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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. FifthApe

    Definition of Christianity: the belief that a cosmic Jewish Zombie who was his own father can make you live forever if you symbolically eat his flesh and telepathically tell him you accept him as your master, so he can remove an evil force from your soul that is present in humanity because a rib-woman was convinced by a talking snake to eat from a magical tree.

    May 15, 2011 at 10:06 am |
  2. Thersites

    More non-denominational congregations is the way this will probably go.

    The Catholics will threaten a dwindling number of people into submission, the Methodists/Lutherans will merge with someone, the Presbyterians will thrive, Pentecostals will go afield, Unitarians will offer useful workshops...

    May 15, 2011 at 10:05 am |
  3. ChrisS

    Christianity and religion in general are nothing but something to grasp on to. No one wants to feel alone in this world, it gives purpose. That being said, those brainwashed by Christianity are like horses with blinders going forward following a reward (salvation) they can't even see.

    May 15, 2011 at 10:05 am |
  4. Marc Perkel

    Religion isn't about reading the Bible or believing in God. People go to religion because they want community and a sense of purpose. Religion if like owning a smart phone. It's about the apps, not the manufacturer.

    May 15, 2011 at 10:05 am |
  5. conoclast

    Another CNN teaser headline in search of an article. The "article" they provided was pure CNN pap and of course bore no likeness to what the headline promised. Thanks for wasting my time guys.

    May 15, 2011 at 10:05 am |
  6. Tigereye

    Thank God for Jesus

    May 15, 2011 at 10:05 am |
  7. Thersites

    More non-denominational congregations is the way this will probably go.

    The Catholics will threaten a dwindling number of people into submission, the Methodists/Lutherans will merge with someone, the Presbyterians will thrive, Pentecostals will go afield, Unitarians will offer useful workshops...

    May 15, 2011 at 10:04 am |
  8. DWT

    Oh, yeah.. Limited access to Bibles up until now is all that's kept these church thingies in business...

    May 15, 2011 at 10:04 am |
  9. SRV

    I grew up being taught the bible is the ONE absolute truth and God will meets us where we are at in life and speak to us through the bible. Yes, many churches, from past traditions\, have taught only a priest could interpret. Technology will only help but it is really up to a persons heart to believe in faith and not words of someone else. It merely provides accountability to those preaching the word. The bible is our sword in life against evil

    May 15, 2011 at 10:03 am |
  10. LogicGuru

    DEPRESSING, DEPRESSING, DEPRESSING! Who wants another iPhone app? If the Church goes down who will maintain the buildings and do the ceremonies? This is what religion is all about–the good part. People simply seem to have lost sight of that. The Church is God incarnate–embodied in the material fabric of church buildings and their furnishings, living and moving in liturgy. The Church is God, the object of our worship and adoration.

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

      And *which* god is that? I know.... the one you picked. 🙂 How did I know the answer to that. Good thing your were not born in Mecca! You would be praying to the wrong god..... wow how lucky is that.

      May 15, 2011 at 10:07 am |
    • JC

      So there's no more room for smartphone apps? It's a good thing that only the essential ones have already been written. Let's save a lot of folks doing research and development that they're wasting their time and should be spending their energy on other efforts.

      May 15, 2011 at 10:21 am |
  11. alex

    We have not started working from homes though we can virtually do our jobs from home due to technology and emails etc, schools have not stopped though with the communication tools we have, we could study from home and not go to school, I bet, you the writer do not work from home though you could, we have not stopped going to the supermarket though we could purchase everything online, Ms writer, churches are not going to be disbanded because of iphone and online bibles, people have predicted this type of crap in the past, that the church would die out with the advent of technology back in the 70's, if anything, technology is helping church goers get better and more organised

    May 15, 2011 at 10:01 am |
    • Geoffrey

      Actually a lot of us do work from home and the number is increasing considerably.

      May 15, 2011 at 10:05 am |
  12. Jacquelyne

    This just doesn't ring true to me. You can't blame this on technology. If anything blame it on the church. Each one thinking their religion is superior to another religion. Thinking only the clergy has the right interpretation. Just nonsense. People can see through their money-grabbing ways. Churches care about their donors more than their flock.

    May 15, 2011 at 10:01 am |
    • Geoffrey

      She is not blaming on anything. She is stating a simple fact and that is there is more access to scripture and commentary than ever before. People can learn from a wider base.

      May 15, 2011 at 10:04 am |
  13. Morgood

    All good If it keeps the church from deviating from the word, ala indulgences (freedom from god's wrath could be purchased with money)

    Jesus did say we should worship the lord god with all our heart, MIND and soul. Technology is making that easier to do in this day and age. So when people spout their beliefs they better know what they're talking about.

    May 15, 2011 at 10:00 am |
    • Robin H

      Yes but it's going to cut out the middle man, which has been the source of the churches power. Power has been the point of the church all along, bring people closer to god has only been the cover story for why they need and deserve that power. The reformation happened because people came to realize that the Catholic Church was more about power than spirituality unfortunately the reformers just ended up replicating that same situation, most recently in the form of mega-churches.

      May 15, 2011 at 11:00 am |
  14. Nononsense

    There is no intellectually honest way that organized religion can deflect this reality – seriously – even their argument in favor of megachurches (which Jesus would have abhorred) fades under this point – that the Internet performs the ultimate mission of putting access to spirituality into the palms of "all". That won't stop 'em from whining about it, though, I'm sure.

    May 15, 2011 at 10:00 am |
  15. Malaka Shakalaka

    Church is for stupid brainwashed people who also believe in the tooth fairy and elves.

