One of the first post-Jesus earthquakes to rock the Christian world came in the mid-15th century, when Johannes Gutenberg, a German goldsmith, former soldier, and serial entrepreneur, used a novel invention—wooden letters that could be inked, replaced, and moved—to print a moveable type book. At 42 lines per page, and 180 copies in the first run, the Gutenberg Bible didn’t exactly seem like an instrument of spiritual revolution at first. But if you interrupted Martin Luther as he was nailing his 95 Theses to the door and asked him where he got the pages from; or inquired with one of the millions of newly literate commoners about how they learned to read; or checked in with the ladies and gentlemen who launched the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and the mass media, these folks would scratch their heads a bit and point back to Gutenberg. Not bad for a guy who lost his shorts to bankruptcy, and was once sued by a girlfriend for calling off his engagement.
The second Biblical revolution is—believe it or not—headquartered in Edmond, Oklahoma (pop. 83,000). That’s where a church called “LifeChurch.tv,” a young tech-savvy Christian by the name of Bobby Gruenewald, and his pastor, Craig Groeschel, are changing the way people read holy texts. It’s called YouVersion—“the Bible app”—and it’s coming soon to a smartphone near you.
Overstatement perhaps? You be the judge. Since Gruenewald, LifeChurch’s “innovation lead,” devised the Bible app in an airport security line in 2006, officially launched it in 2008, and relaunched with their first national television commercial last week, it’s been downloaded by 83 million unique devices. Four million new users are installing the app each month. The Bible app is in 215 languages, 450 different versions, and collectively users spend more than 3 billion minutes reading scripture on the app monthly. Hear that, Gutenberg?
So what does it do? Simple, really: the Bible app allows users—from curious readers to committed believers—to place the entire Bible on their tablets and smartphones, take notes, follow study plans, and hear it read aloud (Gruenewald likes to call this feature “the Bible reading to you.”) They’ve just launched a feature where Bible app aficionados can actually use the app to watch video clips from “The Bible Series” on the History Channel, from David slaying Goliath to Jesus on the cross.
But these straightforward features mask profound impacts for religious communities. According to Gruenewald, “The long term implications of the app—if we can see what we hope we can see—are a generation of the most biblically literate people in history. We don’t just want to stop the decline in Biblical literacy; we want to reverse it.”
Joel Hunter, a megachurch pastor in Orlando, Florida, and user of the Bible app, agrees, noting that the app allows scripture to be carried into “on the spot” meetings and conversations. “Most of us are preparing for the next conversation in the cab on the way to it, or the hallway outside the room, or are looking up Biblical resources in the meeting itself. YouVersion has been a significant help in this regard.”
Randy Bohlender, a minister and adoption advocate from Kansas City, sees ramifications for missionary work around the world. “I have friends who used to sneak Bibles into closed societies in Eastern Europe and Asia. Now, you’re sneaking in a download, which is a lot less dangerous.”
And the Bible app even appears to be creating new religious communities of sorts. Kacia Hosmer, Raechel Myers, and Jessi Connolly had never meet each other in real life, but started doing reading plans on the Bible app together. Now they’re leading a network of thousands of women reading scripture on the app: www.shereadstruth.com.
At 83 million users and counting, the Bible app doesn’t have many problems with early adoption, but there are still some growing pains. For instance, some pastors frown on church members pulling out brightly lit smartphones in the middle of worship service, perhaps wondering if email and Twitter will slip in between scripture reading. Gruenewald chalks it up to the early phases of any budding revolution. “Any transition where things have been the same for 535 years will involve some awkwardness, where people are unsure if it’s appropriate. We’ve seen it grow from the ground up, with early adopters bringing other people, including their pastors, along.”
Some key questions remain unanswered. Will other religious communities embrace widely used apps? (Torah and Quran apps exist, but with far fewer users.) Will people of faith, in a hyper-individualized world, retreat into their apps, instead of interacting with other believers and the world?
Gruenewald doesn’t think so. “The future of the Bible app is helping folks moving from a personalized reading experience to reading in an online network of trusted relationships, limited in size. You’ll be able to dialogue, share ideas, discuss what you’re learning in church and small group, right from the app. We think that’s where our feature set is moving.”
Like Facebook, for the Bible? “Yeah,” Gruenewald says, “but with more privacy—Facebook is great but not necessarily the place for thoughtful conversations on scripture.”
So the Gutenberg revolution has come home to Oklahoma, with the potential to change the way we worship and interact on social networks, in life and online. Watch out Mark Zuckerberg—according to nearly 90 million believers, there’s a (Bible) app for that.
Joshua DuBois was President Obama’s first director of the White House faith-based initiative. He is now an author, teacher, and speaker, and CEO of Values Partnerships. Follow him on Twitter: @JoshuaDuBois.