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)
  1. government spy

    Funny how many so-called Christians vote republican. it's important to deny women the right to control their own bodies, to choose for themselves if they need an abortion, or to deny lovers the right to marry whom they wish. They claim the "bible" tells them these things. But when the Republicans want to deny the poor welfare and social security, where is the bible then? These so-called "Christians" don't seem very Christ-like when they are asked to help the poor and needy then.

    May 15, 2011 at 9:36 am |
    • AttnMustBePaid

      i think the bible also mentions something about not killing. that probably would include waving a flag to celebrate killing as well.

      May 15, 2011 at 9:55 am |
  2. K

    I attend a church that has always emphasized personal study and interpretation of the scriptures and has had an online version of the scriptures for a long time. The effect is exactly the opposite of what is described here. It has only enhanced the membership experience and made its members more engaged in a church that requires its members to have a personal conviction instead of just believing what a minister tells them. Church attendance shouldn't be about going to a preacher to get the right answers (frankly that idea is somewhat medieval) but instead it is an opportunity to share your religion in a community of believers and worship together. I don't think having an online Bible is quite the revolution that the author thinks it is, but I guess it makes for a catchy headline.

    May 15, 2011 at 9:35 am |
  3. BL

    Good riddance to the whole Fairy Tale Fantasy Land!

    May 15, 2011 at 9:35 am |
  4. timfromfl

    Ummmmmm... you guys should be reading The origin of species on your iPhone and consuming fact based scientific knowledge, I love when churches embrace science with a sense of irony

    May 15, 2011 at 9:35 am |
  5. icedawg

    Not hardly. The Church exists because it is the body of Christ, a work of the Holy Spirit. The Church, yes, with all of its warts, is a divine Creation, with or without technology. The Church is a community which is a reflection of the God who has created it. The faithful know that they need to be in community, face to face. Read Bonhoeffer's book, "Life Together."

    May 15, 2011 at 9:34 am |
  6. kyle

    This is stupid. Nothing can ultimately replace meeting with other real people, real time, for real support. What she's purposing, a total breakdown of organized religion, over the bible being what it was intended to be, is insane. People cannot assume them know everything about the bible. The way they see it may not be home someone else does. Talking it out with other people will never go away.

    May 15, 2011 at 9:32 am |
  7. Still Learning

    One day people will wake up and realize they've been played. It will not be a mass exodus because followers will b too embarrassed to admit they've been brainwashed. The bible is the only book that u can read 50 times and get 50 different interpretations. My library is stocked with books I've read maybe once or twice. Next time u go to church write the check out to Jesus Christ,better yet save your money for your family they probably need it more than the Rev.

    May 15, 2011 at 9:32 am |
  8. Prodigal Son

    There's a lot of people here seems to know a lot about bible. I wonder what they can see about the parable of the lost sheep likewise the sheperds and what he did in the parable.

    Intelligent replies are preffered but not required, any opinion except claims of hoax.

    May 15, 2011 at 9:32 am |
  9. Lawrence

    If you want to meet God,and his Son Jesus Christ; obey this scripture: Acts 2:38 Repent,and be baptized everyone of you in the name of Jesus Christ,for the remission of sins." Then get the Holy Ghost

    May 15, 2011 at 9:31 am |
  10. Ringo

    What a silly article. The church is the PEOPLE ! God's church will never die.

    May 15, 2011 at 9:31 am |
    • Eumir

      Thank you Ringo... Eumir don't even go to church and he knows this.
      CNN must be filled with sensationalist morons.

      May 15, 2011 at 9:39 am |
  11. government spy

    II think there's a growing number of people that just find that book irrelevant; that regardless of the medium that the propagandist book is being expressed in, it just doesn't matter as much anymore. I don't need a book who's readers just want to control how I live my life; who I can marry, how to raise my children, whether or not my spouse and I can choose to follow through with a pregnancy, etc. I don't remember reading those things in the bible, yet the followers of that faith seem to keep inventing new rules to add in it. Keep your hypocritical book to yourself, and off my phone.

    May 15, 2011 at 9:31 am |
  12. Matt Yoder

    If the message of Christ is simply ignored by the avast majority of "Christians", why does it matter how the message is delivered? Its simply doesn't.

    May 15, 2011 at 9:31 am |
  13. annie

    People have always looked for an individual connection with God, but they often crave the need for a sense of community that attending church helps to provide, too.Technologies may help "bypass" the constraining religious structure, for some, but not enough to close down churches. I think that these technologies are not the reason people don't read the bible, though it is creating the inability to stay focused. There are many factors that would bring down the church, not technology. Technology might helped people feel more connected. I don't want to feel constrained in my relationship to God, and I want to feel a sense of community and belonging.

    May 15, 2011 at 9:30 am |
    • bob

      Well said, thanks..... I can't comprehend the love of God. I will work on loving my enemy for a lifetime.

