My Take: How technology could bring down the church
May 15th, 2011
01:00 AM ET

My Take: How technology could bring down the church

Editor's Note: Lisa Miller, formerly the religion editor at Newsweek, is the author of “Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination with the Afterlife,” recently released in paperback.

By Lisa Miller, Special to CNN

This year marks the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible, and Bible publishers are ostentatiously commemorating the landmark by producing an abundance of gorgeous doorstops. Leather bound Bibles. Two-volume sets. Replicas of the 1611 version complete with “original” illustrations.

The hoopla is entirely justified, since the King James Bible revolutionized Bible reading, bringing Scripture into a common vernacular for the first time for the English-speaking world.

It is not too much to say that the King James Bible - mass produced as it was, thanks to a new technology called the printing press - democratized religion by taking it out of the hands of the clerical few and giving it to the many.

Today, another revolution in Bible reading is underway – one that has nothing to do with gilt-edged paper. If the King James Bible brought the Bible to the English-speaking masses, today’s technology goes a giant step further, making Scripture - in any language and any translation - accessible to anyone on earth with a smartphone.

Just like the 500-year-old Protestant Reformation, which was aided by the advent of the printing press and which helped give birth to the King James Bible, changes wrought by new technology have the potential to bring down the church as we know it.

In the face of church leaders who claimed that only they could interpret the Bible for the common people, Reformation leaders like Martin Luther taught that nothing supersedes the authority of the Word itself.

"A simple layman armed with Scripture,” Luther wrote, “is greater than the mightiest pope without it."

In that vein, digital technology gives users the text, plain and simple, without the interpretive lens of established authorities. And it lets users share interpretations with other non-authorities, like family members, friends and coworkers.

With Scripture on iPhones and iPads, believers can bypass constraining religious structures - otherwise known as “church” - in favor of a more individual connection with God.

This helps solve a problem that Christian leaders are increasingly articulating: that even among people who say that Jesus Christ is their personal Lord and savior, folks don’t read the Bible.

According to a 2010 survey, more than a third of born-again Christians “rarely or never” read the Bible. Among “unaffiliated” people - that is, Americans who don’t belong to a religious congregation - more than two thirds say they don’t read the Bible.

Especially among 18-to-29 year olds, Bible reading has come to feel like homework, associated with “right” interpretations and “wrong ones,” and accompanied by stern lectures from the pulpit.

Young Christians “have come to expect experiences that appear unscripted and interactive,” the Christian demographer Dave Kinnaman told the Christian magazine Charisma in 2009, “that allow them to be open and honest with their questions, that are technologically stimulating, that are done alongside peers and within trusted relationships.”

This yearning for a more unmediated faith - including Bible verses live in your pocket or purse 24/7, available to inspire or console wherever and whenever they’re needed - has met an enthusiastic embrace.

For growing numbers of young people, a leather-bound Bible sitting like an artifact on a stand in the family living room has no allure. It’s not an invitation to exploration or questioning.

Young people want to “consume” their spirituality the way they do their news or their music. They want to dip and dabble, the way they browse Facebook.

Thus the almost-insane popularity of Youversion, a digital Bible available for free on iTunes and developed by a 34-year-old technology buff and Christian pastor from Oklahoma named Bobby Gruenewald. He conceived of it, he told me, while on a layover at Chicago O'Hare International Airport, wishing he had a Bible to read.

“What we’re really trying to address is, how do we increase engagement in the Bible?” he said.

Now available in 113 versions and 41 languages, including Arabic, Youversion has a community component that allows users to share thoughts and insights on Bible verses with friends. It has been installed on more than 20 million smartphones since 2008.

On May 2, Youversion staged its own King James commemorative event: for 400 seconds, starting at noon, more than 10,0000 users logged on and read a portion of the Bible – King James translation, of course - a kind of 21st century Bible-reading flash mob.

Traditionalists worry that technology allows young believers to practice religion without committing to what in the south is called “a church home” - and they’re right.

