By Jeff Brumley
Publishers and marketers are certainly aware that Americans, thanks to smart phones and tablets, are reading fewer and fewer paper books these days.
But pastors and other church leaders need to track those trends as well, the Barna Group says.
The spiritual implications of reading habits can have tangible impacts on churches and ministries, said Roxanne Stone, editor in chief at Barna.
Readers accustomed to reading shorter articles, and to jumping from one text to another, makes them less patient with texts like the Bible, she said.
“That real quick-hit culture does shape our spirituality,” she said.
The reading habits of Americans is the focus of a recent Barna study, “The State of Books and Reading in a Digital World.”
“People still like to read, but it’s also the case that … Americans are not reading a lot of books,” said Stone.
Naturally, they are reading online, using computers, phones and tablets instead. As a result, news and magazine articles, because they are consumed online, are getting shorter. The same is true for blog posts.
“In general we have shorter attention spans and we are jumping from article to article,” Stone said.
One purpose of the study was to keep publishers and authors apprised of the state of books and reading in American society, according to Stone. It was also intended as a way to keep pastors and other church leaders in the loop about the way their members and others in the culture prefer to learn.
“For pastors, it’s helpful to keep in mind how people are getting information, what media they are using for entertainment and how they are absorbing data,” she said.
That information in turn can aid ministers in determining if and how to adapt their ministries to meet those trends.
“It’s important to keep a pulse on how people are interacting with information,” Stone said.
Good news for publishers, authors — pastors
Unsurprisingly, books have a lot of competition. Barna reported in the study that 2 million blog posts are written, 860,000 hours of YouTube videos are uploaded and 5 billion pieces of content are shared on Facebook — all in just a single day.
Predictably, book reading is down.
Of all adults surveyed, Barna reported that 67 percent read five books or less per year. That figure consists of 25 percent who read no books at all and 42 percent who read one to five. And a third of adults said they read five or more books annually.
While those figures are revealing, so are reading habits reported by practicing Christians — those who said they attended church in the last month and who say faith is important in their lives.
By comparison, 19 percent of that category reported reading zero books in a year while 45 percent said they read one to five books in the same period of time. Additionally, 12 percent read five to 10 books annually, 6 percent read 10 to 15 and 18 percent read more than 15 books a year, according to the study.
The kind of books that group reads also differs from much of the rest of the population, Stone said.
“Christians are more likely to be looking to a book for spiritual development, so they are reading with an intention of growing,” she said. “This should be encouraging for authors, publishers and pastors.”
Following the trends
Mark Tidsworth agreed that’s good news, but added that ministers are among those increasingly finding key information online.
“I have heard lots of friends talking about reading habits changing, that they are reading more online,” said Mark Tidsworth, a South Carolina-based congregational consultant and author of the new book Shift: Three Big Moves for the 21st Century Church.
“More pastors I talk to read blogs regularly as opposed to 10 years ago when they read books mainly, and some magazines,” he said.
But Tidsworth said he isn’t deterred from book writing, because his work is intended for pastors and lay leaders and derives from blogs he has been writing.
“This is material I have been presenting to groups of pastors, and includes some blog posts,” he said.
In that way, paper books, blogs and other online formats can complement each other.
Even so, Tidsworth said he can see the balance continuing to shift. That was clear when his book was published this year.
“I have had several pastors contact me wanting the Kindle version,” he said.
‘More of a conversation’
Another Christian author said he’d prefer his readers purchase the electronic version of his 2014 book, Unlikely Glimpses of Grace.
It’s a series of short devotions focusing on unlikely and surprising facets about the Christian faith.
“With the e-version you can read it and there are links to a YouTube channel where you can hear me talk about it,” said Patrick Vaughn, co-pastor of Red Clay Creek Presbyterian Church in Wilmington, Del.
The electronic version of his next book, Meeting Jesus at Starbucks, will include links to sermon clips and videos of him telling related stories.
“I want it to be more of a conversation,” Vaughn said, adding, that his approach seems to jive with what he’s heard marketers say about books in the future.
“There is going to be an incredible increase in the use of video,” he said.