The audio Bible is often an add-on in a scripture-rich place such as America, where installing a smartphone application is a matter of a few clicks. But for believers in places where even a printed copy of the Bible isn't easily available, the evolving high-tech delivery of audio Bibles has become their first and only exposure to the holy book.
"Audio Bibles open the word for perhaps 70 percent of the world's population who may never learn to read in a language they speak well," said Freddy Boswell, CEO and executive director of SIL International, a faith-based language development group in Dallas, Texas.
What began as an effort to distribute Bible recordings on cassette tapes four decades ago has extended into using solid-state devices, Internet streaming and most recently satellite transmissions to bring the sacred text to people who can't read, or who would have difficulty finding a printed Bible in their language.
Boswell, himself a former overseas missionary, notes that while efforts to help people learn to read in their language are important, there are limits to their effectiveness, and that's where audio recordings can come in.
"As much as we've invested in decades of (promoting) literacy — and we can document thousands of new readers — we know there are millions of people who will die who never learned to read," Boswell said. "If the only access to scripture is for people who can read, we're going to lose half the world's population."
Majority oral culture
According to Troy Carl, a vice president with Faith Comes By Hearing, a non-denominational ministry that produces a variety of audio Bibles, the majority of the world's cultures are not print-oriented.
"Seventy percent of the world population is an oral culture," said Carl, who heads technology efforts for the group, while "50 percent of the world is illiterate and lives on less than $2 a day. (They) cannot be reached with the printed page."
Those low levels of literacy and income suggested to FCBH a desperate need for recorded Bibles. While printed scriptures have been available for decades in many languages, there are millions of people, he said, who can't read or understand a paper-based Bible.
The 43-year-old FCBH ministry has produced 850 different language recordings of the Bible, while there are 877 audio Bible translations available through the group's Digital Bible Platform, an applications platform used by developers to bring the Bible to a variety of electronic devices.
For many people, especially in remote areas without sustained Internet service or dependable access to electricity, small solid-state players called "Proclaimers," usually containing a New Testament translation, are made available. FCBH says the devices "are practically indestructible," and can be recharged 1,000 times.
The ministry is decidedly non-denominational. Carl said they produce only scripture recordings, although they will record versions a given church might prefer. FCBH's work crosses denominational boundaries, and even the longstanding divide between Roman Catholic and Protestant outreaches over Bible translations.
The Rev. Carlos Triana, a Roman Catholic priest in Mexico, said the recordings are key to the Catholic ministry: "For the Catholic Church, it is a very important religious activity to hear the word of God, especially for those who cannot read, and everyone (else)."
Speaking the language
Having audio Bibles in diverse languages makes the scripture personal, Carl said.
He recalled that while it once was thought a single Spanish-language Bible would be sufficient for much of South America, evangelists soon realized there were "many hundreds" of indigenous languages spoken in the region. Providing audio Bibles in those dialects was key to reaching many nonbelievers, he said.
"When they heard it in their own language, the spiritual truth that is being communicated — they realize that God hasn't forgotten them," Carl said.
One favorite anecdote concerns the Konkombas of northern Ghana, a west African community of approximately 463,000 people who, for a number of years, had not been reached with the Bible or Christian literature. The development of an audio Bible for these people generated a great deal of interest, Carl recalled, as village elders told workers "now, we don't need a translator to talk to God."
Hearing the words of the Bible in their language had an impact beyond just access to scripture stories. Carl said that several years ago when Konkomba villagers first heard the story of Jesus healing a demon-possessed man, as recounted in the fifth chapter of Mark's gospel, a debate immediately sprung up about the pigs into whom Jesus sent the unclean spirits, animals which then hurled themselves off a cliff.
Carl said the question in the villagers' minds was economic: Did Jesus pay for the lost livestock?
"In their village, they herd communally," he said, and "the pigs are then dispersed among the people." The question in the minds of many Konkombas was, "If we invite Jesus into the village, will we lose all of our pigs?"
The question ultimately was decided by two leading members of the village, according to Carl.
"They said, 'You know that we have a demon-possessed man in that village. We'd rather he die than one of our pigs. But we believe Jesus was trying to teach us that one life is worth more than our entire economy.'"
The community is now Christian, he added. "Since then, we've seen literally thousands of churches planted among the Konkombas."
FCBH is not the only organization that produces and distributes audio Bibles. Adventist World Radio, a ministry of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, has also distributed pocket-sized audio devices. Unlike the FCBH devices, which contain only Bible texts, the Adventist devices include church-specific literature.
A spokesman for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints said various audio versions of the Bible are available for download from the Scripture section of the church's website.
It took 37 years for FCBH, using cassette tapes, audio CDs and solid-state devices, to reach about 60 million people with the Bible, Carl said. Using digital downloads, the number has in the past four years soared by "another 220 million," of which 100 million were added in the last 12 months, he added. Carl believes technology's benefits for Bible outreach are just beginning to be realized.
The group is using dedicated satellite television channels to reach prospective converts in the Middle East, a region dotted with satellite receivers in large cities and smaller villages where having a Bible may be illegal. Current channels are in Arabic, Farsi, Dari, Azerbaijani and Turkish, all in partnership with Christian broadcaster SAT-7.
"Imagine what a different world the Middle East and North Africa would be today if this same population had heard the teachings of Jesus Christ in their own language" earlier, he said. It's especially important to reach these communities with audio Bibles since some nations — most notably Saudi Arabia — prohibit the distribution of Bibles to non-Christians.
In January, the organization announced the hiring of retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Gregg Leisman, "to manage aerospace programs that will expand their use of satellite technology to broadcast audio Bible content worldwide."
A veteran of space technology in the Air Force, Leisman most recently headed the Space and Missile Test Complex at Arnold Air Force Base and subsequently was in charge of the Integrated Activation Team for a new command and control system for the service's $17.6 billion Space Based Infrared System.
Such high-dollar amounts won't be required to beam an audio Bible through the heavens to a waiting hearer, Carl said.
"It's not as expensive as you might think," he explained. "You don't have to launch your own satellite networks. You can lease payloads on existing networks; and satellite companies will relay your content off of their networks. It's literally pennies on the dollar to reach billions of people."
Carl compared the penetration of satellite technology to the first-century "Roman Road" of highways that interconnected the Roman Empire's disparate locations. While it "established a road system for security and the military," he said, it also created a pathway "for trade and communication."
Carl added, "I think we're living in a time where the world is creating a system where really God is going to allow His word to travel."