2022 marked the 140th anniversary of the International Bible Reading Association (IBRA). Its CEO, Zoe Keens, speaks to Christian Today about how people have been sustained by the Word of God through good times and bad.
CT: You've been going for 140 years. What was the founding vision and is it still the same today?
ZK: IBRA was started in 1882 by Charles Waters, a bank manager and a member of the National Sunday School Union, who was passionate about education through the Bible. He came up with the concept of charging members a small fee in return for receiving monthly pocket-sized hints and tips. They were only about A6 or A7 in size but they contained a portion of Scripture and a short explanation of what it meant and how to apply it to their lives.
They were sent all around the world and by the time the organisation was celebrating its 25th anniversary in 1907, it had around 950,000 members in 83 countries and was being translated into 40 languages.
The founding ethos was for UK readers to pay a little extra to support the international partners who were based all around the world, translating, printing and distributing the notes locally. Today, we have 15 partners in 13 countries following this very same model, locally translating, printing and distributing our annual daily Bible reading book, Fresh From the Word, funded by UK readers. So it was a major international work back then and it still is today.
CT: IBRA has survived two World Wars, a pandemic, numerous tough financial climates and various other challenges. What do you think has kept IBRA going all these years?
ZK: I think it's the relevance. We work very hard to make the notes relevant to people's daily scenarios and there are so many wonderful stories from the archives of the part that the little books have played in people's lives. At the 25th anniversary in 1907, they collected stories from members and there was a lovely story of a policeman who said that he would take his book of hints and tips with him on his beat and when it was dark he would find a lamp and stand under it and just receive God as his light. We might not be standing under a streetlamp today but we've definitely got police officers finding strength and solace in these notes in the same way he was over a hundred years ago.
There are also wonderful stories of the Bible reading notes being sent to the trenches in the First World War. People wrote in to share their stories and it was the wives who were sending the little pocket readings out to their loved ones in the trenches and the soldiers were having Bible studies together there.
When we were moving buildings, we found an envelope full of letters from our Chinese partners and it was the first letters they'd got out of China after the war that brought in communism. They were talking about how they'd survived and managed to keep getting the Word out to people even though they themselves were eating rats and selling their own clothes. They were just extraordinarily committed to the mission of spreading the word of God.
And in Charles Waters' biography, there is the charming story of a woman in the Wild West of America who had a reputation for being untameable. The Bible reading notes made it all the way out there and into her hands and the local pastor was terrified when she turned up at his door. But it was because she wanted to know more about it and she ended up being totally reformed and becoming an international partner in the Wild West, setting up Bible reading groups.
It's a testament to the enduring power of God's Word. When the Word of God breathes, then everything is possible. And we are still hearing beautiful stories today from people who write in to tell us about the impact that the daily readings have made.
CT: Did you find that to be the case during the pandemic?
ZK: Yes, definitely. During the pandemic we ran a buy one get one free initiative inviting people to buy one copy of Fresh From the Word and give the free one to a friend. We heard lovely stories of people giving the free copy to their friend and then reading it together. It was just a wonderful touch point during the day where they got together to read the Word of God.
Our readership is very international and we have a large number of readers in Fiji, Samoa and Kiribati, and I love the thought that someone there might be sitting with their feet in the sand or in the shade of a palm tree reading the Bible notes at the exact same time as someone in London who's just come home off the Tube.
CT: Do you think Bible engagement has changed over the years?
ZK: Yes, I think life has gotten busier. There are so many calls on our time and so much noise. It's become more difficult to etch out time so it's become much more important to make a conscious decision to invest that time for God every day and take that time to reflect, pray, read and set ourselves up for the day. Personally I read first thing in the morning because I know that by the time I get out of bed with all my good intentions, it won't happen. And for me, reading these notes is the starting point of my day. The way that we receive information has obviously changed and now we can access everything through our mobile devices so we will be developing our online service.
CT: What's unique about Fresh From the Word?
ZK: We have a team of about 50 writers who are based all over the world and who each write a week of notes according to a different theme or Bible passages, and the unique element is that every writer is looking at the Word from their own cultural perspective. It's amazing to see how regardless of where the different writers are, be it Fiji or New Zealand or India or Africa, the same Word is applicable to each one and to all of our readers reading it in their own geographical locations. It's the same God and He is the same yesterday, today and forever.
Today we have nearly a million readers and users of our Bible reading resources across the various languages and it really is a huge privilege. We still work in the same way and I feel that we're carrying the baton 'for such a time as this', to quote Esther's words. We really feel that sense of having to do our bit in this time and see the organisation into its next 140 years.
CT: We've had a tough 2022 coming out of the pandemic, a cost of living crisis and the war in Ukraine. With many of these challenges likely to stick with us in the coming year, what do you hope people get out of the 2023 edition?
ZK: I really hope and pray that people get the sense that God is bigger than all of it and when everything is pressing hard around us that we can take stock and be still and know that God is with us in it. It's a real challenge but that's our message to everybody, that wherever you are, whoever you are, God knows all about it.
Fresh From the Word 2023 is available to order online priced £12.99.