Maximizing Ministry Impact of Electronic Bibles

by Michael Johnson, 24 July 2012

Electronic media of various kinds offer the potential of making God’s Word available to more people in more ways and in more languages than ever before. Just turning a paper book into some random electronic format is a nice start, but won’t necessarily take full advantage of the new platforms and media. It also might not take into account the needs of each audience. Here are some thoughts on how to get the life-transforming Holy Scriptures not only to more people, but into more of their hearts.

Getting God’s Word to More People

Here are some things to consider that can improve the number of people effectively reached with the Good News about Jesus Christ:

  • Translate the Holy Bible into every living language on Earth.
  • Encourage Bible sharing. Take advantage of the relative simplicity of downloading, copying, and sharing electronic media. Unlike with paper Bibles, you can give your copy away 10 times and still have your own copy. Let the Holy Scriptures “go viral” in the social media sense among those who appreciate God’s Word.
  • Make Scriptures available on multiple platforms. Bibles can be read on various kinds of computers of various sizes, running many operating systems. This includes smart phones (and even some not-so-smart phones), tablet computers (like iPad, Samsung Galaxy Tab, etc.), specialized electronic book readers (like Kindle, Nook, etc.), notebook computers, desktop computers. Operating systems include Windows, Mac OS, Linux, iOS, Android, Symbian, etc. It is great if you reach users of one platform but not so great if you leave the others out.
  • Make the Holy Bible in each language available in multiple formats, like HTML (for web pages), full web applications, Bible study programs (like Xiphos, PocketSword, AndBible, Olive Tree Bible Reader, etc.), PDF, ePub, etc. People will pick their favorite Bible study program, reader, etc., and they won’t all pick the same one.
  • Make each translation of the Holy Bible available on multiple web sites. Some sites are customized just for one segment of a language group. Others are customized for a particular country. Some are like massive libraries of Bibles and other books in many languages. Each one appeals more or less to a different segment of each target audience. Some sites may be off-putting to part of the target audience, but if there are other sites that are not, and which also distribute the same Scriptures, this problem is mitigated.
  • Include audio as well as text Scriptures. Many language groups, especially among minority languages and groups with difficult writing systems have low literacy rates. There are also some people who are visually impaired. Even among those who can and do read, listening to audio Scriptures can be very encouraging and helpful in walking the Christian walk.
  • Keep costs as low as practical. This means not only making Scripture downloads free of cost, but giving due consideration to those who pay for Internet access by the megabyte and/or by the minute. This means keeping file sizes down as far as practical without serious compromise of quality. It also means allowing and even encouraging offline local caching of Scriptures to avoid the traffic associated with redundant downloads of passages already read.
  • Allow and encourage offline access to Scriptures. Even in a developed nation, Internet access is not available everywhere and all the time. In some places, Internet access is rare and expensive, causing data to be passed around more on USB memory sticks than via the Internet.
  • Use creative means to make the Holy Bible available in places where there may be persecution of Christians. This includes, but is not limited to, allowing anonymous access to Scriptures, distributed distribution techniques, use of cryptography and steganography, and diversification of distribution methods.
  • Make each Bible translation look and sound attractive and appropriate to its target language community or communities. This is where cultural sensitivity meets graphic and typographic design, recording quality, and quality of recording and presentation. A diversity of presentations is appropriate, here, to appeal to, for example, those who like to listen to a dramatized Bible and those who prefer a simple reading. One person may like a musical background, and one person may be repelled by the same background. Nobody likes a noisy, scratchy audio recording or hard-to-read text.
  • Seek ways of cooperating with and helping others who are involved in electronic Scripture publishing, both at the organizational and personal levels. Share applicable software, databases, and most important of all, Scriptures. Why make others spend time and money duplicating effort to do what you have already done and could share with them?
  • Embrace intentional redundancy and diversity. A smart retailer will place more some items, like candy and batteries, in more than one place in a store. Likewise, a smart electronic evangelist will place the Holy Bible in more than one place on the Internet.