      May 15, 2011 at 10:09 am |
  14. Joe

    Technology actually is helping build up the church, for example the Confession App available for iphone/ipod helps Catholics get back to confession, or church-sponsored Youtube pages, facebook pages, etc. This headline is sensational but not fully representational of reality. God rules!

    May 15, 2011 at 9:30 am |
  15. AttnMustBePaid

    This may ruffle a few feathers, but really, the function of the physical church is not to teach the bible, its to tell people what to think. and for the past few decades, its been run by the republican party to put christians into a sort of trance logic to make them vote to support taking money away from the poor to build more tanks and bombs. I mean really – do you actually think jesus would support dick cheney? and yet, christians do, almost blindly. why? because churches tell them to. Sure, the republicans throw in a few bones, like let's discriminate against gays and remove womens's rights, to get the christians on their side, but their primary objective is to make more money for the rich. One very sad example of this is denying global warming. Look at the weather we are suffering from. I know christians are told "its just weather" by experts such as sarah palin, but really, look at the hurricane stats in the south. 19 of the last 20 years have been above average, including this year, which set records. Look at the flood. it's because pollution has raised ocean temperatures, and made the weather more severe. And, pollution is caused by industry. And industry doesn't want to pay for it, because it will cut into the executive's profits. So, the very rich create their agenda and use churches to spread it. And its been working great for them. especially in the last election. So, if technology means people will stay home and think for themselves, instead of what they are told to think, then its a good thing.

    May 15, 2011 at 9:30 am |
    • Eumir

      Boy this comment is such a crock...

      May 15, 2011 at 9:37 am |
    • Yaki


      May 15, 2011 at 9:40 am |
    • bob

      I think Church members have a one up on the rest of us. They help one another, many of them are in service to one another and there beliefs. I have to admire them. Thou my beliefs may differ from theirs, I was thinking of becoming involved. I like what I have seen, far cry from the Banksters and politicians.

      May 15, 2011 at 9:42 am |
    • AttnMustBePaid

      Ah, an excellent example of the trance logic i was talking about. thank you. now go back to your flock and vote obediently.

      May 15, 2011 at 9:43 am |
    • AttnMustBePaid

      the republicans are also interested in taking money away from education in order to further their agenda. which makes sense, since education tends to promote liberal ideas. there are plenty of stats to support the more education someone has (or, in the vernacular, how elitist they are), the more likely they are to stray from the church, and thus be harder to control.

      May 15, 2011 at 9:48 am |
    • bob

      Euclid died insane trying to prove that 1 + 1 = 2. The computer age has made mathematics that much more confusing. What is Pi equal? Irrational numbers? Imaginary Numbers? The more we learn the less we know. There are a lot of questions?

      May 15, 2011 at 9:56 am |
    • BrokenHearted

      Interesting thoughts, and yes it ruffles some feathers, but as you are apparently not a believer I would be amiss if I didn't interject this thought: You are speaking of and judging the Church based on American Christianity. Christianity didn't start in the US and doesn't end in the US. As a devoted believer overseas on mission, I implore you to investigate what's happening with Christianity in the world. The Christian martyrs in India know nothing of the Republican party's agenda. The underground church members in China don't risk their wellbeing because the government is using them, but because they see truth worth more than their wellbeing and are willing to oppose the government for it. I don't fully agree with your thoughts, but I can agree that the state of the American Church is sad to be sure. However, I would hate for that to blind you to the true picture of Christianity seen globally and more importantly blind you to the liberty and hope that can be found in the truth of the Gospel. All politics aside.

      May 15, 2011 at 9:57 am |
    • AttnMustBePaid

      Yes, BrokenHearted, i was just considering the state of christians in America. That was narrow minded of me. But i do believe they are being played by the palins and linbaughs and becks, to our detriment. As for the rest of the world, i feel bad that christianity, primarily catholocism, has done such damage in its crusade against birth control, equal rights for gays, preventing aides, etc. And turning the world into a war of christians against moslems is making everyone a lot less safe (maybe that is just the american christians, its hard to tell). both religions claim to be against war, but i am not seeing that. And don't get me started on the catholic genocides committed against the people of south america in the previous millenium

      May 15, 2011 at 10:09 am |
    • AttnMustBePaid

      and Bob, if you can't figure out math, then yes, you are probably best staying as you are. numbers are scary. avoid them at all costs. any attempt to educate yourself would probably backfire.

      May 15, 2011 at 10:12 am |
    • bob

      @Attn.... I have a PHD in Physics....... You put too much faith in man.

