A HUNGER to understand the Bible more deeply has driven the phenomenon of devotional writing over the years, and the reading of dated daily materials, focused on the Bible and written by a single author, has become, for many Christians, an important part of their faith.
The Bible Reading Fellowship (BRF) first published its notes in the 1920s; CWR’s guides first appeared in the 1960s. Although the heyday of this type of devotional reading seems to have passed, two million notes are still printed annually in the UK by the three largest publishers, attesting to the continuing desire for this type of Christian resource.
All three of these organisations had humble beginnings. In 1922, Canon Leslie Mannering, wanting to help his congregation to “get a move on spiritually”, wrote Bible-reading notes; his work developed into the BRF. In the United States, in 1938, a regular radio programme about the Bible, and the notes that accompanied it, eventually grew into Our Daily Bread Ministries, which now has 37 offices worldwide.
And, in 1965, a pastor in London, Selwyn Hughes, began writing brief notes printed on simple postcards for the members of his congregation; this was the beginning of CWR. Each movement grew out of an individual’s passionate desire to help people engage with the Bible daily, and so enable them to grow in their Christian faith.
NOT only did people use dated Bible-reading notes, but publishers began also to produce volumes of commentary and devotional works, written by prominent Christians. Tony Collins, a publishing veteran who is editor-at-large at SPCK, sees the kernel for this trend in the hunger for engaging with Bible commentaries.
Rawpixel Ltd/AlamyNew media: in the beginning is the laptop“Volumes of Bible commentary were in vogue by the early 1970s, with William Barclay’s Daily Study Bible: a hugely popular series, and a precursor to Tom Wright’s For Everyone series,” he says.
Mr Collins came across the idea for one-year daily readings “when I was working — back in the 1970s — for Edward England, at Hodder, where he published Through the Year with William Barclay, Each New Day with William Barclay, Through the Year with Cardinal Heenan, etc.”
England was a visionary publisher, responsible for many Christian best-sellers at Hodder; when he died, in 2010, The Times said that he “dominated British Christian publishing in the second half of the 20th century”.
The popularity of these volumes continues today, whether through historical approaches — for example, those featuring the work of William and Catherine Booth, John Wesley, and John Stott — or through contemporary writers such as Joyce Meyer, Brian McLaren, Tim Keller, Jennifer Rees Larcombe, Catherine Campbell, Simon Guillebaud (with his award-winning Choose Life), or Angus Buchan.
Indeed, the modern reader enjoys a plethora of approaches, as the head of sales, finance and operations at BRF, Karen Laister, observes. “One of the changes during the past couple of decades is the choice of resources that are available to [those who want to] read the Bible and spend time with God. Most Bible-reading-notes agencies have several series that are aimed at specific audiences and needs. There are many other resources available, from One Year Bibles, undated series, and other ways to engage with the Bible daily.”
THOSE who prefer to follow the lectionary may wonder what is behind this movement. A key component is the relationship between the reader and the writer, and the strong sense of trust and empathy between the two. As Mr Collins says, “The critical factor is that you have to have someone whom people esteem, and want to be with, whose presence warms you.”
The director of publishing and ministry at CWR, Lynette Brooks, concurs. She highlights the special relationship that readers had with Selwyn Hughes, and the weight of the responsibility he felt. “He wrote Every Day with Jesus for over 40 years, and saw it as his prime calling, giving his best hours of the day to writing it, and refusing other commitments to guard that time.”
Some of the letters from readers attest to the strong bond: “Selwyn Hughes was like a spiritual father to me. Each morning his inspired and anointed writings . . . helped to unravel the mysteries of scripture and lead me into the presence of God.” And “Before I became a Christian, Selwyn’s writings encouraged me. When I became a Christian, his work helped me deepen my understanding. . . Even though we never met in person, I consider him an important mentor.”
CWR, used with permissionDaily bread: Bible-reading notes showing the growth of Every Day with Jesus from postcards to a bi-monthy periodicalANOTHER who has influenced millions through his devotional writing is Oswald Chambers, although he died before any of his books were published. His wife was a stenographer who took down his talks, word for word, throughout his short life. (He died of appendicitis in Egypt during the First World War, at the age of 43.)
After his death, she compiled more than 30 books from his talks, including the bestselling My Utmost for His Highest, which has been continuously in print since it was first published in 1927. Still, today, tens of thousands of people read the daily entry, whether via an email, app, or through their printed copy.
A book celebrating its influence on the lives of contemporary Christians has just been released: Utmost Ongoing, in which 30 people reveal how the words of a Scottish man who died a century ago have affected their journey of faith.
Ms Laister reflects on the relationship between author and reader that can develop through a shared crisis: “Rachel Boulding [a former CT deputy editor] wrote the Bible-reading notes out of her experience of battling with cancer. Her honesty and biblical reflections spoke to our readers, and we received a large number of very moving letters. This led to us publishing Facing Death, which we hope will be a source of help to those who are going through Rachel’s experience.”