Thinking Outside of the Box

To really get the most impact for the Kingdom of God from the Bible translations that God has given us stewardship responsibility for, we need to think some new thoughts. There are new ways to do new things, as well as new ways to do old things that can actually be more effective at accomplishing our goals. Some of these new ideas and practices are necessary to truly implement the above ideas. There are some obvious “elephant in the room” sorts of issues that need to be dealt with in any case. These include money and funding models, protecting the integrity of Bible translations, and effectiveness monitoring.

Funding Ministries

Asking those being evangelized to bear the cost of reaching them with the Gospel for the first time has not been an effective technique. It ranks right down there with insisting that people learn Biblical Greek to read the New Testament for the first time in terms of bad ideas. Therefore, we obviously need a better plan. The Good News of Jesus Christ is free, as is the gift of eternal life that He paid for already on the cross. Unfortunately, delivering the Good News is costly. Every medium of communication you can think of (and some you might not think of) cost something, be it printing, networking and computing resources, or in some cases, the very lives of the messengers. So where does the money to fund these ministries come from? Some possibilities include donations, other business ventures, self-funded missions (“tent making”), labor by “retired” people with a pension, and sales of related materials.
Because you can’t really print Bibles for free, anyway, people have long accepted draconian copyright restrictions on printed Bibles, making them a very lucrative revenue source when managed as such. Unfortunately, managing Bibles to maximize profit does not maximize distribution or ministry impact. Now that electronic Bibles files are a reality, it costs more to put mechanisms in place to limit distribution and demand payment for electronic Bible files than it does to make an actual copy. Such mechanisms are exactly the opposite of what we should be doing. We should be encouraging people to make a copy and read it, not telling them that they are forbidden to do so unless they fork over payment.
Obviously, this leaves some ministries that rely on printed Bible sales in a similar position to Kodak Corporation before they went bankrupt. Kodak should not have gone bankrupt when their film sales plummeted, because they had developed new digital photography business models and products, but they failed to make the turn with the market. It was a management problem. If we are to learn something from this example, it is that we need to embrace reality and prepare for the change, not delude ourselves to think that the status quo can continue. This means getting serious about developing alternate funding models for ministries, including raising funds from donors, asking God for creative business ideas that don’t negatively impact ministry, and in some cases pairing ministries with business activities and services that raise money. Printed Bibles will not go away entirely in the foreseeable future, and indeed may increase some with print-on-demand services for minority Scriptures, but their monetary profitability will drop preciptously.
On the bright side, the costs associated with electronic Scripture distribution are a small fraction of the cost of print Scripture distribution, because it involves the use of mostly pre-existing networks and devices. The main costs involve software development, text preparation and formatting, and high-bandwidth web hosting.

A Near-perfect Tamper-evident Seal

Although it is trivially easy to alter most kinds of electronic books, it is also easy to sign them with a cryptographically strong digital signature. These digital signatures provide a tamper-evident seal that, when properly made and checked, assure that the text is exactly what was published by the original publisher. Such checking can (and should) be built into Bible study software, much like web site authenticity assurance via SSL is built into web browsers. The assurance provided by this sort of digital signature far exceeds the assurance provided by copyright (which is for limited terms and only effective when the copyright owner is willing and able to sue violators). Of course, both digital signatures and copyright “protections” of content are insignificant compared to what God Himself does to watch over and protect His Word.

Yielding Control to God

Working together as a team, or more accurately, as the Body of Christ, means that we must yield control to the true Head of the Church, Jesus Christ, and really trust Him to guide us in areas where we just cannot humanly control and monitor the outcomes of our work. Indeed, that is really the best policy even in areas where we think we have it all under control. We may not know the full extent of the fruit of our efforts until we meet some of the people blessed by our work in Heaven.

What Now?

It is time to recognize traditional copyright licenses, “digital rights management”, legal and technical distribution and copying restrictions, and efforts to monitor Scripture “engagement” with the public for what they are: impediments to maximum ministry impact of God’s Word. We need to turn around and do something different: put the motive of God’s prophets above money profit motives, and seek God’s wisdom in implementing the changes. We need to applaud those who have started to do so, like Wycliffe Bible Translators and the Bible Society of Papua New Guinea, for their good progress in electronic Scripture publishing, done in a way that maximizes ministry impact. May God be glorified in us, and pleased with not only what we do, but how we do it and our motives!