Bible Distribution: Our Digital Opportunity

All over Central Asia, there are people walking the streets who carry a longing in their souls to find meaning in a greater narrative.

Part of the church’s mandate is to offer them access to God’s narrative for mankind: the Bible. After Jesus’s resurrection, this narrative spread rapidly, disciples were made, and churches established, largely through word of mouth. This rapid spreading of the gospel occurred largely because there existed a common language and extensive roadways.

However, with the collapse of the Roman Empire, for about the next 1,400 years distribution of this narrative on a large scale became impossible. The process to produce a Bible demanded skilled scribes and significant financial resources, not to mention time. The first technological breakthrough that made larger-scale distribution possible was the invention of the printing press, but ideologies rooted in the institutional church hindered access to the Bible among the masses. Fearing that the laity would mishandle the Holy Scriptures, a council in Toulouse, France, banned all but the clergy from owning and reading the Bible.

Church reformers like Luther and his contemporary William Tyndale understood that for people to grasp the depth of the gospel, they needed to read the Bible for themselves. Luther and Tyndale used the technology of the day to produce and distribute the Bible in the language of the people on a massive scale. The momentum of their Bible-focused attitude continues today.

‘The Way of the Future’

With the advent of the digital age, two things lost since the Roman era have re-emerged but now on a global scale: a common language (digital) and extensive highways (the internet and mobile phones). With the return of those two things, so has returned the opportunity for the Word of God to rapidly spread to places that have previously been out of reach by the traditional means of printed Bibles.

Up until 2009, one IMB team tasked with reaching a restricted access people focused mostly on supplying the printed Bible to those who wanted the Scriptures. This changed in 2009 when a person on that team read an article that stated, “Mobile phones are the way of the future.” Not completely understanding how this was possible, a prayer was voiced, “If mobile phones are the way of the future, show us how to use phones to get your Word into the hands of those who want it.” That prayer began a shift in strategy as that team began to explore and often experiment on new ways to distribute the Scriptures digitally.

“If mobile phones are the way of the future, show us how to use phones to get your Word into the hands of those who want it.”

What has been that result? Prior to 2011, this particular team was able to see tens of thousands of Bibles make it into their focus country. However, this method was expensive and came at great physical risk. In 2011 this team “tested” digital Scripture distribution and saw one thousand Scriptures distributed and received in a matter of days. Since then, more avenues of the distribution of digital Scriptures have been implemented and improved upon. The result has been that not just tens of thousands of Scriptures have been distributed, but hundreds and hundreds of thousands of Scriptures have made their way safely into the hands of those in that particular restricted access country.

An added benefit is that, unlike printed Bibles, digital Bibles can be easily, safely and cheaply copied. What this has meant for this particular country is that prior to 2009, only one out of every seventy-two people had access to a Bible—a work that took decades to accomplish. However, that figure is now at about one out of every fifty people having access to the Scriptures (and probably more)—a work that has taken only about seven years to accomplish.

Not only has the use of digital technology aided in the ease of the spread of the word of God, but these same avenues have been tried and improved upon to help with leading this particular team to the engagement with the people receiving the Bible. It is not that printed Bibles are not needed or used. They are. But it is this team’s desire to see their particular country saturated with access to the Word of God so that anyone that wants a copy can have it in printed, audio, or digital form.

Broad Seed-Sowing and Evangelism

There is a danger of substituting broad seed-sowing for evangelism. Broad seed-sowing gives people access to the message while evangelism is sharing the meaning of the message and offering people an opportunity to respond.

“There is a danger of substituting broad seed-sowing for evangelism.”

A good example of this difference is found in the story of the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8. We are not told how this man received the Isaiah text, but we do know reading the passage was not enough. He needed someone like Philip to sit and explain to him the meaning.

Since that need is just as true today as it was then, all broad seed-sowing tactics should lead people into evangelism encounters that lead to discipleship and, ultimately, a community of faith.

Andrew Bristol received his BA from Hardin-Simmons University and his MDiv and DMin from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He has been serving in Central Asia since 2003. He and his wife have four children and one grandchild.

Gene McGillicuddy has been serving for sixteen years in Central Asia with the International Mission Board. He has a wife and two children.