I did a public Q&A with Michigan pastor Rob Bell on the eve of the publication of his new bestseller "Love Wins" and was astonished, during the book-signing that followed, at how many acolytes felt they knew Rob through his sermons, which they regularly downloaded off the internet, even though they had never met him. They hailed from places like Australia, South Africa and New Jersey.

They listen to Bell while they’re working out, or commuting to work. They get their religion - like their meals - on the run.

It is now possible to imagine the extinction of the family Bible, long given as a gift on graduation day or other big occasions and inscribed with special dates: births, marriages, deaths.

Instead, the Bible may someday exist exclusively online, with features that allow for personalization: Link to photos of weddings and baptisms! “Share” favorite verses!

When Bible study can be done on Facebook as easily as in the church basement, and a favorite preacher can teach lessons via podcast, the necessity of physically gathering each week in the same place with the same people turns remote.

Without a doubt, this represents a new crisis for organized religion, a challenge to think again about what it means to be a “body” of believers.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Lisa Miller.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Bible • Christianity • Opinion • Technology

soundoff (1,564 Responses)
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    January 3, 2014 at 10:07 am |
  2. Oakley

    Hi Suzanne...I've found you again via the Preacher's Wife. My blog used to be Quantum Leap. Anyhooo...our church does a Harvest Carnival, and I think that's fine. But my kids love, love, love our nebhgiorhood at trick or treat time, and there are so few years that they can do this, that I want to let them. We'll help out with the carnival in years to come. We donated a bag of candy. Sometimes, the best ministry you can have is one in your own nebhgiorhood.

    August 1, 2012 at 12:58 am |
  3. Virgo

    Dear Friends,You did a great job of sharing thrugoh the pictures. It was so refreshing to see as we spent six years in Ghana. I worked with the ELCG developing a Theological Education by Extension Program. Most pastors and evangelists put their hearts and souls into this work.God's peace and joy,Dalton

    August 1, 2012 at 12:30 am |
  4. Studiotecnico

    Sounds full, awe-inspiring, romantic, and just genlearly incredible! I'm glad you got time away with your man (and a little jealous!) and I trust you came away with renewed strength and enthusiasm in your vision. Sounds like you did.

    July 29, 2012 at 9:55 pm |
  5. Ravindra

    I know it is a consonant, but apart from that, even if it were a vowel would that cnhage the pronunciation dramatically? You say its pronunciation is taught in ancient texts, then why isnt everybody using that sound? I mean with all those rabbis there, shouldnt it have become a common fact? By the way, it think its a lovely sound, plus in some of your vids you read from the Tenach, it sounds awesome. I also heard some muslims claim that the jews borrowed' it from the Arabs. Thanks!!

    July 29, 2012 at 1:25 pm |
  6. good afternoon comment

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    June 18, 2011 at 10:07 am |
  7. DB

    There are many of us older folks who want little to do with "organized" religion ourselves. While I may not read the Bible every ay, I do write a blog that examines verses by going back to the original Greek or Hebrew. Besides, a more personal relationship with God is what He wanted all along – so this revolution is a good thing!

    June 6, 2011 at 1:17 pm |
  8. RightturnClyde

    I actually find it more worrisome that we have ceased to BE a nation of readers. We have become a nation of passive watchers (often watching some program as "white noise" while we DO something else). Those who text on cell phones do not use words .. they use abbreviations .. poor communication and very poor receiving skills. Reading (well) made our nation strong (not weapons). If we could read we could become engineers, accountants, doctors, pilots, astronauts, investors, analysts, shrinks, preachers, actors, writers or barristers. Reading often began with a bible and in a Christian church school (public schools were not common place in 1899 .. mainly private church schools) Hundreds of millions became excellent readers and could fit in to any enterprise, college, training program. We succeeded in putting human beings on the moon and getting them back! (because we could read). Now we have declining literacy . failing schools .. cryptic text bytes .. passive watching, passive receiving .. poor thought processes (words are thought symbols). The "dumbing down" process is largely the decline of reading. It is a disturbing and dangerous trend

    June 5, 2011 at 1:05 am |
  9. Claude Lunsford

    Its not the technology which is loosing followers of Jesus Christ its turning the backs or falling away.Preach for money not for GOD. its all about hire for money.Young people cannot afford the money we have lost our young people and in turn they are falling out or have given up.Then over a period of time the church dies off.They found that evolution is cheaper after all its free ,its taught in school.They are tought they are from animals they live and they die and thats all that is to it.And we are at fault not the government we allow it to be that way.I state this with love.The adults are asleep wake up and smell the flowers that GOD created.

