At the dawn of the 21st century, Bible societies find themselves facing a brave new post-Christian world. The problem isn't a lack of Bibles but rather an unprecedented lack of biblical literacy among both the churched and the unchurched. That's a curious problem in a country where publishers sell millions of copies of the Bible every year.

In fact, as pastor Brian McLaren writes in Finding Faith (Zondervan 1999), the Bible is the next-to-last place seekers turn to find spiritual guidance. (The last place, McLaren claims, is the church.)

Glenn Paauw (pronounced "pow") of the International Bible Society (IBS) believes this can change. "The signs are all around us: American culture is on a spiritual search," says Paauw, director of product development for the Colorado Springs-based ministry. Paauw sees a phenomenal opportunity for ministry, and he doubts that ministries like IBS can respond to it merely by doing business as usual.

Founded as the New York Bible Society in 1809, IBS spent its first century on pioneering distribution programs that placed Scriptures directly in the hands of people who needed them, including sunburned bathers on America's beaches and frostbitten members of Richard Byrd's expeditions to the North and South poles. The society also placed Bibles in hotel rooms half a century before Gideons International existed.

But the 20th century brought big changes to IBS. Acting on pleas from evangelists and the National Association of Evangelicals for a faithful but readable English Bible translation, IBS commissioned the New International version (NIV) translation in 1967. First published in 1978—through an arrangement that grants Zondervan rights to publish various retail editions but allows IBS to create low-cost ministry editions—the NIV rapidly became the most popular contemporary translation, bringing the organization newfound prominence and millions of dollars in annual income.

Ironically, the ministry's evolution took it further away from both its humble origins and its historic commitment to putting Scriptures directly in the hands of people who needed them.

"It's easy to become a cog in the parachurch machine," says Paauw, who found himself growing eager to do something different through IBS. "We were missing an unprecedented opportunity."

With minimal funding, Paauw invited interested IBS employees to join something he called the "direct-to-culture" group, which consists of highly motivated people like himself who squeeze time for the group's activities out of already overbooked schedules.

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The group draws part of its inspiration from these verses in Hebrews 13, as rendered by Eugene Peterson's translation in The Message: "So let's go outside, where Jesus is, where the action is—not trying to be privileged insiders, but taking our share in the abuse of Jesus. This 'insider' world is not our home."

One of the first challenges Paauw gave the group was to begin conducting "spiritual archaeology," a form of cultural research he defines as "finding out what people think about Christianity, Christians, and the Bible." Some of the group's initial findings were less than encouraging.

During the past two years, members of the direct-to-culture group have assembled a diverse collection of "contemporary spiritual artifacts" such as spiritually themed consumer goods, best-selling books, and popular magazines and musical recordings.

These artifacts included copies of Oprah Winfrey's O magazine, books (What Would Buddha Do?), compact discs (Jonathan Elias's The Prayer Cycle and a musical companion to Neal Donald Walsch's Conversations with God books), and a bottle of "Blue Mandarin Zen" hand and body cream, part of the "Time Out for Spirituality" line at Sears.

The message of the various artifacts is clear: many Americans are seeking spiritual solace anywhere but in the pages of the Bible, which is increasingly seen as irrelevant or even harmful.

Paauw's group found other problems people had with the Good Book.

"They see the Bible as a malleable text that can be made to say anything religious leaders want it to say," he says. "Others associate it with a wrathful Old Testament God or the intolerance of the Religious Right, and some people see it as demeaning to women or even harmful to people's spiritual lives."

For example, a cover story in the summer 1998 issue of The Wilson Quarterly asked, "Is the Bible Bad News for Women?" One answer came in the October installment of "Soul Searching," a regular column in Glamour magazine. "Sure, the Bible tells you not to sleep with your married neighbor, but did you know it also encourages slavery?" asked the column, which also interpreted the Bible as saying that "women make good slaves" (Exodus 21:7) and "menstruation is bad" (Leviticus 15:19-24).

