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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. brian

    Why does it take technology to invalidate the bible? All it takes a few brain cells and a milligram of logic...

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

      brain cells and logic are easily suppressed. case in point, read several of the posts here.

      May 15, 2011 at 10:24 am |
  2. Svrt

    The main problem is that it's harder to molest children via smartphone. Or is there an app for that?

    May 15, 2011 at 9:56 am |
  3. Still Learning

    Erase the national debt and fund medicare! Tax the churches! Is there anything u can do in this country and receive limitless income tax free?

    May 15, 2011 at 9:55 am |
  4. study it

    Hmmm...So an skeptic is hoping that technology will somehow destroy Christianity? This skeptic isn't even a smart one. Common history has already proven that whenever tecnology has advanced, the Bible was spread wider and faster than ever before! The printing press brought more people to read the Bible. Transcontinental travel led missionaries to convert new parts of the world that they never knew existed before. Telephone, radio, and television were used by preachers (a la Billy Graham) to spread the gospel to people who either didn't know or didn't care. I can even access church services from my computer so that my 100 year old grandmother, who is too old and frail to travel to a building every Sunday, can watch her favorite pastor from the safety of her home. So how does a smartphone suddenly collaspe religion? If anything, it will help me witness to my friends more. Now when I get into a lively debate, I don't have to search around for a Gideon or pull out my giant paperback like a troll. I can just flip open my cellphone and go 'click, beep, boop' and reveal the Bible to them and explain my point. It's like on-hand evidence. If anything, as a believer I look forward to the next wave of technology!

    May 15, 2011 at 9:54 am |
    • FifthApe

      And I look forward to the day that we no longer believe bronze aged myths so silly that children see through them as you can tell by their questions.

      May 15, 2011 at 10:02 am |
  5. oneSTARman

    CHURCH is More than Reading a Bible. God EXISTS in the space between People – "Whenever Two or More are Gathered in My Name" THE BOOK is an Important Guide to Follow; but it is NOT the WAY of the CHRIST – that is something that can ONLY be EXPERIENCED in the BODY of Believers.

    May 15, 2011 at 9:53 am |
    • gozer

      god only exists as fiction, and as such, in the very low pressure space between your ears

      May 15, 2011 at 10:00 am |
    • FifthApe

      " God EXISTS in the space between People "

      The religious mind at work..... And you know this HOW?

      May 15, 2011 at 10:00 am |
  6. Paige

    Good! Keep reading, folks. Then you'll see what a stupid book you've been taught was so great all these years. That's why the first chapter tells you not to eat from the tree of knowledge. THEY don't want you to read it!

    May 15, 2011 at 9:53 am |
  7. Alex

    The fact that people can listen to a sermon and not know the pastor is nothing new. Mega-churches have many that physically attend for years, but have never met the pastor or feel part of a community. Sermons have been available on tape,CD, or TV for decades. None of this is really new.

    May 15, 2011 at 9:53 am |
  8. Orq

    Logic will bring down the church, not smartphones

    May 15, 2011 at 9:52 am |
    • gozer

      one can hope, anyway.

      but I hear you.

      May 15, 2011 at 9:59 am |
    • AttnMustBePaid

      I keep thinking that too. Someday people will just figure it all out. And, slowly they are, the numbers of true believers are going down compared to 20 years ago. But still, i can't fathom why the rest are taking so long. I can only hope that people will start thinking for themselves and figure out the difference between what is and what they wish was.

      May 15, 2011 at 10:22 am |
  9. Mike

    This article misses the point entirely. Church is not ONLY about religion. It is about fellowship, communion, sevice, etc.
    If all you want is scripture then you never needed the church. Last I checked the printing press was invented quite some time ago and the Bible has been available in every language and its availability has been world-wide.
    We didn't need the internet or the electronic age to keep people from church.
    All you needed to do was buy a Bible and stay home.
    The "church" is about more than just scripture.

    May 15, 2011 at 9:52 am |
    • gozer

      keep the community. Toss the god fairy tales.

      May 15, 2011 at 9:58 am |
  10. mike

    it is not about the bible but about the people who teach it in the past and present it has become a business that is told to bring in revenue now that the average person is becoming more educated they are beginning to realize that it people who are corrupting what has been told in the bible

    May 15, 2011 at 9:51 am |
    • gozer

      no need for people to add new nastiness and corruption to it. The bible has always been full of horror. See Leviticus, just to begin.

      May 15, 2011 at 9:57 am |
  11. Josh

    Same thing happened with the printing press and the Gutenberg Bible.

    May 15, 2011 at 9:51 am |
    • Stunned

      Yea, it got parlayed.

      May 15, 2011 at 10:29 am |
  12. FifthApe

    The internet is where religions come to die. And its about time. Here the concepts can be debated and shown just how crazy they are. Do you *really* think the story of Noah is true??? or that a man lived in a fish for 3 days?

    May 15, 2011 at 9:50 am |
  13. tewrobert

    Islamist are gonna have somehting to say abou that. Not to mention others...
    I dont think these people have a clue in He!! what kind of can of worms they are opening!!

