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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. Hmmmmmmmmmmmm

    It used to be that the bible was only transcribed in Latin to make the people dependent on the churches. Churches have gone too far down the path of establishing themselves as the golden calves of belief. If church attendance further falters because the bible is available as an iPhone app, its not iPhone's fault. It's because many people have come to recognize that most churches promote contradiction to the true intent of Jesus' teaching and have become blatant in their self-aggrandizing. The pastors I have seen over the past 20 years are no better than panhandlers and thieves. I would be more likely to have a closer relationship with God without their "concerned oversight".

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

    My religion is Reality. I believe in what is actually real and I do not believe in what is not real. when it comes to what I choose to believe I put reality first. Reality – it changed my life. Reality can change you like too!

    May 15, 2011 at 10:15 am |
  3. Truth2You

    We ought not think of God as a little god, which is incapable of making his church proceed beyond what we (humankind) are capable of. Contrariwise, the true and living God is a big God, capable of far more than we humans are capable of.

    May 15, 2011 at 10:15 am |
  4. Sinner

    Actually, science provides more evidence for a God than against it. Atheists seem to be living more of a fairy tale than Christians. They believe that life just "magically" came about...from what? And evolution? I'm supposed to believe that my ancestor is a one celled Amoeba? Darwinism is the the most self defeating ideology on the planet its laughable anybody still buys into that garbage. There are reasons the Anthony Flew's and C.S. Lewis' of the world turner their back on Atheism. SCIENTIFICALLY, its a bigger problem and you have to have more faith to believe in Atheism, than you do to believe in God. When I was at that point in life where I was trying to dig up the truth, I read Sam Harris' The End of Faith...not a bad read, UNTIL I read a book called I Don't Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist. It convinced me there was a God before I even got to the 3rd chapter. And it also made Harris' book sound like jibberish from a guy who seemingly has more of a biased agenda than any Christian. Atheists are not intelligent, just ignorant and enjoy shoving their propaganda down our throats moreso than the Christians they ridicule.

    May 15, 2011 at 10:14 am |
    • Cedar rapids

      'Actually, science provides more evidence for a God than against it.'
      Absolute total nonsense. Science provides no evidence for god at all as science doesnt rely on magic and the supernatural to explain things.

      May 15, 2011 at 10:20 am |
    • InFormed99

      Most atheists are far smarter, well read and more objective than their zombie like religious equivalents. Science has not only explained how life started, but is actively trying to prove it (read very close to demonstrating the process). Science's greatest objective is to provide PROOF of its claim while religion spends most of its time trying to HIDE the truth.

      May 15, 2011 at 10:25 am |
    • Scott

      Well said "Sinner". A good example of these ignorant types is "InFormed99" who replies to substantive messages such as yours with simplistic, child-like posts.

      May 15, 2011 at 10:52 am |
  5. Rahul

    A typican anti-Christian heading written by CNN together with stats based on lies. A pdf Bible will never "bring down church" as CNN wishes to occur; in fact, will compliment it. I have a Bible on my pda and am getting ready to go to Church on this beautiful Sunday which God created.

    May 15, 2011 at 10:13 am |
    • InFormed99

      CNN is too religion friendly and spends too much time trying to paint it in a positive light,

      May 15, 2011 at 10:27 am |
  6. Margaret

    For those of you who think that sites like http://atheism.about.com/od/Errors-Mistakes-Genesis-Bible/Errors-Mistakes-Genesis-Bible .htm are of any value they're not. I have never met a Christian who could not debunk what they say quite easily.
    The Church is the body of Christ–not a group of denominations and buildings. It will never die. If reading the Bible online leads anyone away from "churches" who are not obeying scripture and toward a community of Christians that does follow Jesus then I wish this technology God speed.

    May 15, 2011 at 10:13 am |
    • Hmmmmmmmmmmmm

      lol. Imagine that... churchgoers using the bible to debunk myths in the bible.

      May 15, 2011 at 10:30 am |
    • InFormed99

      Seriously, the bible is so full of nonsense, untruths and complete fabrications. Proving it to be wrong on so many levels is like shooting rats in a barrel. It's not even sporting any more.

