Why Do We Have Bibles, Hymnals, Printed Liturgies and Other Obsolete Stuff?

Our church is an endangered species. Whereas in most evangelical churches, printed media has all but disappeared, we still use printed Bibles in our Scripture readings and prayers, Psalter Hymnals for singing and reading creeds and confessions, and printed liturgies so we know exactly where we are in our service, and what’s coming next. We also use a pulpit in the middle front of the room to highlight the centrality of the Word of God.

Some years ago, I had a couple of “I told you so” moments when I was invited to preach in a couple of churches. In both instances, there was a power outage during most of the service on that particular Sunday. Problem was they used overhead projectors for everything, including Scripture readings. It was good that I had my Bible. But there were no songbooks. So who sang during the congregational singing? Only the ones who had the printed songs: the worship leader and worship team. No one else sang, but that actually was not much of a big deal, since in these and in many evangelical churches, the congregations are mere spectators watching the band perform their acts.

These incidents were only the tip of a mammoth iceberg of problems with the disappearing printed media. In “The Book That Isn’t Really There: Digital Texts and Declining Discipleship” (Modern Reformation 22:3, May/June 2013, 30-35), John J. Bombaro writes five reasons why people who have all their reading materials on digitized media “did not and would not comprehensively read them” (emphasis added).

First, unlike reading printed matter, which requires the discipline of body, mind, and environment, digital texts have undisciplined built-in competitors: e-mail, texting, Internet, and scores of titillating apps.

Second, the mere possession of digital tomes, like the instant availability of a Google search engine, conditions complacency and laziness in learning. Reading practices formed by Internet scanning do not lend themselves to deep consideration, let alone memorization of information in context.

Third, texts suffer from atomization. Search engines within these devices make it easy to locate particular words, phrases, or verses when researching, but that does not equal familiarity with the text. For example, it is one thing to do a word search on “justification.” It is another thing to understand justification within the context of the overarching storyline of the Bible.

Fourth, printed copies can be shared—replete with margin notes, underlining, and highlighting—in a gift-giving, self-giving way that digital texts cannot.

Fifth, and along similar lines, real books have a variety of distinguishing features, including size, shape, texture, color, thickness, and even smell. Even without a photographic memory, there is some recall as to the location of information on a page or in the beginning, middle, or end of a book … In other words, the physical book brings with it a sense of encounter. Digital texts do not, or at least not really.

So Bombaro says that the digitized text has contributed much to “the biblical illiteracy, doctrinal ignorance, and sacramental neglect of the contemporary church” and its “ephemeral worship” and “fruitlessness in discipleship”:

The disappearing Bible may be the result of the dominant understanding of Christian “community” in our day, where Christian worship is increasingly ephemeral, where there are no hymnals, no printed liturgies, no pew Bibles, no permanent pulpits; but only transitory PowerPoint slides, overhead projections, and portable podiums. In Scripture, this age is passing away; in our culture, even material objects like books are passing away. So much in contemporary church life is fleeting and impermanent; the texts and songs of the church are there one moment and gone the next, disappearing into cyberspace. It is no wonder contemporary Christianity is so “docetic”—that is, material-denying. From a Reformation perspective, the rule of worship and catechesis begets the rule of belief and discipleship. We don’t worship a disembodied Christ, nor should we imagine our earthly or resurrection existence to be a disembodied one. When there’s no “there” in real space and time—not even the Bible—then it’s no wonder that ephemeral worship and catechesis yield such fruitlessness in discipleship (emphasis added).


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