On a recent Sunday morning at Mainland Assembly of God Church in Linwood, the Rev. Sam Pack stood in the pulpit and picked up his iPad, not a printed Bible.
Changes in technology are making their way to religious institutions, where clergy are using tablet computers and smartphones to do research and compose their sermons.
Sometimes, the devices can be seen in southern New Jersey Bible-study classes and in the sanctuary. Preachers will use them either with a printed Bible or in its place entirely.
Pack has been using his iPad in the pulpit for about a year. For the previous 25 years, Pack did his Bible studies, prepared his sermon notes, did a cut-and-paste job on a desktop computer and printed out his notes so he could have them as he preached from the Bible.
Now, he relies mostly on his iPad when he wants to make a point.
“I’ve got 40-plus Bible translations. It’s all there in my iPad and almost instantly accessible. When you hold the Bible and you’re using it, you have got to turn the pages and find the reference. With the iPad, I just do the search real quick. I can find a verse in less than 15 seconds,” Pack said. “It has made my presentation on Sundays far more efficient — less time pausing, less time searching.”
The Rev. Frank Reeder, lead pastor at Seaview Baptist Church in Linwood, started using an iPad in May 2011.
“I was able to carry everything pretty compactly. I’m used to carrying a heavy Bible. Here is a Bible that is complete — in fact, several versions of the Bible — and I can get around in it so quickly,” said Reeder, 60. “As far as using it in the pulpit, my first thought was, ‘This is a no-brainer.’”
Reeder, who has been a pastor for 32 years, uses the iPad more extensively during his three Bible-study sessions — 1 p.m. Mondays, 7 p.m. Wednesdays and 8 a.m. Fridays — than he does during Sunday worship services. Even if Reeder uses his iPad during Sunday service, a printed Bible is right there at hand, ready if he needs it.
“When I use an iPad for Bible study or for preaching, especially for preaching, I’ve had a few comments. People say, ‘The pastor has stopped using the Bible.’ Interestingly, my wife has said, ‘Well, you know that tablet that he’s carrying, the whole Bible is in that,’ and they say, ‘Oh.’ It’s a curiosity,” Reeder said.
The Rev. Eric McCoy, pastor of God Is Reaching Out Ministries in Pleasantville, started using his iPad in the pulpit three years ago.
“With technology in the pulpit, I wondered, would they be receptive of it, or would people think that we were cheating somewhat because we didn’t have the Bible,” said McCoy, who keeps his printed Bible next to his iPad in the pulpit. No congregation members have said anything to him about using the iPad, he said. “Actually, I can do a better job using my computer than just using the Bible.”
Buddy Wesbee, 50, of Pleasantville, has been attending God Is Reaching Out Ministries for the past three years. During the previous decade when he attended the First Church of God in Far Rockaway, N.Y., he saw his pastor use a Bible and a laptop computer in the pulpit.
“It’s not whether he has a Bible or an iPad. It’s whether you have a true man of God. We do. That’s why we are still here,” Wesbee said.
At Tabernacle United Methodist Church in the Erma section of Lower Township, the sanctuary has received a multimedia upgrade that included wireless Internet. Worshippers can bring their smartphones, e-readers and other mobile devices to the church and use an electronic version of the Bible, said the Rev. Michael Smith, 33. The church also uses video so worshippers can read Bible verses in large print on a screen instead of the printed Bible.
People are not carrying their Bible in hand as much any more, and they are not necessarily reaching for the Bible right in front of them in the pews, Smith said.
Smith did something different on a Sunday morning within the past year. People are always told to turn off their cellphones, but he encouraged those in the pews that day to use their phones during the service.
“Take out your cellphones now and think of somebody that you want to encourage and that you want to share God’s love with, and maybe, that (you're) even inviting them to come to church with you next week. Go ahead and take out your phone right now and text them, and I took out my phone, and I said, ‘I’m sending this to a friend of mine.’ ‘Thinking of you,’ and I shared with them what I was literally texting as part of my sermon, and we all hit send together,” Smith said.
Besides using a smartphone or tablet to look up Bible passages, a person can buy an e-Bible from a company such as Zondervan, an international Christian media and publishing company in Michigan that offers about 80 e-Bibles, said Zondervan spokeswoman Tara Powers. During the past 12 months, sales of digital Bible products increased four times over the previous 12 months, Powers said.
While sales of Bible products have risen, Bible readership declined from the 1980s overall. A Gallup poll taken in 2000 found about 59 percent of people reading the Bible at least occasionally, compared with 73 percent in earlier polls.
It is possible that digital Bibles could increase Bible literacy, said professor Timothy Beal, who teaches biblical studies at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. Beal wrote a book last year titled “The Rise and Fall of the Bible.”
“We are only just beginning to see what the digital revolution is going to do in the history of the Bible. By the history of the Bible, I don’t just mean the publishing of the Bible, but I mean Scriptural culture, that is the practice of reading and studying and engaging Biblical texts,” said Beal, who added his book is about how radically transformative this time will be with regards to the history of Scripture.
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