      May 15, 2011 at 10:33 am |
    • MichMan

      Margaret, this is not a matter of debunking. The Bible has been edited more that Barrack Obama's Wikipedia entry. The Bible is 2,000 years old and the printed bible is only 400 years old. There are vast differences between the King James version and Greek Bibles from a thousand years ago. For 1,600 years Bibles were written by scribes. If they didn't like what they read in early versions they changed it. If there are as many discrepancies from the last thousand years, what do you think happened the first thousand years?

      May 15, 2011 at 11:30 am |
  7. Marc Perkel

    The article says they 1/3 of Christians and 2/3 of non-affiliated do not read the Bible. I think the only group that actually does read the Bible are hard core Atheists.

    May 15, 2011 at 10:13 am |
    • InFormed99

      Very true. The only people I know that can actually recite verses from it are atheists. That's because their scientific minds want to understand it (ultimately discovering its deception) while most religious zealots just blindly lap up the regurgitated religion frothing from the mouths of the pulpit bashers.

      May 15, 2011 at 10:30 am |
  8. Delighted

    This news is a few hundred years too late. Just as one person wrote, the Reformation already happened. The Bible is not hidden or secret to anyone. The availablility of scriptures will open up doors for those who do not have. Church authorities spend most of their time imploring believers to read the Bible. I wonder if the author knows someone in "authority" who feels threatened by the Bible being available online, in Kindle, in modern English, in hard copy?

    May 15, 2011 at 10:12 am |
  9. scdad

    All the effects of brainwashing without the molestation of children.

    May 15, 2011 at 10:12 am |
  10. Glen

    Who cares bring it down and free your mind! Or you could just pray to Santa Clause!

    May 15, 2011 at 10:11 am |
    • Hmmmmmmmmmmmm

      What would the FSM think?

      May 15, 2011 at 10:28 am |
  11. Fritz

    The bible in it's current form is garbage due to being edited so many times over the years. On top of that it is used to justify so many actions, this is why christianity is in decline. Jesus if he ever existed would be appalled by his followers. He never intended to be worshipped and exaulted to the level he is today. I'm very sadened when I see children taught these archaeic concepts like origional sin. Brainwashing those who haven't yet developed the power of reasoning is reprehensible. The idea that a planet was created in 7, 24 hour days and seeded by 2 humans is silly.

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

      I think it was garbage in its original form. It was written by bronze aged goat herders who knew nothing of the world they lived in.

      May 15, 2011 at 10:13 am |
    • Scott

      Hey Fritz, Cite's please? Please substantiate your proof with cite's and facts.

      May 15, 2011 at 10:47 am |
  12. annabella 51

    Shouldn't you at least try to understand the statement before you comment?

    May 15, 2011 at 10:10 am |
  13. Francisco

    When the word Church comes to Light, I wonder which Church is the one you talking about it??, To my Knowledge the only church is that supported by the vatican which is lead by the Pope.
    In few years the Church will have no reason to exist, because Humanity in the way God expect to pursue and achieved its Purposes for Man to become, will not Longer have a reason to exist, because no more humans will be able to Inhabit this Planet Earth, at which time earth will become under the control of Evil and all the sub-races of this world that represent non-Believers and sinners. Not yet hell but a Purgatory where the pursue of Humanity and Humanism will be Impossible to practice.

    May 15, 2011 at 10:10 am |
    • David

      How exactly do you decide which fairy tales to believe?

      May 15, 2011 at 10:24 am |
  14. Christopher Thurgood

    The function of the Church is not simply for Bible study, though much of it should be. There's an expression that "the Church is not a museum of saints, but a hospital for sinners". Church is where we worship, pray with and for one another and go for fellowship. Technology is FAR from replacing the church (a place for people to gather) which means it can be a living room, a park – anywhere.

    May 15, 2011 at 10:09 am |
    • Matt Riley

      I agree. Going to church is not only about hearing the Word, but is about being with others, hearing the Word as it applies to your life, and about receiving the sacraments of God. Also, should the Word be something that is just listened to while exercising or mowing the grass? Or should it be given its own time during your week? We have to make the conscious effort to make our schedule around our time for God and his living Word.

      May 15, 2011 at 10:34 am |
  15. trainman

    how many good christians even want a King James version, ifn they knew King James was gay and particularly liked teenaged boys????

    May 15, 2011 at 10:07 am |
  16. Astra Navigo

    Nonsense.

    This happened before. Luther believed the 'word' should be accessible to every layman. The Protestant Reformation did the same (albeit both movements ran up against severe repression from the Church – and a lot of people wound up tossed out of the clubhouse ('excommunicated'), or rendered-out, extra-crispy (burned at the stake).

