Pixels vs. the Press

If you’re reading this on a screen, print it out.  I’ll tell you why later.

It was 7:51 in the morning.  Rush hour at one of the busiest metro stations in the nation’s capital, L’Enfant Plaza.  Among the thousand-or-so people that would travel through those corridors in the following 43 minutes, a man in his thirties exited the train and began to play his violin.  While it may have been an average morning for those on their morning commute, this was no ordinary street musician looking for a few extra dollars.  Rather, it was a test.  A test to see if extraordinary things, placed in an ordinary scenario, would be appreciated for their true beauty.

He began with Chaconne written by Johann Sebastian Bach, a 14-minute masterpiece that is regarded as one of the most difficult to master on the violin.  During his performance he performed a total of six classical pieces.  During the time he played, only seven people actually stopped to take a minute to listen.  He was given a total of $32.17 from the more than a thousand people who passed by, most of which didn’t even make an effort to look at where the music was coming from.  No crowd gathered.  No applause was given.

The musician?  Joshua Bell, who played on a 3.5 million-dollar violin hand-made by Antonio Stradivari himself in 1713.  Three days prior to his L’Enfant performance he filled the 2,600-seat Boston Symphony Hall (good seats were at least $100), and in April of the same year would be awarded the Avery Fisher prize to recognize him as America’s best classical musician.  The Washington Post, who arranged the experiment, went on in their article to ask the question: “If a great musician plays great music but no one hears… was he really any good?”  Good question.

Context, as they say, is king.  It’s obvious that people are willing to pay money to listen to Joshua Bell play his violin, but obviously not as much so when in the fast-paced rigor-of-life setting.  It’s a question of context and competition.  We come across so many things in life that are competing for our time, our resources, our attention.  As the music experiment shows, the reason context plays such a large factor in determining whether or not we’re going to appreciate something, however beautiful it may be, is because context creates competition.  The passers-by were more concerned with competing priorities than with stopping to listen.  Context creates competition, and the more competition there is in a given scenario, the more difficult it is to communicate something that comes into contrast with a person’s established priorities.

Research has said that an average person will be exposed to around 3,000 messages or advertisements in any given day, but only pay attention to 52 of them.  Of those 52, we only positively remember four.


We have a message, do we not?  If we have a message that we want others who don’t have that knowledge to investigate, how can that be done most effectively in a context where there is so much competition?

Valid question, is it not?

God has always been in competition for the human heart.  It’s the driving force behind the entire canon of Scripture: the fact that God wants to be the number-one on my priority list.  On your priority list.  Above desire, He deserves it.  “Seek ye first,” the bible says, “and all these things will be added to you.”  God’s ultimate desire for humanity is redemption:  not only spiritually, but physically.  The sanctuary services were instituted so that they could learn of the ministry of Christ (spiritual), and so that God could “dwell among them” (physical), see Exodus 25.  The first advent of Jesus was a combination of a physical life with a spiritual mission to “seek and save the lost” (Luke 15).

The mission of Jesus to convince fallen humanity to choose life above death is surely as difficult as trying to lure a child to eat raw broccoli instead of a candy bar when they’re both sitting on the table in front of her.  Sounds silly, but it’s true.  The Bible has some tales to tell about the measures God has taken to interest people in taking a closer look at the broccoli.

There once was a king who was terribly afraid of his enemy.  The king, you see, had been keeping track of the people of God since they left Egypt.  He noticed that wherever they went, they would defeat the enemy, and now they were camping outside of his territory.  The king also took note of the effectiveness of the prophet’s blessing.  “Therefore please come at once,” the king requested, “curse this people for me, for they are too mighty for me. Perhaps I shall be able to defeat them and drive them out of the land, for I know that he whom you bless is blessed, and he whom you curse is cursed” (Numbers 22:6).

