Christians are readers. We are “people of the book.” We own personal Bibles, translated into our mother tongues, and read them daily. Picture “quiet time” and you’ll see a table, a cup of coffee, and a Bible spread open to dog-eared, highlighted, annotated pages. For Christians, daily Bible reading is the minimum standard for the life of faith. What kind of Christian, some of us may think, doesn’t meet this low bar?

This vision of our faith resonates for many. It certainly describes the way I was raised. As a snapshot of a slice of the church at a certain time in history—20th-century American evangelicals—it checks out. But as a timeless vision of what it means to follow Christ, it falls short, and it does so in a way that will seriously impinge on our ability to make disciples in an increasingly postliterate culture, a culture in which most people still understand the bare mechanics of reading but overwhelmingly consume audio and visual media instead.

We can see how this literacy-focused idea of Christianity will fail in the future by looking to the past. For most of Christian history, most believers were illiterate. Reading the Bible daily wasn’t an option because reading wasn’t an option.

This doesn’t mean Scripture was irrelevant to ordinary Christians’ lives. But the sacred page wasn’t primarily a private matter for personal devotion; it was a public matter heard in the gathering of God’s people for worship. The Bible was the church’s book—a liturgical book, a book whose natural habitat was the voice of Christ’s body lifted in praise. To hear the Word of God, you joined the people of God. Lectors read aloud for the benefit of all.

In these contexts, an injunction to read one’s Bible daily would’ve been as meaningful as advice about how to refuel one’s private jet. For us, looking back, the lesson is that what we take for granted about following Christ may not be true for all believers, always and everywhere. What’s appropriate or even necessary in our time and place may not apply to others. Discipleship practices may be more dependent upon technology and wider social practices than we often realize.

Consider, for example, the effects of the printing press, public education, and mass literacy on the church. Tales of a dark age in which church leaders suppressed literacy so often miss their mark because it’s impossible to have a reading public without cheap books, and it’s impossible to have cheap books without the printing press. The habits and purposes of reading occur in a society, in a culture, in a massively complex moral and technological environment. Reading that strikes us as necessary in one time and place will be unnecessary—if not imprudent or outright impossible—in another.

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Moreover, it’s not self-evident from Scripture itself that the Christian life is inherently a reading life. How could it be, when every book of the canon was written at a time when most of God’s people could not read? In this light, our emphasis on personal, private reading of Scripture appears to be a modern innovation distinct not only from much of Christian history but from biblical history as well.

So literacy cannot be synonymous with faithful discipleship. That is a given. The question is what role it plays once mass literacy is our social reality. In many traditions, the church’s answer over the last few centuries has been to put a Bible in people’s hands as soon as possible and as often as possible, and to encourage Bible reading as a central component of one’s daily walk with Christ. Christians are readers today because of the remarkable vision and untold labor on the part of mothers and fathers in the faith going back a dozen generations.

For those of us who have benefitted, the only fitting response is gratitude. I often hear jokes among friends about growing up with “sword drills” and “Bible bowls.” Some claim they can still list all the Davidic kings from Solomon to the Exile. The jokes are always laced with thanks, and with a tinge of nostalgia. They may have rolled their eyes 30 years ago, but now, with kids of their own, they look back to an analog church childhood with a dawning realization of how much has been lost.

That next question—what we’ve lost—is perennial, but lately it has become acute regarding the state of the next generation’s literacy, their ability to engage fluently with a given text. In February, writing at Slate, Adam Kotsko sounded the alarm on college students’ reading comprehension. In March, on Substack, Jean Twenge shared empirical research backing up Kotsko’s concerns.

The statistics are dismal. In 2021 and 2022, for example, 2 out of 5 high school seniors reported not reading a single book for pleasure in the previous year. This is about four times as many compared to 1976. Other studies suggest similar things about American adults, especially men.

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Each year, I teach hundreds of undergraduates of every class and major, and these reports jibe with my own experience. My students are mostly non-denominational evangelicals attending a private Christian liberal arts university in West Texas. I like to give them an anonymous survey that asks a single question: How many books have you ever read cover to cover? My only provisos are that the book couldn’t have been assigned by a teacher and that it had to be above an eighth-grade reading level (say, harder than Harry Potter). Most students’ total is below five. Many list two, one, or zero.

The reasons for this decline in long-form literacy are surely many. Like others, I’m inclined to lay the lion’s share of the blame on television, streaming, smartphones, and social media. But whatever the causes, this is our reality.

American society is no longer composed of readers of books and other written works that require sustained, rational attention—if it ever was. In the words of Neil Postman, the “typographic” culture birthed by Protestantism no longer exists. This is as true inside the church as it is outside the church.

The practical question, then, is not whether this is our world but what to do about it. How do we interact with Scripture when mass literacy as we have known it is no more?