Katherine Venn, of Hodder Faith, knew how popular one-volume devotional books were “with readers of authors like Joyce Meyer, for example. But even we were surprised by just how well Tim Keller’s devotional did, a couple of years back. . . It makes an author like Tim more accessible to the more casual reader, who might not want to read 336 pages on prayer, but would love to be taught by him — a little every day — how to pray.”
“I think readers are interested in following the path of experienced preachers,” the managing director of Lion Hudson, Suzanne Wilson-Higgins, says. “I am working through . . . daily devotionals with [A. W.] Tozer right now, and have worked through Stott, and Guillebaud. For me, it is about discerning wisdom from the commentator, sometimes on familiar texts which simply open up with a fresh reading.”
THE hardest people to reach with this type of resource are those in their twenties and thirties. Publishers are developing their digital platforms in the hope of reaching this generation. As Ms Laister comments, “Digital media provides publishers with a platform for those who use e-reader devices.
“Our Bible-reading notes are available as apps, and [are] enjoyed by those who travel, or prefer receiving them in this format. Social media plays a part in reaching readers, and enabling contributors to engage with their readers.”
Ms Laister also acknowledges the many ways in which people can engage with Bible resources today, whereas, in the past, the printed daily reading was the only alternative.
“If we see a decline in people using Bible-reading notes, it may not necessarily be negative, [nor] an indicator that people are not reading the Bible regularly. . .
“The choice of resources available to read the Bible is much greater, and not just restricted to print editions.”
THE number of ways in which people gain access to these devotional materials makes it difficult to quantify who is reading what.
James Au/AlamyReady to read: Bible and journalWhile fewer people in their twenties and thirties may be reading them, publishers find that many return to these resources when they have children, as they want to pass down their Christian faith.
As I acknowledge in Utmost Ongoing, during a time of deep need in my twenties, I found a spiritual mentor in Chambers through reading My Utmost for His Highest. Now I have the privilege of writing devotional material myself, whether for Our Daily Bread, New Daylight, Inspiring Women Every Day, or Living Light.
The discipline of having to keep to a short word-count, while trying not only to explore the Bible but to apply it to our lives, is a challenge to relish. The most heartening letters I receive are those where God has touched a reader through something I’ve written, which has been edited and produced by a wise and hard-working team — often a year before eventual publication.
Amy Boucher Pye is the author of Finding Myself in Britain and The Living Cross. amyboucherpye.com
Utmost Ongoing: Reflections on the legacy of Oswald Chambers is published by Discovery House at £11. My Story by Selwyn Hughes is published by CWR at £9.99 (CT Bookshop £9).
Impact by sales
BRF: more than 50,000 printed daily Bible-reading resources three times a year, plus translations and digital.
CWR: 175,000 printed daily Bible-reading resources every two months, plus translations and digital.
Our Daily Bread Ministries:
• In the UK, 190,000 printed copies of Our Daily Bread (ODB), and 11,000 of Our Daily Journey each quarter.
• In the UK, 50,000 ODB app users, and 12,500 daily emails.
• Worldwide, 13 million copies of ODB in 55 languages every three months with over 60 million editions in print.
• Worldwide, three million downloads of ODB; 1 million visits to the website each month; 250,000 ODB email subscribers; 3 million ODB Facebook followers.
My Utmost for His Highest by Oswald Chambers
•13 million copies sold worldwide.
•330,000 Facebook followers; 21,000 email subscribers; 47,000 users of the app.
Letters from readers
“TODAY’s devotional, ‘Life and Death’, was just perfect for my family. Five months ago today, my nephew died of a brain aneurysm. My family sat around his bedside as he took his last breath. There was rejoicing at that moment, as they realised he had just seen Jesus face to face. Today would have been his 37th birthday. I sent the devotional link to my sister, and she could hardly believe it, as she felt the devotional was written just for their family today.” (Our Daily Bread)
“I’VE been reading Bible-reading notes since I was confirmed as a teenager. I drifted away in my twenties, and one day woke up to the fact that I missed them. I would feel lost now without that routine of starting the day with New Daylight, and using the day’s notes as a prompt for prayer. It’s uncanny how often the writer’s reflections link with something I’ve been wrestling with, or to what might be going on in my life.”
“INSPIRING Women Every Day spoke to me in a way that I was not expecting, and I hope and pray that it has enabled me to grow and mature and become more like Jesus. The thing that amazes me is that God knows, when authors are writing these words, what will have gone on in my life, what I will need for that day, for these words to be so relevant, to heal, to challenge, to show me that he is alive
and knows my every need, even though the notes are written some months before.”