    May 15, 2011 at 9:50 am |
  14. Antonio Boone

    Technology is great for the "church". Since the "church" is not a building or any kind of physical structure, it's the hearts of the believers, having the Bible accessible on mobile tech is truly an advancement on behalf of the Christian faith worldwide. There will always be heretics seeking to distort the Truth, but, those true believers who adhere sincerely to the Word of Truth will be greatly benefited by a Bible they can virtually carry anywhere. The Truth is still free and available to those sincere souls who want a real, beneficial relationship with Jesus Christ, the Eternal God.

    May 15, 2011 at 9:50 am |
  15. adam

    Damn God to Hell.

    May 15, 2011 at 9:50 am |
    • gozer

      deserves it if the story about you and eve is true

      May 15, 2011 at 9:55 am |
  16. Cindy

    More articles attacking Christianity. Guess all this applies to Judaism too....unless its special. Is it?

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

      No, its just as delusional.....

      May 15, 2011 at 9:53 am |
  17. bouvi

    Good

    May 15, 2011 at 9:48 am |
  18. Laurie

    Technology cannot bring you the power of the Holy Spirit through the proclamation of God's word, nor the Eucharistic Body and Blood of Christ.

    May 15, 2011 at 9:47 am |
    • gozer

      nor can anything else bring you that. There ain't no holy spirit (woo woo it's your bedsheets).

      May 15, 2011 at 9:55 am |
    • Stunned

      Maybe not but it sure is safer than being an altar boy getting a one-on-one from a priest.

      May 15, 2011 at 10:26 am |
  19. Say What

    Wow, this is such a stupid article... Can't believe CNN paid for someone to write this...

    How does having access to Scripture really bring down "Church"? Really? That's ironic.

    May 15, 2011 at 9:47 am |
    • FifthApe

      By reading them. Do you keep slaves? God gives you the rules in Exodus 21? And why were the baby boys killed in Numbers 31 but the young girls spared? Its one evil book!

      May 15, 2011 at 9:53 am |
    • tamieka

      Technology will not take down the church as we know it. If you are a follower of Christ, then you accept the Bible as the infallable word of God. And as the scripture says in Hebrews 10:24,25

      24And let us consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works:

      25Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching.

      The word says we should always come together as a body of believers, as an encouragement until the returning and wonderful day of our Savior Christ the King!

      May 15, 2011 at 9:55 am |
    • FifthApe

      " If you are a follower of Christ, then you accept the Bible as the infallable word of God."

      31:17 Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him.
      31:18 But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves.

      I don't pray to a god whose morality is less than my own. Killing baby boys while keeping the girls.... What a monster.

      May 15, 2011 at 9:58 am |
    • Shelley Saenz

      This is not a stupid article.. It's true.... But is good that the bible and sermons are so readly available..convenent. But it does take the place of sitting in church. I am guilty I don't like sitting in church alone in a sea of people. Just makes me feel lonely. It's easier to listen while working out. I long to connect with the Lord any way I can through sermons, the "Word", prayer and worship.

      May 15, 2011 at 11:41 am |
  20. Christopher

    Any sane person who has not been brainwashed with the idea that there is a 'god' since birth or soon afterwards, when looking at ANY religion in a neutral and logical light, would have to say "Hey, these things are full of bull! There is no such thing! It's just people looking at something that they do not understand at the moment and saying that 'god' had to have done it! 'god' is an attempt to coerce and cajole people into adhering to another person's personal likes and dislikes by invoking a figure that, wonder of wonders.... no one can see! It's a farce!"

    May 15, 2011 at 9:47 am |
    • gozer

      well said, Christopher.

      May 15, 2011 at 9:54 am |
    • annabella 51

      Christopher, get ready for the ride. All the prayers that will go up on your behalf will rock you boat. Enjoy the feeling of being loved by the One True God

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

      Deus te perdoa filho

      May 15, 2011 at 9:57 am |
    • George1

      Really? People that don't believe in God must believe:
      – the universe burst from nothing
      – life sprang from non-life
      – somehow evolution allowed them to think

      talk about absurd, fantasy, no-thinking conclusions –

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

      I read your comment, perhaps the last Word, you printed isn't Farce and its Force. such Evil force, good force, Positive Force, Negative force, and so fur.

      May 15, 2011 at 9:59 am |
    • Seriously

      There can be no other logical explanation, unless one believes in ghosts, magic, voodoo, unnatural phenomena, unscientific happenings, etc. I for one believe in nothing but physics and science to explain the happenings written in the Holy Bible. No magic, just advanced technology at work that feeble minded humans of the period simply did not understand and associated an almighty superpower, God, to explain them. We all wish and hope for an after-life, but lets be realistic, there is none. For if there was an afterlife, it would be insane to continue in this one with all the daily struggles, death, destruction, unfair tribulations, hatred, pain, suffering, starvation, cruelty, poorness, etc. I would want to move on to everlasting life that held none of that, only peace and bliss, wouldn't you. Obviously none of these so-called true believers actually believe in any of the hype, they just go along and try to live their lives as best they can, which is no harm no foul in my book. More power to them, and may "goodness" bless them, not God, he doesn't exist. Sorry to burst your bubbles, folks.

      May 15, 2011 at 10:02 am |
    • Bruce

      The fool says in his heart there is no God!

      May 15, 2011 at 10:02 am |
    • FifthApe

      George1 must be a school teach (probably science) in the deep south. This is why the US is falling down. China going to the moon, Europe has the LHC (was to be built in Texas) and the shuttle is to be mothballed.... And George thinks 'God Dun It'....

      May 15, 2011 at 10:05 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.