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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. shad sluiter

    Lisa Miller wrote a great headline but a lousy story. More Bible reading will destroy the church? That sounds like a pre-reformation mind to me. I carry my Bible, a full set of commentaries, dictionaries and even listen to sermons more thanks to my phone. I connect with church friends through Facebook every day instead of just a few times a week.

    May 15, 2011 at 9:47 am |
  2. Jimbo

    This is fabulous! Missionaries to hostile/Islamic countries don't need to bring Bibles with them. Just memorize the URL and you are good to go.

    May 15, 2011 at 9:46 am |
  3. idjrussell@hotmail.com

    Is this a legitimate, scientific error in the Bible or can the Genesis depiction of the moon as a source of light be harmonized with the facts of science? If you think you can answer this Bible error, explain how — but your answer cannot add anything new that's not already in the stories and cannot leave out any details that the Bible provides. (About . c o m)

    May 15, 2011 at 9:46 am |
  4. John

    The purpose of the church is not just to meet up weekly and sing and read a few scriptures. The purpose is strength in community. The purpose is a combined and yes, organized, effort to reach those in the world who are hurting and needy. The church was the original "welfare" and clearly we must return to that because our government cannot handle the burden. Church is bigger than Sunday morning.

    May 15, 2011 at 9:46 am |
  5. antireligiousfreak

    Growing up in a church going family, I can say that I have vast experience with matters of christianity and its followers. One of the worst offenses one can make is to not only question a passage of scripture's meaning, but to show a blatant contradiction in the bible itself. 1 of 2 things will happen. You will be told how 'you're taking that passage taken out of context" or you will be promptly kicked out of youth group for being a disruption. I at least can respect a preacher who admits he doesn't know instead of feeding me BS or changing the subject to the extent of my faith.

    Oh they want you to read the good book but once you question anything, look out. The smartphone app is an excellent tool for folks to keep these jokers in line.

    May 15, 2011 at 9:45 am |
  6. Still Learning

    Religion is about, give me your money today and you will get blessings upon blessings when you die. Write the check out to Jesus Christ!

    May 15, 2011 at 9:45 am |
  7. Repentant

    There is no reason for the church to be afraid of technology. Technology cannot take the place of the church, read Hebrews 10:25. The church can (in some cases this has been done) embrace technology in a way that it enhances the way it can reach the congregation and spread the Word.

    May 15, 2011 at 9:45 am |
    • Lee P

      Actually, religion is afraid of anything that may contradict religion itself, which is a main reason why we had the Dark Ages, and why Galileo was imprisoned for 8 years because he went against the church teachings

      May 15, 2011 at 10:37 am |
  8. Bill

    I think the electronic version of the bible which has been around for years will strengthen and bring more people to the church. It's unfortunate that people suggest that those who go to church are mean and judgmental people. I've been going to church faithfully for 20 some years and my faith and service to the community and others has grown as a result of it. Unfortunately, walking through the front doors of church doesn't make us "wonderful" people. The same mean and judgmental people would probably be that way whether they went to church or not. And their faith and understanding of it needs improvement.

    I choose to believe in God because I believe there is truly a greater being. I believe in miracles and angels. It does not make me any better than anyone else but it does allow me to find strength when I need it and help explain (for me anyway) why things happen.

    Believe or not, but whatever you believe if it makes you a better person who helps others and the community and not look out for only yourself that's great.

    In the end I wish to believe it will be better, but no one will really know till either you wither away to nothingness or finding yourself in position of explaining. Just like when I went before my parents as a kid, it was whole lot more fun telling them about the good stuff than the bad!

    May 15, 2011 at 9:44 am |
  9. james

    If a person is reading the bible on I phone, he is already lost or a nut job.