    May 15, 2011 at 9:59 am |
  16. annabella 51

    Fifth, God's Word has many mysteries. Read it for yourself. Study it. It will reveal those mysteries to you. You will marvel at the reasoning.

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

      Yes, and this reading is now made easier. Furthermore through computer language learning you can read the scriptures in the language they were written in.

      May 15, 2011 at 10:03 am |
    • FifthApe

      I have. And when you do that you come to the conclusion that this was NOT written by the creator of the universe as we now know it. Its an absurd and evil book. Question: Why should a victim have to marry her rapist? This is gods word. And should we stone children to death who do not behave? What about keeping slaves.... is it really a good thing? (Exodus 21).

      May 15, 2011 at 10:11 am |
  17. Brian

    The threat to churches is that those who are not following the scriptureal guidelines will be exposed. There are many who only want to follow part of the scriptures that suit them while ignoring other parts. Access to the scriptures will expose them for the hypocrites they are. Those who sincerely go to the scriptures to seek truth will find a God who loves us and only wants are happiness. The more we follow him the more joy we will discover.

    May 15, 2011 at 9:59 am |
  18. Ph.D. Pastor

    There is a fundamental misunderstanding of "church" in the Western world. This author has an interesting idea, but "church" will not disappear before this culture will disappear. You cannot be a lone Christian outside of community. You cannot grow adequately as a believer by yourself. We need fellowship, accountability, and training. If people study the Bible, they will naturally gravitate toward a community of likeminded people. If anything, electronic Bibles will build the church.

    May 15, 2011 at 9:58 am |
    • wimsy

      John wrote the apocalypse alone, in a cave, on an island. Sorry, "Ph.D. Pastor" but your effort to impress us with your diploma, and your desperate effort to maintain your employment by insisting on church-going, are obsolete. I've got a doctorate, too - ain't I smart?

      May 15, 2011 at 10:11 am |
    • 4G0dSoL0v3dTheW0rld

      To think that technology could be the end of the church....how deceived the world must be....
      If you read your bible, ( Which is what a true Christian does, because to know God is to know his word, you can neither know God nor his word unless you are in his word reading it. ) you would not be deceived by such lies.

      The bible tells us that the Church is the bride of Christ, and the Church is forever.
      The church is not some brick and mortar building, but it is anywhere his followers meet to worship him.

      I pray that everyone who reads this will open up the Holy Bible and get to know God by drenching themselves in his word.
      As God says – meditate on the word day and night.

      Do not be deceived by the world and by worldly things instead die to yourself and be a new creation in Christ!

      Death is Dead – we are no longer slaves to sin, no longer slaves to the world...as long as we trust in Christ.

      If indeed technology puts an end to the western church as we know it... that may not be such a bad thing...because most of our churches got it wrong.... with it's huge building, huge budget... numerous amounts of programs and praise groups to bring people in loaded down with big screen tv's and million dollar sound systems...it becomes all about the numbers...
      how many were in Sunday School, how much was the offering. Do we have the right programs to bring people into our doors and keep them here? What about the youth? Do we have a great youth band with music that will keep them here?

      That is the WRONG way to create disciples, the wrong way..... the bible tells us the only way to know Christ is through the Bible, and the only way someone is saved is through God... we can only know God through the Bible, so spread the word, plant the seed and let the word of God grow the seed, because all these programs and all these things...are just that, they can't save a single person, only the word of God can!

      May 15, 2011 at 10:25 am |
    • Robin H

      A big part of the impact of that "community" comes from the transmission of ideas and more importantly the impact of peer pressure that is brought to bare when people gather and coalesce around a particular idea or interpretation. One of the main reasons the King James Bible was created was to get the whole kingdom singing from the same hymnal as it were. The also king wanted to make sure that the one hymnal the nation was singing from supported his role and did not de-legitimize his right to rule. The Puritans and other groups at the time were suggesting that there was no authority but God. This didn't sit well with the king. This makes the King James Bible a tool for social cohesion, a example of propaganda, or both. The question is, whether and to what degree digital community will support the transmission of ideas and whether those transmissions will apply the same type of peer-pressure. A 1950's church community that came to the same church , read from the same bible and heard from the same pastor each week, is a very different community than one that doesn't share the same building, picks their own version of the bible, has several translations available simultaneously including some that point out mistranslations, and is exposed to a variety of messages from pastors and others that don't necessarily agree. Singing from the same hymnal provides powerful social cohesion but that doesn't mean it represents anything resembling the truth. Truth is messy.

      May 15, 2011 at 10:43 am |
  19. Ruwan

    Will there be a churchville like farmville on facebook?

    May 15, 2011 at 9:58 am |
  20. Paul May

    The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is a denomination that has advocated personal reading and interpretation of the Bible for 175 years, as well as tolerance of different understandings. We each must find our own path, but we can help each other in our mutual journey. James Garfield, Lyndon Johnson, and Ronald Reagan were all raised in the Disciples faith.

    As for biblical inerrantcy, please read "Misquoting Jesus" by Bart Ehrman. Excellently written and researched it points out that our earliest copy of the New Testament is dated around 400 AD (Codex Sianaticus) so we don't have the original words. It also points out that the King James version is based on Erasmus's 1516 Greek manuscript which is based on some of the poorer Greek and Latin translations, and shows how copying errors have manifested themselves through the centuries. I also urge you to read the story of William Tyndale, who did the first English translation, and on which the King James Bible is based.

    The whole point of faith (and life I think) is to develop a personal relationship with God. There are many paths to this end.

    May 15, 2011 at 9:57 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.