But Paauw, who spends more time than most men in scanning women's magazines, says not all contemporary artifacts are so critical. O magazine includes ecumenical Bible studies among its offerings of spirituality and inspiration. The July/August 2000 issue, for example, featured an article about the Parable of the Prodigal Son, complete with an introduction by Hillary Clinton, an essay by Henri J. M. Nouwen, and group discussion questions.

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"Cultural connotations may keep people away from the Bible," says Paauw, a graduate of Calvin College and Calvin Theological Seminary. "But the response people have had to things like Bill Moyers's Genesis Project demonstrate that when they get a chance to experience it apart from those connotations, they're eager to do so."

Repackaging the Bible

Paauw also believes long-cherished Bible formats represent formidable obstacles to people who might otherwise turn to Scripture for kernels of spiritual truth.

"In most traditional Bibles, the actual text is broken up by a series of chapter divisions and verse numbers that destroy the narrative flow and serve as an impediment to unchurched readers," he says. "And the text often is sandwiched between unattractive black covers that make it look less inviting than any of the thousands of other books people see in mainstream bookstores."

During the past two years, Paauw has been investigating ancient church history to devise new ways of packaging the Bible. For example, the Wisdom Chronicles is a series of four CD-sized booklets featuring passages from Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, Job, and the words of Jesus. Bible books are packaged separately, much as they were for the first millennium of the church, when hand-inscribed vellum copies of biblical books were simply too bulky to be bound together into one comprehensive volume.

And in the lavishly illustrated volume titled David, which is part of IBS's new People of the Book series, the story is told in a narrative format much like a contemporary novel. Though the text comes straight from the NIV, it is packaged without chapter and verse divisions, which were first added to Bibles in the 16th century.

"Some people get offended that these books don't have Holy Bible stamped on the cover or numbers before each verse, or all the biblical books bound together in one volume," Paauw says. "They say we're compromising by repackaging Scripture. But I believe these products are closer in form to what the Bible was in earlier centuries. They also happen to be more attractive to contemporary readers."

Having developed new Bible formats, the next challenge was finding alternatives to traditional evangelical "delivery systems," most of which fail to reach large swaths of the American public. Here again, the direct-to-culture group did its thinking far outside the box.

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First group members created a new identity for the group's activities. "We didn't think everyone would embrace products imprinted with the name International Bible Society, so we created a new name for these products: IBS Publishing," Pauuw says.

The team then began placing ads in magazines like Sierra (which had published a theme issue on "spirituality and the environment" and Utne Reader, which featured a cover story called "Designer God" about how people can create their own mix-and-match religions.

Additional ads are scheduled for Harper's, Rolling Stone, and Vanity Fair magazines. These ads will include the address for the direct-to-culture group's Web site (, which provides a phone number people can call to request free booklets.

The group also arranged for 60,000 households in the Seattle area to receive copies of Luke's version of the Christmas story on December 22. The Bible portions were enclosed in a plastic bag holding that morning's copy of The Seattle Times. "Using demographic research, we found that Seattle's high-tech suburbs were one of the most unchurched regions in the country," Paauw says. "So that's where we thought portions of the Bible might be helpful."

Paauw says he still faces unanswerable questions about the program's success. "It's difficult to calculate what 'success' means with activities like these," he says. "But for me, I guess it all comes down to whether or not we're okay believing that the Holy Spirit works through the words of the Word."

Steve Rabey is the author of In Search of Authentic Faith (WaterBrook).

Related Elsewhere

The International Bible Society's site is directed to the visitor already familiar with the Bible, and focuses on offering Scripture resources in a variety of languages. It is also a partner with the popular Bible Gateway.

The IBS site also has a press release about its David book. offers resources for those unfamiliar with the Bible. One area offers articles on architecture and overview, another focuses on specific books, and a third looks at popular culture's interaction with the Bible.

The Wisdom Chronicles site offers the online equivalent of the small books.

Other International Bible Society sites examine creation, the apocalypse, grieving, and other topics.

IBS's Light magazine has several articles on repackaging Scripture.

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