” (1 John 1:1) In these words, the Apostle calls our attention not only to the physicality of Christ, but to our own dependence upon the physical and sensible as pathways for knowing about God.
As we have discovered more and more about human cognition and learning styles, it becomes increasingly evident that most people have a preferred learning style by which they are able to best learn and retain information (mine is visual-verbal – I learn best when I see words). Add to this the fact that a person’s retention level increases when sensory pathways are multiplied, and it makes sense that God gave us Jesus in four dimensions so that we could really get it.
The incarnation, therefore, is a pointer to our need to bring our Bibles to church. Hearing the Word preached is powerful. Reading the written Word is essential. Touching and handling a Bible anchors us physically to God’s gracious gift of the Bible itself. All three of these together are – I believe – intended by God to help us know Him better. When you bring your Bible with you to church, you are purposely making available your God-given pathways of learning, and increasing your own ability to better retain the preached Word.
Reason 3: Bring your Bible to church to learn to feed yourself
One of the tasks of a good preacher is to help his hearers learn to read and understand the Bible for themselves. When you follow along in the text that is being preached, you will – over time – begin to see for yourself the truths that he (the preacher) has discovered in the text. He will help you to uncover the thread of an argument through a text, make connections between biblical thoughts and ideas, and learn to trace biblical doctrines throughout the Scriptures. Like any good teacher, a gifted preacher doesn’t just give you a fish; he teaches you how to fish. And you can’t fish if you don’t bring your rod & reel with you.
Reason 4: Bring your Bible to church to become intimately familiar with God’s Word
I always encourage people to write in their Bibles, just like they would write in any other book (except a library book, of course). Don’t worry, this isn’t sacrilege. The book itself – ink and paper – is not holy, though the title on the cover urges otherwise. To write in your Bible means that you will need to have a paper Bible and a pen in your hand. I can’t count the number of times I have been able to find a familiar passage because I knew exactly where it was on a page. This can’t be done with a digital copy.
And as much as I love Bible software and all of the helps that accompany these programs, the negative impact of these digital helps occurs when we allow them to take over the disciplined tasks of memory (like knowing the order of the Bible’s 66 books, or remembering the chapter-verse address of a certain phrase or passage). The digital world tends to undercut this brain-forming memory work and replace it with rapid-access automation, thereby excusing us from the hard work of actually knowing the Word.
In the end, these four things can’t take place for you if you fail to bring your Bible to church. God’s Word is a gift. Prize it. Study it. Learn it. But start with just bringing it.
*For instance, see Levitin, Daniel, The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload (New York, NY: Dutton, 2014).
Note: This article was also published at For the Church.