The problem was that he was asking God’s prophet to curse God’s people.  As you can imagine, that wasn’t going to sit very well with God.  However, since there was a reward in it for the prophet if he conceded, he thought he would give it a try.  “And God said to Balaam, ‘You shall not go with them; you shall not curse the people, for they are blessed’” (Numbers 22:12).  Balaam decided not to take up the king’s offer, even though he wanted the reward that would come from accepting.

Have you ever been in a foreign country in a market looking for a souvenir?  At almost every turn there are shop-owners ready to give you what they are convinced is a deal too good to be passed by.  You know the drill.  They start with a high price.  You go lower.  They try to meet somewhere in the middle, most likely on the higher end of things.  At that point (at least from my experience), one of the most potent negotiating techniques you can use is to start walking away from the deal.  At that point the person trying to sell you the item just gives up and goes to sit back down, right?  Wrong.  They become more insistent that this deal is just the bargain for you.  It’s do-or-die on the sale, and they push even harder.

That’s exactly what happened in our story.  When the Moabite king, Balak, heard of Balaam’s refusal to oblige with his request, it didn’t put a damper on his proposal.  Just the opposite, he ups the ante and sends back officials with higher rank and in greater numbers.  The second time the parade of princes returned with the king’s message: “Please let nothing hinder you from coming to me; for I will certainly honor you greatly, and I will do whatever you say to me. Therefore please come, curse this people for me” (Numbers 22:16-17).  The higher stakes caused Balaam to reconsider.  God never changes.  He still doesn’t give permission for Balaam to curse the people, but He says that if the people call on him again in the morning that he could go with them “but only the word which I speak to you—that you shall do” (Numbers 22:20).

The next verse says that when he woke up, he saddled his donkey and went with the princes of Moab.  He starts to reach for the candy bar.  This was, however, going to be a journey to remember.  As he was riding along on his way, the “Angel of the Lord” blocked the path, and the donkey veered into the adjacent field.  Unable to see the Angel, Balaam angrily struck the donkey to get her back on the road.  The Angel repositions himself in an area where two walls block in the road, causing the donkey to try and squeeze between the angel and the wall, and in doing so crushes Balaam’s foot on the wall.  One again, he strikes the animal, unable to see the divine roadblock.

“Then the Angel of the Lord went further, and stood in a narrow place where there was no way to turn either to the right hand or to the left” (Numbers 22:26).  At this point the donkey gives up, and just lays down on the road.  Still unable to see the Angel, the wandering prophet becomes even more enraged with the donkey, striking it with his staff once more.  I can only imagine that he wasn’t expecting what was about to happen.  The Bible says “the Lord opened the mouth of the donkey, and she said to Balaam, ‘What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times’” (Numbers 22:28)?  And there he is, the prophet of God, standing in the road at night arguing (audibly none the less) with his donkey.  Sadly, the animal had more vision and wisdom than her owner.  The only thing the prophet had on the donkey was stubbornness, at this point Balaam still wanted the candy bar.  Not for long.

“Then the Lord opened Balaam’s eyes, and he saw the Angel of the Lord standing in the way with His drawn sword in His hand; and he bowed his head and fell flat on his face” (Numbers 22:31).  Now God has his attention.


It took a crushed foot, a talking donkey, and the Angel of the Lord.  I love what Balaam says after this experience caught his attention and turned him in the right direction.  “The word that God puts in my mouth, that I must speak.”

Speaking about donkeys, I’m reminded of a story I heard one of my former pastors tell in a sermon.  There was a mule that had been sold by one farmer to another.  The buyer was told that the mule was a very capable animal, a willing and hard worker.  Pleased with his purchase the farmer took home his mule, and after many failed attempts to get the animal to do anything productive, he took the mule and went back to the previous owner.  “You know, when I bought this mule,” he started his complaint, “You told he was a hard and willing worker, but I can’t get it to do anything!”  To his surprise, the man who sold the mule reached down, picked up a stick, whacked the mule on the side of the head, whispered in it’s ear and off it went!