    The Church managed to hang onto its power – regardless of whether it went by the name 'Catholic', 'Protestant', or what-have-you – the same way any organization hangs on to power.

    Kids with iPhones aren't going to unseat Bennie in Rome, or cut off his access to Prada shoes. Rick Warren is still going to be shoveling in the donuts and running his megachurch.

    Business as usual.

    "The Church – Buggering People For Money For Over 2,000 Years"

    May 15, 2011 at 10:07 am |
  17. sunny lovetts

    People make me sad... summarizing the bible? Seriously? On twitter? WOW! That's respecting the word of God alright.

    May 15, 2011 at 10:07 am |
  18. D Russell

    Christianity today has a horrible image and technology may not help it. I work with younger people and their image of Christianity is that of fundamentalists. The words they use for Christianity are anti-science, dogmatic, political, hypocrytical, simple-minded, mean-spirited, self-absorbed, anti-intellectual, etc. They associate charistmatic leaders with people like Hitler and others who pray on others patriotism, life-situations, weeknesses, etc. They see it as a cult. The sad truth is that fundamentalist churches have increased their own numbers, but they have destroyed image of Christianity in the eyes of the youth. Given this image, why would any educated, reasonable, spiritual young person be interested in becoming a Christian?

    May 15, 2011 at 10:07 am |
    • InFormed99

      Exactly. Hopefully more of them will come to their senses and go read a good science book and seek the real truth instead of believing in talking snakes and fairy tales.

      May 15, 2011 at 10:20 am |
  19. Bill

    CNN will go to any length to try to discredit the value of the church. This is a fundamental part of it's charter.

    While it is fantastic that the bible will be more and more available per technology and devices, and if it promote the gospel, will only add value to the church. The gathering of beleivers is a fundamental part of practicing the faith, and without this displine and without reaformation, the value of the faith would die. This is a fundamental and basic part of anything of value. And as with any important movement, leadership is fundamental to it's success-so the church will continue to be extremely important to spreading the good news of Jesus Christ,

    I am a practicing catholic, and realize that CNN will do anything they can do to discredit the value of faith in our country. They would like nothing more that for the church to die off. But, christianity has been around for over 2000 years,. It has stood the test of time because the message of Love and Charity to all people is timeless.

    Nice try again CNN! But what the church and faith have to offer is far more valuable than poplar culturte and certain more valuable than anything CCN promotes.

    May 15, 2011 at 10:06 am |
    • Scott

      Yeah a World without Osama Bin Laden's would just be so terrible......Right.

      May 15, 2011 at 10:14 am |
    • InFormed99

      How ironic that I would criticize CNN's overly friendly position on religion, providing it with far more air time than it deserved.

      May 15, 2011 at 10:17 am |
    • zombiefrog

      F*** the Bible i got me some sinnin to do!

      May 15, 2011 at 10:19 am |
    • David

      Love and Charity huh...you must be one of those people mentioned in the article who don't actually read the bible...try starting with Genesis, and really read what it says...

      May 15, 2011 at 10:21 am |
    • InFormed99

      I've read it. It talks about magic, sorcery and mythical beings. I think that the Harry Potter books have a better story line though (although they did rip off the talking snake from it).

      May 15, 2011 at 10:36 am |
  20. Nononsense

    One of my favorite gripes about religious zealotry is how fans will put up this or that interpretation, application, etc. But it never occurs to them that maybe my interpretation of the bible which postulates that actually 99% of it is worthless could be closer to the truth. I'm far more inclined to believe in the charismatic, broadminded, Oprah-like Jesus than their ill-defined Endorcer one.

    May 15, 2011 at 10:06 am |
    • Margaret

      You want 'pie in the sky'. No one ever said Christianity would be as easy as Oprah tries to let on. In fact, Jesus said we would have tribulation and that the way is narrow. We didn't create Jesus; He created us. That's something New Agers (like Oprah) have a hard time with.

      May 15, 2011 at 10:17 am |
    • MichMan

      You are forgetting that "Enforcer Jesus" can fill the coffers much more effectively. Without fear, there is no compelling reason to pull out your checkbook or credit card. Besides that, why are we even having this discussion, the world ends next week.

      May 15, 2011 at 11:04 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.