September 28th, 2012
09:35 AM ET
By Jessica Ravitz, CNN
(CNN) - Onlookers might think you're checking stocks, watching clips of "Honey Boo Boo" or reading news out of Libya. But on the subway, in the doctor’s office, under a beach cabana – with the right gadget, God’s word can be with you.
Making the Bible accessible and shareable is what YouVersion’s Bible app is all about. About 300 versions of the Bible can be downloaded for free to smartphones and tablets, allowing people speaking 144 different languages to get their fix of Scripture.
“A lot of people in the U.S. have six or seven Bibles in the house and never use them,” says Bobby Gruenewald, 36, the man behind this mobile Christian mission. “Our goal was to help people engage with the Bible.”
If numbers are any indication, mission accomplished.
The app, also available at Bible.com, has been downloaded 65 million times and counting, Gruenewald says. Users can highlight verses, do searches and read devotionals.
If they see something they want to share, enter social media tools. They can sign up for daily reading plans (9 million have subscribed to this free tool so far), earn badges of recognition for meeting goals and bookmark their virtual good books.
As of Thursday morning, a running tally on Bible.com showed that since the app’s 2008 inception, users have spent more than 31.5 billion – yes, billion – minutes using it to read the Bible.
The same tally showed that by Thursday morning, 620 Bible searches had been completed so far that day in Malaysia, 93 chapters had been listened to in Jordan, and Bible versions or translations had been "switched," or compared, a whopping 6,706 times in South Africa.
Each day, with YouVersion's help, thousands on Twitter share biblical love. “Direct my footsteps according to your word; let no sin rule over me,” Evette Elbrecht typed recently.
“I just finished day 73 of the Come Drink Live 365 Bible reading plan from @YouVersion,” boasted newdave.
The app means that gone are the days when peering down at a phone while in the pews is a no-no.
At a recent Fort Worth, Texas, church service, 31-year-old Bruce Turner marveled at how times have changed. He remembers once spotting a pastor looking at his phone and thinking to himself, "He can't do that in church. He can't do that. And now I look back and think, I am doing that. People are doing that. ... It is common now."
Beyond church, the app comes in handy for Paige Johnston, 22.
"I love the real thing. I love having the real Bible with me," she said. "But you can't necessarily bring it everywhere. My purse is only so big."
Congregants said the app has allowed them to go deeper, feel more connected and better able to apply the Bible's teachings to their lives.
This summer, Appsfire recognized the Bible App, ranking it No. 3 for the iPad and No. 9 for the iPhone in the non-game category.
The success exceeds what Gruenewald, an entrepreneur who once ran a professional wrestling website, ever thought possible. Since 2001, he’s been a pastor, and the force behind technological developments at the Edmond, Oklahoma, headquarters of LifeChurch.tv.
The global Christian church community reaches tens of thousands of people each weekend by way of Church Online and in 15 U.S. locations, primarily in Oklahoma but also elsewhere - including the Fort Worth service CNN visited.
More than 100,000 pastors and church leaders use their free resources, including videos to teach children, graphics and outlines for sermons, Gruenewald said.
Gruenewald came up with the idea of using technology to change Bible engagement in 2006, when blogging was new, as he stood in a security line at Chicago O’Hare International Airport. By the time he got to his gate, he’d registered the domain name of YouVersion.
Early attempts to make inroads had some success. But it wasn’t until the spring of 2008, when Apple invited developers to make apps for the iPhone, that his team really took off. When Apple's app store launched in July 2008, the Bible app was among the first 200 apps offered. Gruenewald said he was hoping they’d get 80,000 downloads by the end of the year. The first weekend, it was downloaded by 83,000 people.
“What was a side project on Friday became someone’s full-time job on Monday,” said Gruenewald, who now has more than 20 full-time employees, as well as several hundred volunteers providing tech support in a multitude of languages.
He and his team are now looking ahead and thinking bigger. They've helped people personalize their Bible experience, but next they want to help them socialize it by building communities and conversations. They also want to find ways to give children, who can't yet read but can benefit from technology, better access to the Bible.
Right now, some 65 million people are using this app to connect with Christian teachings. Gruenewald hopes some day that number will soar to the hundreds of millions.
CNN's Dan Merica contributed to this story.
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