The new owner was a little taken back that his animal had just been treated so harshly.  The original owner turned to him and said “Well, what I forgot to tell you is that before you give it instructions you have to get it’s attention.”  God got Balaam’s attention.  That’s not to mention the numerous other mules that God had to whack on the head before he could whisper in their ear.

Moses saw a bush that was burning but didn’t burn, a rod turn into a snake and then back again, a hand turn leprous and then become restored before he went back to Egypt.  He’s often been considered one of the most Christ-like leaders in all of Scripture.

Jonah had to jump ship and sit in the stomach of a big fish for three days before he would finally go where God wanted him to go.  His message is regarded as the most successful of any Biblical prophet.

The king Nebuchadnezzar had dream after dream, a fiery furnace where Jesus himself showed up, and still had to be an animal for seven years before he would acknowledge God as truly supreme.

Saul was knocked off his horse, temporarily blinded, and was spoken to by God’s audible voice before he realized that he wasn’t serving God by killing Christians.  He went on to be the most prominent figures of Christianity and wrote much of the New Testament.

If those things wouldn’t get your attention, I don’t know what will.  All that said, what does this have to do with sharing God’s message to a candy-bar-focused world?  Everything.  You ready for your broccoli yet?

The truth is, before someone is going to accept God’s gift of salvation, God’s got to have their attention, at least to an extent.  Translation: The gospel has to compete.  It has to be at least attractive enough for people to want to know how the broccoli will help them.  And that is why (well, at least one reason) I believe printed literature will have such a prominent role in how the light of God’s message will go to the world.  Yeah, I know we have iPads, Kindles, Nooks, email, websites, text messages, QR codes, and the like.  There’s only a small percentage of people who own more technology than I do.  Right now I own five computers, and iPad, an iPod, and have more than 20 website domains registered under my name.  I still believe that print is more effective than digital.  Paper over pixels, no question.  Let me give you some reasons why.

Print hits the spot

I’m taking some online classes, and the way the school has things set up is that there are two types of “assessments,” objective and performance.  For objective assessments, you get credit for the class when you pass the final test.  Before they let you take the final test, though, you must pass a “pre-assessment” by at least 10% above the passing mark.  When you finish a pre-assessment they give you what’s called a coaching report, where they break down the test into categories and give you a report on what percent of the questions you answered correctly in each of the given categories.

Let’s say that I’ve taken a pre-assessment for a math class, and I received the following breakdown of scores:

90% Addition

82% Subtraction

21% Multiplication

29% Division

84% Fractions

92% Problem Solving

If, with these scores, I missed the passing score by 12% what should I focus on?  The areas I did well in, or the two I did terribly in?  Of course, I would focus on multiplication and division, because if I could get those scores up, passing the test would be easy.

Now let me ask a similar question.  If we, as a church, are doing great in reaching certain demographics, but horribly in reaching others, where should we put more effort?  You’ve heard the saying “the squeaky wheel gets the grease.”  For too long it seems as if we’ve been oiling all the wheels that don’t squeak in hopes that we will get rolling so fast we won’t hear the other wheels squeaking.  As a church, if there are two areas we’ve been missing the boat on when it comes to reaching lost people (which, by the way, happened to be Jesus’ mission), I would say it would be the affluent (of many cultures) and young people (of many cultures).

Of course, God loves people of all demographics, and we shouldn’t focus on one or two at the exclusion of others, but the point still stands.  What’s the average age of your church’s membership?  In 2008 the median age of Adventists in the North American Division was 51 years while the median age in the population was 36.  What does that mean when it comes to literature ministry?  Quite a bit.

A survey taken in the spring of 2011 of over 1,000 affluent Americans (making over $100,000 annually) shows that when people read, they more often read ink on paper, not pixels on screens.  93% of affluent Americans read hard-copy magazines (less than 10% ever read magazines on e-readers, tablets, and smartphones).  With newspapers, 86% read in printed form.  Again, this research was done in 2011.

