Reading vs. Engaging

You are reading this.

But are you engaging with it?

What’s the difference, and why does it matter?

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In the context of spiritual formation, the question takes more significant shape: “Is it enough to simply read God’s Word, or must one actually engage with it to grow in their faith or be transformed by it?

Now you start to see where this becomes important! This seemingly minor distinction has tremendous repercussions in the life of any believer, as well as in the areas of evangelism and discipleship.

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Neuroscience tells us that the more ways something is learned, the more memory pathways are built.

Not long ago, a group of psychologists at the University of Waterloo in Ontario investigated the way our minds respond to various forms of reading material. They had 235 test participants engage with three excerpts of Bill Bryson’s 2003 popular science book A Short History of Nearly Everything. The participants read one of the excerpts silently from a computer screen, read the second excerpt aloud off the screen, and listened to the third as the screen went blank.

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During each of the three readings, the researchers tested for three cognitive impacts: mind-wandering, memory, and interest. Mind-wandering was measured with a prompt that appeared on the screen from time to time, asking participants whether or not they’d been paying attention. Memory was measured with a short true-or-false quiz after the excerpt. Interest was measured by participant rating.

Suffice it to say that listening and reading provided very different cognitive experiences. The minds of participants listening to the excerpt wandered significantly more than those reading it silently (which in turn wandered more than those reading aloud). The listening group also scored worse on the memory test than the reading groups did. And, oddly enough, listening even led to less interest in the passage compared to reading aloud (though not reading silently). The results were reported in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.

“It seems as though just listening is not as engaging as when people read, particularly out loud,” Daniel Smilek, a co-author on the paper, tells Co.Design. “The way we’re thinking about it is that the more your body’s involved in the task, the less likely you are to be disengaged and mind-wander.”

Let’s consider anecdotal evidence in our case for reading vs. engaging:

8-year-old Madison reads her Bible quietly for 15 minutes every night before going to bed. There are many words she doesn’t understand, numbers in weird places breaking up the text, and fragmented bits and pieces of stories that don’t hold her attention or seem to apply to her.

On Sundays, a Scripture passage or Bible story is audibly and visually presented. Madison may be invited to draw or act out the story. Big words and ideas are contextualized for her or explained, and she has her small group leader on hand to answer questions about anything she doesn’t understand.  She sees the Bible verses on the wall, on a big screen, hears someone read it from the Bible, looks it up in her copy of God’s Word, reads it aloud with her small group, and participates in a discussion about what it means and how it’s relevant to her life.

Which scenario do you think will have more impact on Madison’s spiritual development?

In a missional context, we cannot limit Scripture engagement to merely literacy-based experiences. Globally, many children are pre-literate, illiterate or functionally illiterate. It is vital that we contextualize God’s Word for every audience, not just those who can read Scripture on a page. That’s why OneHope invests heavily in orality programs, short films, drama teams, and audio as mediums to convey the truths from God’s Word.

The litmus test of engagement is whether Madison—or any child—can integrate the information they have just been presented with the realities of their lives. Do they now know what they are supposed to do, how to make decisions or act differently in the future because of the knowledge gained by engaging with Scripture?

If you’ve made it this far, you’ve now read this material. The question is, did you engage with it?


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Rob Hoskins is the president of OneHope. Since taking leadership of OneHope in 2004, he has continued to advance the vision of God’s Word. Every Child. by partnering with local churches to help reach more than 2 BILLION children and youth worldwide with a contextualized presentation of God’s Word.

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