The Bible and Persuasive Technology – @tim_hutchings

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Can you use a mobile app to persuade someone to read the Bible?

Some people say you can. My research this year has focused on “digital Bibles”, looking at why people read on screens and how this changes their engagement with Scripture. The most popular digital Bible is a mobile app called YouVersion, which has now been installed 100 million times around the world in just five years. According to YouVersion, 77% of the users who answered their latest survey said they now “turn to the Bible more” because it’s available on their mobile devices. 

Now, that YouVersion infographic doesn’t say who answered their survey, so we can’t be sure what this really means. The question is worded in an interestingly ambiguous way, too – does this mean people are reading more of the Bible, or reading little bits of the Bible more often? “Turn to the Bible more” suggests people are learning to open the Bible when they need help, but that might not be what the people answering the survey thought they were being asked.

My own research has also suggested that many people who use digital Bibles do say they have started reading the Bible more often. Whatever that means, it’s pretty impressive. So how does it work?

The science of “captology” suggests some answers. Captology is a word invented by BJ Fogg, who founded the Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab in the US, and it just stands for “Computers As Persuasive Technologies”.  Fogg believes we can “use computers to change what we do and think”, by following some simple rules. Lots of his articles are free online, but you can find a quick summary of some of his ideas here.

Fogg argues that to effectively change someone’s behaviour, you need to focus on something small and quick, and then identify what is stopping people from doing it already. The problem will always be a combination of lack of motivation, lack of ability and lack of a trigger: in other words, they don’t want to, they can’t, or they need a reminder. According to BJ Fogg, technology is particularly good at making it easier for people to do things, and then reminding them at just the right moment.

Now apply this to the Bible. You can follow those “rules of persuasion” by chopping the Bible up into little, easy-to-read bits, making it really easy to find them, and then reminding people every day. In other words, use a reading plan! Christians have been following those rules for centuries. A digital Bible just makes this even more effective, by making sure your Bible is always available, making the verse you want incredibly easy to find, and sending you regular reminders. It’s no surprise that this is really effective at encouraging people to read more.

Digital media might not be as effective at tackling the first issue Fogg identifies: lack of motivation. If you want to read the Bible more, because you love the Bible and you love hearing God through the Bible, then a Bible app could be just what you need. But if you don’t love the Bible, and you aren’t really motivated to read it, can technology make a difference? Even if your Bible is with you all day long, you won’t read it if you don’t see the point. 

This is a really big problem for Bible publishers, and it’s not just a problem of technique – it’s a theological problem, too, because it’s really about what the Bible is and how it changes us. There are three different answers, I think, based on different theological priorities, and you can see all of them in digital Bible apps today. I’m not going to name names, in case someone gets upset, but… well, let’s just say I have names in mind.

The first answer emphasises the text. According to some evangelical Christians, the Bible needs no defence: expose people to it, make them read it, and they will just see how amazing it is. How could they not? And so we have a long tradition of publishing bits of the Bible on tracts and posters, and now through tweets and Facebook. Wave the Bible at people often enough, and they will eventually see God.

The second answer emphasises the message. These Christians are more nervous. OK, they think, we love the Bible, but non-Christians can’t just read it – they’ll think it’s dull and weird. So they try to explain the Bible, and make it fun, and make it cool and attractive. Walk into a Christian bookshop, and you’ll see row upon row of pretty covers, cool videos, fun pictures, catchy explanations and celebrity endorsements. Buy the cool stuff, and maybe you’ll think the Bible is cool too.

The third answer emphasises the community of readers. According to this approach, the Bible is great, but you need friends to help you understand it – not just quotes or commentaries. These Christians try to build resources to encourage social reading, online and offline, so the new reader can always turn to a person they trust for encouragement and advice.

The “community” approach to Bible-reading is the most persuasive, I think – which is why study groups are so popular, of course. Pretty Bibles sell more copies, and tweeting your favourite quote is much easier, but finding a friend to read with you is much more likely to help you find new motivation to explore the Bible.

Right now, the “community” approach is the rarest among digital Bibles, but I think that will change soon. Some of the most popular apps are already working on building some kind of social networking aspect, and some publishers are now printing paper books full of QR codes to encourage friends to read and watch videos together – check out the UCCF’s Uncover project, for example.

So, to sum up: you can definitely use digital media to encourage people to read the Bible more, but I think that approach works best for people who already love the Bible. If you want to appeal to people who don’t know the Bible at all, you’ll have to try a bit harder – and maybe get their friends to help.     

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About Tim Hutchings

Tim works at CODEC, a research initiative for the study of Christian communication in the digital age at St John's College, Durham. He studies online churches, online evangelism and other online things, and can usually be found somewhere near the coffee machine. He likes cake, old science fiction book covers and kitschy religious knick-knacks.