    May 28, 2011 at 3:33 pm |
    • RightturnClyde

      Churches DID lose young people. They took them for granted (since they did not donate checks). They regarded children as non-beings. When the children grew up they regarded churches as non-beings. Churches (and religions) have been the greatest enemy to the Christian faith. They have been dogmatic (even when WRONG) .. closed minded .. intractable. The young people decided they can get along without them. They have been doing so. Churches blew it.

      June 5, 2011 at 1:08 am |
  10. Claude Lunsford

    I was talking to a person if he went to church and he stated all they want is your money.You got to give your money to read books about GOD,I mean like thirty dollars and more and the same for a dvd or like if you could give 1,000 or more to keep on the air.He and I both think we are better off stay at home and read the Bible and study it.I think if you are born with the new sperit of GOD you will understand the Bible without the loss of great somes of money.After they sell so many dvds it becomes 100% profit and they never lower the price so can obtain one.For this is wrong,it states in the Bible that this would happen preachers for money to learn about everyones GOD.They forgot one thing JESUS never forced money from you to hear the wordof salvation Im a follower of JESUS CHRIST OUR LORD He is the way.Im not a so called Christian just .a follower.They can buy books which has nothing to do with the word of GOD five or six dollars.I can buy a paperback even for less.GOD bless all followers JESUS CHRIST our LORD.

    May 28, 2011 at 2:40 pm |
  11. big bill

    When Luther split from the Catholic church he caused more problems for christianity Then all the other off shoots. There were abuses by the Church but also by Luther. All I know is I believe in God the Father Creator of Heaven and Earth I believe in Jesus Christ his only son who was begotten of the Father not made I believe in the Holy Spirit the creator of life who with the Father and Son are worshiped and Glorified I believe in ............. in one Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church........ amen Read the nicaean creed we were all Catholic then. I will say you dont have to be Catholic to be saved But I tend to want to stay with the original. I have many non-catholic friends Iove them dearly and I have no doubt that I will see them in heaven because they are great Christians!! And as Jesus said anyone who is with us cannot be against us. A kingdom divided falls So all Christians need to stop pointing fingers at each other and say that they arenot saved and blah blah blah! We need to band together and pray for each other and fight the real enemy... satan! God Bless all~

    May 28, 2011 at 1:15 pm |
    • RightturnClyde

      The Nicene creed (Nicea is where it was drafted). The creed is accepted by most major Christian denominations (Methodist, Lutheran, Episcopal, Roman Catholic, Eastern rites) but it is not often taught (because it is not understood). You do not need to be Roman Catholic to be saved, but you do need to believe in the tenets (the creed) that Jesus instructed the Apostles to teach (and baptize). The Baptismal questions are actually the creed. In 1963 the council called Vatican II talked about everybody getting to be one Christian church ... but NONE of them could agree on doing it (they prefer being fractured up).

      June 5, 2011 at 1:18 am |
  12. God fearing believer

    In my humble opinion, i believe its just a good idea to have a close , personal relationship with GOD, where you faithfully pray to him often. And have an actual Holy Bible very close by so there is no confusion to whom you are praying to.

    May 28, 2011 at 1:15 am |
    • RightturnClyde

      Nobody can disagree with that .. it is correct.

      June 5, 2011 at 1:19 am |
  13. Christopher H Lee

    Some fiction uses facts to create a more believable worldscape. Some fiction presents explanations for past happenings. Some fiction is allegory – meant to teach a message. Some fiction presents itself as truth but it's not. Some fiction is intended to make people behave in a certain way. Some fiction tells people they must beliieve it in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. The bible is all of these. Unfortunately, a whole lot of people can't tell the difference between fact and fiction.