      May 15, 2011 at 10:18 am |
    • BrokenHearted

      Anyone who tries to defend the things done in the name of Christianity, is a fool. There is no denying that the past and the present have marred that name in the minds of thousands, hundreds of thousands, maybe even millions across the globe. And it is likely not over. There are people who have indeed done all the things you have said and manipulated what was meant to be a message of hope into a instrument of power and destruction. I have no doubt that God weeps over actions such as these and that he will deal justice in the end. But the true sadness is not that these actions have turned people away from the Church or tainted the name of Christianity. The true sadness is that the name of Christ is now associated with politics and that people have been turned away from God himself. May our sins and our shortcomings and our evils not ever be attributed to Christ. The fault is our own.

      May 15, 2011 at 10:30 am |
    • AttnMustBePaid

      Ok Dr. Bob, if you really know physics, you should know that by learning more we learn that there is more to learn. The religious world view presupposed that we already know everything. The science world view presupposes that we know nothing, and are trying actively to look for provable logical building blocks to build knowledge on. The fact that we know less the more we know is a good thing. We are just turning pages in a book to find new uncharted worlds out there, not the same old book over and over again. Isn't that why you studied physics?

      May 15, 2011 at 10:31 am |
    • AttnMustBePaid

      @BrokenHearted, you seem to be one of the more reasonable believers i have read posts by. It seems you actually read the other side's views, think about them, and respond with a heart felt message, instead of just closing your mind and slamming back. I commend you for that. Keep it up. If you can spread that kind of thinking amongst the faithful that would be a great service to the world. I feel as though you and I could actually have a reasonable discussion, even though we come from different sides of the cosmic equation. I do not feel that about 99% of the pro-christian posters.

      May 15, 2011 at 10:36 am |
    • BrokenHearted

      I appreciate the vote of confidence. But I'd love to weigh in on your other comment though about the religious world view presupposing that we know everything... As a Christian scientist, I would submit that a better interpretation would be that religious world view believes that we have the only knowledge that matters eternally, however, there is no debate in my mind that we are far from knowing everything and that the world of discoveries to be made is a fascinating front to pioneer. I just see all of the discoveries as another way to know more about the Creator, of whom we really know very little.

      May 15, 2011 at 11:23 am |
    • AttnMustBePaid

      That is an interesting way to look at it. I guess i was saying the religious view presupposes the answer to everything is somehow in god. like, how did life appear on earth, and possibly elsewhere. In all your studies of this question, there can only be one answer, god put it there. this kind of an approach doesn't work for me, though. I prefer an approach that tries to figure out the answer without presupposing it. if you presuppose the answer, its very easy to find "proof" that your answer is correct, especially since any inconsistency can be talked away by saying something to the effect that god works in mysterious ways. I prefer to start from a place where we have no idea what the answer is, and we search for building blocks to find out. if in the end, it turns out we discover god put life on earth, at least that will be more satisfying, because it was scientifically developed, not based on faith. I don't think that is the answer we will eventually discover, however.

      May 15, 2011 at 12:12 pm |
  16. Joel

    Only Bible we'll ever need is the Brick Testament. Search it up.

    May 15, 2011 at 9:27 am |
  17. Laughing Octopus

    The biggest paradox in the history of mankind is the existence of technology and ancient deity worship side-by-side.

    May 15, 2011 at 9:27 am |
  18. Nancy

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

    Nice ring to this bromide, but - like so many religious aphorisms - it is wrongheaded.

    May 15, 2011 at 9:26 am |
    • Kent Allard

      How is it "wrong-headed"?

      May 15, 2011 at 9:33 am |
  19. Zebulon

    Lisa Miller, I am a Christian who attends church regularily. And I can say that your article posits a theory that will not come to pass. The purpose of church is not simply to read the bible, but to worship in unison with your church family. This is not going to bring down the church in any way, but rather grow it and strengthen it. Why would reading the bible alone be a bad thing, should one actually commit to studying it? Jesus himself said this in Luke 24:45: "Then he opened their minds so that they could understand scripture." It is good that one understands the texts without it having to be read to them and explained each time, as scripture indicates quite clearly. Even in the time of Christ and thereafter, scripts were made available to some who were not in attendance at a synagogue but were able to study independently. And even then, the church grew in great leaps even amidst persecution. If it didn't crumble then, it won't now. "...on this rock will I build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it." Not to say that the internet is representative of hell here, it isn't at all, but through the internet more people will be reached and positively impacted.

    May 15, 2011 at 9:26 am |
    • Macker

      You are confusing religion which is about spirituality with the "church" which is about money, real estate, jobs,creating translation monopolies. If people are connecting digitally, religion can flourish without a business called the church. It's about time.

      May 15, 2011 at 12:51 pm |
  20. Kevin

    satan (the looser) could only wish..
    so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it. Isaiah 55:11

    May 15, 2011 at 9:26 am |
    • LBCSongbird

      Amen! No matter how much technology is available, God will bring His children unto Himself. We that are true Christians will read our Bibles and long to listen to our preachers deliver to us the Word of our God. No matter what the haters think.

      May 15, 2011 at 9:33 am |
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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.