    May 15, 2011 at 9:44 am |
  10. Doing the tao

    To this end, learn from the Tao through daily meditations see doingthetao.blogspot.com

    May 15, 2011 at 9:43 am |
  11. Frank

    I don't disagree at all that the proliferation of electronic scripture is changing the way we read and study scripture. Where I would disagree is that the edification that takes place through the face to face meeting of the brethren can not be replaced by electronic media. The change that the web has brought to the church is the ability for home churches to flourish. I no longer need a college education clergy to tell me what he thinks. We have access to all the great minds through out church history at our finger tips. This make personal study much easier, i

    May 15, 2011 at 9:42 am |
  12. JasonD.

    Would be better to bring down religion entirely.

    May 15, 2011 at 9:42 am |
  13. Rod

    Amusing. As a pastor of 40 years I see this as a positive thing. Tyndale they burned at the stake for making the Scriptures accessible, but his work was an enormous good. The Scripture can do its own work without the authority of the church or any other authority. The Spirit directs its truth to the heart of the people of God's good creation.
    The author says, "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." This is not a crisis, and especially not a new one. However, I agree that it is a challenge to what it means to be a body of believers. Our radical individualism has alienated us from each other. We do not need the church for authority (and here again I speak as a pastor), but we do need the church for each other's fellowship, accountability and nurture.

    May 15, 2011 at 9:41 am |
  14. bonhoeffe

    Access to Scripture will not harm the church, but purify her and make her more powerful. The argument that the church is only safe if there is restricted access to the Bible is the argument against Martin Luther, and hundreds of years before, John Wycliffe and Jan Hus. The Bible has authority and power beyond human wisdom. In a pluralistic democracy, one is free to disagree with this idea, but to say the church will be weakened by greater access is to bring an a priori assumption into the argument. As the Internet breaks through the censorship of Islamic and communist countries, hundreds of thousands are becoming Christians. Google "Global Mission Outreach" for more information.

    May 15, 2011 at 9:40 am |
  15. amused123

    A crisis?! What a moron. Faith does not make one impervious to all thought. Faith helps one discern was is and is not crap; Mr. Jason.

    May 15, 2011 at 9:39 am |
  16. PB87

    Am I the only one who's sick and tired of reading articles about how smartphones are going to change every last bit of our lives?

    May 15, 2011 at 9:39 am |
    • Ben

      Definitely not.

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

      The relgion leaders are afraid. If the followers don't show up at 'church' the flow of tax free income will dry up.

      May 15, 2011 at 9:43 am |
  17. Mama Bear

    People go to church for the feeling of spirit and community. So far, technology does not offer that. Talk about sucking the soul out of religion. . . technology will do it. Go figure!

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

      People sucked the soul out of religion by using it to control and destroy other people. More and more people are seeing that now and now the religion controllers are becoming afraid. That's why every religious holiday we hear on the news that there is a "War on (your religion's name here)".

      May 15, 2011 at 9:41 am |
    • gozer

      checi, religion has always had that part

      May 15, 2011 at 9:50 am |
  18. sarah

    The author mistakenly views church as nothing more than Bible study and Sunday school lesson. Hopefully, this Sunday, many will gather together for more than that.

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

      gathering for a beer or other beverage would be better. And some real companionship and community, not to worship a fictional being (that shouldn't need worship to begin with, unless it's really vain and needy)

      May 15, 2011 at 9:49 am |
  19. Chris

    Does FACEBOOK church count if we gather two or more? Just say en....

    May 15, 2011 at 9:36 am |
  20. Willow

    The church needs to stop discriminating against people who are different, and stop telling people that if they're a different religion, they're going to be tortured forever in fire and brimstone even if they are decent human beings who would never hurt a fly.

    Those are the only things that will get people back to church who have left it. Oh wait, the bigotry in the church will never end. Sorry I mentioned it.

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

      Read Deuteronomy! It says if they worship a different God from you, Kill Them! Stone them to death!

      A lot of love in those scriptures.

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

      What church are you talking about? Not the one I go to that's for sure. And I belong to the largest Lutheran church synod in the U.S.
      Get your facts straight before you start bashing religion and putting all those who believe in God into one group with all the same opinions and preachings.

      May 15, 2011 at 9:50 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.