February 16, 2009

eBooks and Mission Work

Last week, Amazon.com made an announcement that sent shock waves through the Internet. They are finally releasing their second-generation eBook reader, the Kindle 2. Zondervan also recently mentioned that they gave away two free Sony Readers, preloaded with several leading Christian books and a Bible, at last year’s ETS and SBL annual meetings. I’ll let others debate whether we’re witnessing a transition away from printed books to electric reading, but I want to take a few moments to discuss what eBooks could mean for missions work.

The potential advantages are exciting. Imagine carrying an entire library in an object smaller than a single book! Missionaries often have very limited space to move items with them overseas, and books must usually be kept to a minimum. Those of us with ministries focused on theological education and defending the faith find this challenge especially daunting. Could eBook readers give us the flexibility we need to effectively serve Christ without losing essential information and resources? We wouldn’t have to figure out how to ship dozens of heavy boxes of books halfway around the world; our research collections could travel in our carry-on luggage.

But issues remain. While Zondervan, Crossway, and others have made electronic versions of their books available, many more evangelical publishers haven’t joined the eBook bandwagon. I’d guesstimate that under ten percent of my library is currently available in some electronic form, so devices like the Kindle and Sony Reader aren’t workable replacements—yet.

Electronic reading also has some limitations which I’m not sure can be easily overcome. As an avid Mortimer Adler devotee (and if you don’t know who I’m talking about, read this book!), I frequently mark my books with various lines and notations. How can I do this in an electronic reader and easily refer back to my thoughts in the future?

And one final concern: While this technological step may be a great leap forward in global ministry, most of the world is nowhere close to taking advantage of it. I first realized this fact as I started serving Christ overseas. Since I’m something of a tech-geek, I figured that the efficient and inexpensive way to get relevant, updated, and translated resources into the hands of the most church leaders and other believers was to establish an elaborate Internet presence. We could create a web site with articles that can be viewed and printed, plus a database offering the latest research. But when I actually went to East Africa I quickly discovered that such assistance can only go so far. Most Africans have only limited Internet access, if any—and they seldom have computers. We can’t assume that church leaders can access our information online, however badly they may need it. So we’ve had to focus our near-term strategies on using more traditional media like printed tracts, newsletters, and DVDs.

Now perhaps you can see a little better how a Kindle or Sony Reader would mainly be of value to missionaries. I could have hundreds or even thousands of books at my fingertips—but the vast majority of my African friends could not. And until technological initiatives like Ubuntunet take hold, they’ll still need theological libraries with lots of printed books, journals, magazines, newsletters, and other periodicals. Most fundamentally, they’ll need the Bible; too few African Christians own so much as a single copy of God’s Word, even when it’s been printed in their own language.

So you can see why I’m both enthusiastic and cautious about electronic readers. I may be able to use one to effectively serve Christ someday. At the same time, technology alone can’t equip our African brothers and sisters in Christ. May the Lord guide our efforts as we navigate through these complex waters!