Bible Poverty

by Ian Shaw

Ian is CEO of OPAL Trust.

I wonder how many Bibles you have on your shelves at home. Stop a moment – and go and count. Then what about the ones on your phone or your tablet or your computer? How many are there at your place of worship on Sunday? I expect the total will quickly mount up. Then imagine that you are going to preach a sermon on Sunday or lead a Bible Study but you don’t have a Bible. What will you do – how will you prepare? What will you base your message on?

Estimates vary but it seems that there are over 100 full translations of the Bible into the English language alone. With such an abundance of Bibles in the western church, it is sad that they are often complacently taken for granted and a tragedy how little the Bible is actually read.

In the majority world, the situation is completely reversed. Among Christians in Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America, there is great hunger for the Word of God, yet there are often few Bibles, especially in local languages. Out of 7,400 languages, only just over 724 have a fully translated Bible.1 Where there are local-language translations, copies are often very expensive – far beyond the ability of local Christians to buy. These factors mean that somewhere between 28% and 40% of Christians in the world do not have a Bible.

This is the reality of Bible poverty. Many Christians long for but do not have a Bible. The evidence that many Christian leaders involved in preaching and leading significant gatherings of Christians do not have their own Bible is truly shocking.

A Christian leader from Congo (DRC) recently told me of his journey into that country with Bibles supplied by OPAL (Overseas Publishing and Literature). When he met the local leaders, he told them he had some copies of the Bible for them in their language. ‘You can’t have,’ they said, ‘because there are none’. ‘I do have them here’ he insisted. ‘Only when we see them can we believe this’ they responded. They stood with tears in their eyes as he produced the Bibles and gave them each a copy for their ministry.

When Christians in the majority world have a Bible, not only is it gratefully received, it will be read. A recent survey of African Christians found that 50% of respondents said they read the Bible daily and 75% once a week. By comparison, in the USA just 21% of self-identified Christians reported reading the Bible daily and 50% weekly. Other Christians in persecuted regions learn the Bible and treasure it in their hearts and minds in readiness for the day when it might be taken away from them.

Majority-world Christians also have a thirst for good Christian books, but sadly, many cannot afford them. One of our Opal ambassadors, John Lewis, was visiting a Christian bookshop in Africa and he noticed that there were small pieces of paper slipped inside many of the Bibles and books. He asked the manager why they were there, and he was told that many people could not afford to buy the books, so they had asked if they could come in and read the Bibles and books on the shelves. The bookshop manager had kindly allowed this. The bits of paper marked where they had got to in their reading.

This is the reality of Bible poverty. Many Christians long for but do not have a Bible.


What are the consequences of not having a Bible or good Christian books? If people do not have these resources, Christians cannot easily understand or apply what they are taught. Furthermore, if the preacher does not have a Bible, the results are even more serious and worrying. Here are five negative consequences, but there are undoubtedly many more.

Without a Bible to learn from, new Christians will begin life on shaky foundations and even long-standing Christians won’t be able to grow (Mt. 7:24). The good seed that is sown needs to be fed from the Word of God. To assist with this, people need to hear God’s Word in a language they can best understand. Evangelical Christians affirm Scripture as the supreme authority on matters of faith and life. If believers do not have Bibles, it is no surprise that authority is sought from other sources.

Without Bibles, people lack direction for life and belief. The Psalmist tells us, ‘Your Word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path’ (Ps 119:105). Without light, people will struggle to move forward and are likely to trip and fall in the dark. Sadly, alongside the rapid growth of Christianity in the majority world has come a spread of error. False teachers, new religious movements and cults denying the truth of the gospel, are very active. They often provide well-produced literature given away freely. There is little wonder that error spreads so quickly among God’s people, often unknowingly. Some believers have used materials supplied by local Jehovah’s Witnesses without realising they contained incorrect teachings. Without Bibles, it is harder to grow in Christlikeness. The Bible is the mirror in which we should look to see ourselves as we truly are, and how we should be (Jas 1:22-25). It is so hard to know what Christ wants in our lives if we can’t see the pattern that is set out for us. Scripture shapes not just individuals but believers as they meet and grow together. As one writer puts it, ‘Scripture is necessary to bring the church to the destiny God has for it.’

Without Bibles, preachers and Christians find it hard to know how to follow Jesus in ways appropriate to their culture. Local Christians need to work out what it looks like for someone in their culture to live as a Christian. Cross-cultural workers can help but more effective is when local Christians themselves have a good understanding of God’s Word and apply it wisely. Daniel’s courageous stand against the cultural norms of Babylon, maintaining his faith in the Living God without compromise, was possible because he was firmly grounded in the Word of God. As people learn from, and submit themselves to, the Word of God it helps them break the shackles of those traditions from their culture, which go against Scripture.

Without access to the Bible, Christians are deprived of the chance to know and love Christ more. As believers read the Bible, God reveals Himself and they encounter Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit. If they cannot hear and read the Bible, and listen to preaching from it, Christians miss the opportunity to get to know Christ more.

Addressing the Need

The Lausanne Movement’s Cape Town Commitment of 2010 reminds us that a key, and sometimes forgotten, aspect of mission is the distribution of the Bible: ‘We must make the Bible known by all means possible, for its message is for all people on earth. We recommit ourselves, therefore, to the ongoing task of translating, disseminating, and teaching the Scriptures in every culture and language, including those that are predominantly oral or nonliterary.’ Even in nonliterate cultures, the Bible can be read out loud or recited by others.

Addressing the issue of Bible poverty is a core part of the ministry of Opal Trust, founded in 2003. It has been a joy to partner with Echoes since 2016 in running a literature fund. Through this nearly 50,000 Bibles have been supplied to Christians and Christian leaders in the majority world. These include 27,000 Congolese-Swahili Bibles, and 13,000 in the Bemba language. The fund also supports getting Christian literature to the majority world, especially that outlining basic Christian teaching. It has helped over 500,000 copies of John McQuoid’s Knowing and Doing, a very accessible introduction to the Christian faith, to be produced in 52 languages. The latest edition is in Dzongkha for Bhutan. Study packs for Bible school students and resources for libraries are also funded.

We thank God that so much has been done but the needs are great and, in many ways, getting greater.

1 Portions of Scripture have been translated into 3,589 languages.

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