What about young people?  Another study, released in March of 2011, studied the role of electronics versus paper in the lives of “millennials,” age ranging from 16-26.  600 young adults participated, two hundred each from age brackets 16-18, 19-22, and 23-26, and an equal number of males and females.  To give an idea the kind of people that participated, 92% of them have a social media profile with around 400 friends, receive an average of 92 text messages and 24 emails each day.  They use technology.

The results?  78% prefer to read a paper book than a digital one, 71% prefer printed magazines, and 52% like newspapers to be on, you guessed it, paper.  87% would rather receive a birthday card in the mail than by email, 57%  prefer a mailed invitation over electronic, and 55% like handwritten letters over email.  89% say that even with the advances of technology in today’s society, they don’t see ever giving up the use of paper.

On college campuses, three out of four students say they have read their college newspaper at least once in the last month.  That number reaches 92% when the school publishes the paper each day.  Online versions only attract 18% of students.

Despite how digital our world seems to be going, people still prefer to read print.  Maybe there’s some kind of emotional attachment there, like Paul who said “When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments” (2 Timothy 4:13, ESV).  Let’s scratch where people itch.

Print holds people’s attention

Research indicates that when people read printed material they are less likely to engage in other activities at the same time than if they were reading the same content on an electronic medium.

Print is more trusted

The same research that was done with millennials in 2011 said that 88% see paper documents as more official than digital ones, and 82% trust printed material more.  If there’s any topic we need to gain people’s trust with, it’s that which influences their eternal salvation.

Readers of print remember more

A study in late 2010 wanted to find out if reader engagement toward news stories varied by media type, whether printed or online.  They share “The results reflect prior research that shows print subjects remembered more news stories than online subjects and suggest that the development of dynamic (multimedia) online story forms in the past decade have had little effect toward making them more impressionable than print stories.”  Another study, this one of undergraduate communication students, found that students recognized significantly more ad content from the print newspaper than the website viewers.

For some reason, people seem to remember more when they hold a printed copy in their hands to read it.  And after all, if we’re going through all the work to get content ready to share, we might as well have people remember as much of it as possible, right?

Printed literature can be distributed everywhere

When was the last time you bought an iPad or a Kindle so you could download Steps to Christ and leave it sitting on a perk bench?  Do you think someone would really read the book when they found it?  Okay, I know you’re not going to leave your e-reader out for the next guy on the bus to take, but there’s another (and I believe very strong) point to being able to leave literature (or hand out freely) like the “leaves of autumn.”

People don’t use the internet or technology to look up things they’re not interested in.  For example, when was the last time you looked up unicorns on Google?  Just in case you’ve looked it up recently, when did you last research what it would take to become an FAA-certified commercial hot-air ballon pilot?  Chances are you’ve never looked up either one.  Why?  They are not on the top of your interest list.

As I said above, people don’t search out things they aren’t interested in.  And so if we want to take people to the school of the Spirit, from sin to salvation, from crime to Calvary, we need to take the message to them where they don’t have to go looking for it.  At their door.  On the gas pump.  In that bill payment.  At the checkout register.  You name the place.  We’re looking for conversion through God’s Spirit, not clicks through Google’s search.  I’m not trying to rule out digital media, as I said, I’m a technologically-advanced person, and I’ve done online marketing.

It leaves no room for excuses

The facts don’t lie.  The truth is that one of the reasons we’ve been less successful in reaching people for Christ is that we’ve been proportionately lazy in following Christ’s leading.  God cannot bless a Bible study that isn’t given.  He can’t use a tract that doesn’t get distributed, he won’t use the books that sit on the shelves in storage at the church (if that’s all that ever happens with them).  The thing I like about literature is that you can see if it’s been passed out.  If you have a stack of 100 tracts today, next week there should be less than 100.  When the literature stares you in the face, the Holy Spirit can impress you to give it out.  Plain and simple, just like ink and paper.