    May 23, 2011 at 11:21 am |
    • Chuck

      Thanks for revealing the truth so that we all can finally know the real, real, real, real truth. How long have you studied the bible? And where can I buy a copy of your book that proves the bible is fiction? Maybe you can bring your superior intellect to bear on the second law of thermodynamics and explian why evolutionary theory can be it's exact oppostie and still be regarded as an "obvious fact".

      May 27, 2011 at 2:17 am |
    • RightturnClyde

      Te New York Times is one of those but unfortunately too many people believe it and regard it as deity. what can we do. Masses of people are a lot like (cows?) They deserve it.

      June 5, 2011 at 1:21 am |
  14. Robin Smith

    "In that vein, digital technology gives users the text, plain and simple, without the interpretive lens of established authorities. And it lets users share interpretations with other non-authorities, like family members, friends and coworkers." And my response: ANY Bible translation does this – and access to Bibles is not controlled, at least not in Western democracies – this has nothing to do with a digital revolution. What is not available to those who lack access to education is the text in the original languages – all translations are, inescapably, interpretations at the outset. And a lot of mis-interpretations are generated by lack of access to the Greek or Hebrew – such as today's "rapture" nonsense, based an a misunderstanding of the Greek and the original setting/culture in which the relevant texts were first written.

    May 20, 2011 at 7:37 pm |
    • Justin Time

      Good comment Robin. Unfortunately I have not studied Hebrew or Aramaic but I have the Greek. Usually when I am reading in the New Testament I not only keep a Greek/English (English/Greek) dictionary beside me but I have the Greek texts well within reach as well. Many would be surprised by how the various versions translate in to English.

      June 6, 2011 at 10:35 pm |
  15. TJ

    At least try to get the facts right. The King James was NOT the first English Bible, not even the first widely distributed English Bible. It followed the Wycliff translation from 200 years earlier, along with Tyndale, the "Great Bible" and especially the Geneva Bible.

    May 20, 2011 at 7:00 pm |
  16. Chris

    Rather than 'bring down the church', technology is as you say a means to spread the good news to the farthest corner of the globe and into homes where previously the scriptures were banned.
    Remember that 'the church' is not the building or the particular format that each group carries out, but it is the world wide body of believers which is growing by the thousands every day.
    Communism tried to kill it, but when communism crumbled it was found that the 'church' that body of believers had grown stronger under persecution.
    The biggest threat to Christianity is the western world who have neglected their faith and replaced it with things that affluence has brought. The desire to live as if they can do what they like and to whomever they like.
    When we forget our Creator and start to worship the created, then that society is on the road to destruction.
    Praise God for any technology that opens the Word to the world.

    May 20, 2011 at 1:58 am |
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    May 19, 2011 at 5:06 pm |
    • Cristian

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      July 30, 2012 at 12:35 am |
  18. Edward Joseph Gavril

    You don't need a smartphone to access the King James Bible from an airport - even the simplest, most inexpensive mobile cell phone with Internet access will do. You can access without any advertising both the King James Bible and the Jewish Bible both in English at any airport in the world from the following domain names: AIRPORTBIBLE.COM AND JEWISH.AIRPORTBIBLE.COM

    May 19, 2011 at 8:03 am |
  19. Jozua .

    Share my search for future understanding that goes beyond religion without attacking it. Combine up to date scientific knowledge, even past the Big Bang, with the feeling mind and enjoy your one short Life, Free. http://www.trustlife.org.

    May 18, 2011 at 11:26 pm |
  20. Stupid


    Be careful believing anything until you have traced the info back to its original source. Many newspaper articles from well respected news companies have been found to be falsified, many research ournal articles are stretched for the truth that supports the companies funding the research. Do your own research, learn Greek, Hebrew, or whatever when you are confused by something in the Bible, many times it is the telephone game effect of lost in translation.

    May 18, 2011 at 4:44 pm |
    • Che

      Christians are in Christians are in denial of that fact that they are hapcoriticyl, intellectually dishonest idiots. The irrefutable fact that they do not know the bible nearly as much as they should nor obey like they should is something that they do not want to admit.

      July 29, 2012 at 9:01 am |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.