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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. GregK

    I really hope this really is the end of the church, people need to start using their own brains

    May 15, 2011 at 10:26 am |
  2. BobNYC

    NONSENSE! The primary reason people go to church is to have other people re-enforce their belief system. As a former church staff member, I can tell you there are two kinds of people who consider church/religion vital to their lives: Those who were brainwashed as children, and those who, as adults, suffered emotional or psychological trauma and "found" the church. Rational people understand church is about manipulation, control, and money. It fulfills an emotional and psychological need either as a surrogate parent or to alleviate the fear of death. In the entire history of humans, there is not a single piece of evidence of life after death. Only fabricated stories that are devoid of actual proof. And THATS the Truth!

    May 15, 2011 at 10:26 am |
  3. galileo

    Faith is from God and a blessing – Religion is from man and a curse.

    My Commandments

    1. You are no closer to the mind of God than the next person or religion, so treat everyone else like you would treat God.
    2. If you can read Gods Word, its man’s interpretation not Gods. It’s flawed.
    3. Respect the earth and the animals, they sustain your life.
    4. If your text says to harm others in the name of God or for his glory its false. You know it. Find another faith.
    5. To steal, harm or cheat damages your soul. Don’t do it.
    6. Science and Faith are each half of the whole truth, you need both.
    7. You ears should work a lot harder than your mouth.

    May 15, 2011 at 10:25 am |
  4. Good and Evil

    But who of us can eat of the fruit of good and evil without killing our brother with the letters of that fruit ? You see God told us that we are not to eat of it (ingest it). Look at what has become of this world once the partakers eat of its pages. They quickly hear a voice that tells them they and their neighbors are naked. (Who told you that you are naked /God asked) Then they create a God who is more insane than they are. Who tortures people when they do not follow him. They claim God loves them but will hunt them down to harm them if they do not follow him. So I ask again. Who of us can eat from the pages of Good and Evil and not become insane with a created God in the image of that insanity?

    May 15, 2011 at 10:25 am |
  5. Nancy

    People need to read the Bible or any holy book and decide for themselves what the truth is. Organized religion is a business enterprise. No one should take a packaged interpretation to guide their lives.

    May 15, 2011 at 10:23 am |
  6. Megan

    This article is idiotic. Christians attend Church to Worship God too and Fellowship with other Believers! So, just because I have access to a Bible on my phone will not change my Church attendance habits.

    Really CNN, this is the best writer you could find?

    May 15, 2011 at 10:23 am |
  7. Michael

    Apparently CNN doesn’t enforce its own Terms of Service or I wouldn’t be able to read half these comments. “You agree not to upload, post or otherwise transmit any User Content that is offensive to the online community, including blatant expressions of bigotry, racism, abusiveness, vulgarity or profanity.” I guess it doesn’t mention religion intentionally.

    May 15, 2011 at 10:22 am |
  8. ken

    The "church" is simply a political structure which exists to command power and money. Faith is independent of "church" and requires nothing but belief. From what I have seen of the misuse of power in the "church", we are far better off without it. Let the sky and Earths wonders be our Church, after all THAT is God TRUE gifts to usl.

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

    Technology may be to blame for people not relying on a priest to hear scripture. But technology is not to blame for most Churches not operating in the capacity laid out in the Bible. Clearly, Church doesn't have the same meaning that it once did.

    May 15, 2011 at 10:21 am |
  10. The Truth

    Burn the Bible!!!!!!!!!!

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

    Faith is a sacred relationship between individual follower and God. Organised religion is a business, and is often as corrupt as politics. But the true believer shouldn't have any constraint between himself and his God. Whether thats in a church, on a TV, or via internet on a host of different means. Organised religion doesn't own that relationship...the believer does.

    May 15, 2011 at 10:21 am |
  12. David

    The Bible is a talisman for those who need structure and authority in their religions beliefs. It's simply easier to believe than to think.

    May 15, 2011 at 10:20 am |
  13. Floyd

    There are lots of translations of the Bible, used by various Christian religions. Many of them are quite different from each other. That's because they have been reworded to suit the beliefs of those religions.
    That's also why there are a lot of religious arguments–see the various theologians out there that have been arguing for centuries. I don't pay much attention to religious books for good reasons.

    May 15, 2011 at 10:20 am |
  14. jrock

    If God is almighty and created the heavens and earth and fish and people and plants and all that, why did he need people to write his will for man? Couldn't God just create create a permanent mountain or given us a daily cloud formation with a scripture? Or better yet, jus implanted it into our brains with all of the other important stuff? You know, like breathing.

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

    Any promotion or addition access to the bible is awesome! This is another source for learning the path to peace. This will add strength to the church, and validate the important message for all people!

    May 15, 2011 at 10:19 am |
  16. Rick

    What is happening could aptly be called "Luther 2.0."

    May 15, 2011 at 10:18 am |
  17. stoptheliars

    when the bible referred the church, it was talking about the people. A building in not the church, a building makes it a business and those businesses need to help the country by paying their share of the taxes in the US.

    May 15, 2011 at 10:17 am |
  18. Kinoeye

    CNN - Can you please wake up your editors? 10,0000 is not a number I'm familiar with. Either 10,000 people logged on that day, or 100,000. It sort of makes a difference. Of course, this points to a bigger issue: if CNN, with a full editorial staff, constantly posts stories online that are full of simple errors, just imagine the amateur translations of Scripture that will be shooting from smartphone to smartphone. Information technology is making us dumber while appearing to make us all so much smarter. Measured and careful thinking has gone out the window.

    May 15, 2011 at 10:17 am |
  19. Lee

    The Bible is the Word of God-no question in my mind about that. The Bible has no mistakes. What appear to be mistakes come when people want the Bible to say what they want to hear. Also, the KJV is a translation but not the only translation. Others today do a much better job putting the original Hebrew and Greek into modern language and thats because of the technology of today.

    May 15, 2011 at 10:17 am |
    • Cedar rapids

      'What appear to be mistakes come when people want the Bible to say what they want to hear.'
      sounds like the christian agenda there, always using their interpretation to support their position.

      May 15, 2011 at 10:23 am |
    • svann

      I dont understand how you can believe both that there are no mistakes and also that the KJV doesnt do the best job of translation. If there is a bad translation is that not a mistake?

      May 15, 2011 at 10:28 am |
    • tony

      Exodus 14:19-28 or so proves that the Old Testament god is just an impotent weather affecting spirit, rather than all-powerful.

      May 15, 2011 at 10:37 am |
  20. Pastor D

    This is old news. I do not know where Lisa MIller has been lately, but digital Bibles in small hand held deveices like the Palm PIlot have been around since the 90's. Before that pocket size verisons of the Bible proliferated. The iPhone BIble app will have zero impact on the church. The impact of the availability of the Bible began with Gutenberg. I guess Lisa MIller is just catching up with 15th century history.

    May 15, 2011 at 10:16 am |
    • Daniel

      It's time to start the anti-church movement. Religion is for morons. E-mail me. danspeed001@hotmail.com

      May 15, 2011 at 10:21 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.