In a recent book, Jessica Hooten Wilson writes the following:

Against the seduction of screens, we must return to the love of the book, beginning and ending with the Bible but including other books that enlighten Scripture for us and show us how to live like Jesus in our own time and place. Reading must be a daily spiritual practice for the Christian. A life of reading counteracts the malformation of screen and digital technology.

Likewise, in a recent essay responding to Kotsko and other elegies for lost literacy, Alan Jacobs writes that “many parents are putting up a fight” against childhoods void of books. In evangelical churches and classical Christian schools, habits of reading are still being modeled, taught, and “centered” in what it means to be a believer, a neighbor, a citizen. First at Wheaton College and now in the Honors College at Baylor University, Jacobs sees the imprint left on these students, who are products of an odd subculture for which “reading was an integral part.”

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As a fellow reader, teacher, and parent of bookish kids, far be it from me to dissent from Jacobs’s conclusion that “abject submission isn’t inevitable. It turns out that resistance isn’t futile after all.” It is possible to raise children to be readers, to teach them to love reading. My goal with students is the same: to convert as many of them as I can from the lure of the screen to the love of the page. Occasionally I succeed. The fight is worth it, no matter the odds!

Nevertheless, I fear we educators and parents—and with us, pastors and elders—are not seeing the forest for the trees. Recall Hooten Wilson’s claim: Reading must be a daily spiritual practice for the Christian. Is this true? We’ve already seen that it can’t be true without qualification. But granting its context and intent, does it ring true then?

No, I don’t think it does. And the same goes for students at Wheaton, Baylor, and classical Christian academies. These are noble battles, but they remain minor skirmishes in a losing war—indeed a war that has already been lost at the national level. By and large, Americans young and old do not read books, and every trend line is pointing in the wrong direction.

Actually, pause on that last phrase: “the wrong direction.” This betrays my own class and bias. Must everyone be a reader—meaning, a daily reader of books for pleasure? Is reading an essential part of the good life? An essential part of the Christian life?

I’m not so sure. To be clear, I can’t claim to have definitive answers to these questions. What I have are tentative ideas that call for further exploration, not least by churches and Christian educators. Let me close with a few of them.

First, we are in the midst of a seismic technological shift that has already shaken the ground beneath Christians’ feet. We should not continue pretending that the old world is still with us. This includes the nature of ordinary believers’ relationship to the Bible.

Second, Christians exist within a larger social environment. If visions of daily discipleship are contingent on both technology and the wider culture, and those influences are vastly different than they were one or two centuries ago, then we should expect discipleship practices to differ as well. This does not mean we compromise on doctrine, the necessity of spiritual discipline, or our duty to love God and neighbor. It does mean that our disciplines and duties will take different forms in different circumstances—and that we must carefully discern whether we are clinging to longstanding forms because they are essential to our faith (e.g., prayer) or simply because we are nostalgic.

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In a culture where most people are not daily readers of books, most Christians probably will not be daily readers of the church’s book either. Unless, that is, we believe that private, individual reading of the Bible is so foundational, so nonnegotiable that our churches ought to devote extraordinary resources to making it a countercultural possibility in the life of every ordinary believer.

Such churches would not only found and support classical academies. They would also commit to being consistently countercultural in the face of the whole ecosystem of digital technology: no screens in worship; no AI in preaching; no streaming online; no smartphones in the building; no presence on social media; no Bible apps in Bible class—only physical Bibles brought from home. Churches like these would be clear-eyed and undeceived about the nature of the threat. They would not try to have their cake and eat it too.

I’m open to that approach. But unless we’re willing to go that far, it seems to me that churches in the modern West should accept that we live in a postliterate world and therefore must minister to a postliterate people. Concretely, this means accepting that most church members are not and never will be readers, and that this is not a problem—that it does not make them less than other believers, that it does not preclude their maturity in the faith and service of God.

The upshot of this acceptance would be a changed vision of the Christian life. This too would have us looking to the past, as well as to contemporary liturgical traditions with models of worship carried over from a premodern illiterate age. Those of us in communities defined by personal Bible reading have much to learn from them.

Our congregations would not cease to be centered on God’s Word. But we would be centered differently than we have been in the past. Perhaps we need more—much more—oral reading, even memorization and performance, of the Scriptures in the assembly. Perhaps we need longer and more detailed exposition of the text in the sermon. Perhaps we need to reimagine what “biblical literacy” can mean: not necessarily the reading and rereading of one’s personal Bible, but a mind, imagination, and vocabulary shot through with the stories and characters and events of Holy Scripture.

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Or perhaps not. These suggestions are tentative, as I said. I’m open to others, as all of us should be. But alternative visions are what we need. Christians have not always been readers, and it seems that for the foreseeable future, a majority of Christians will not be readers anymore. Discerning a durable form of faithfulness for this new and uncertain time is one of the pressing challenges of our day.

Brad East is an associate professor of theology at Abilene Christian University. He is the author of four books, including The Church: A Guide to the People of God and Letters to a Future Saint: Foundations of Faith for the Spiritually Hungry.

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