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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. Big Daddy Rat

    The only part of Christianity that makes sense to me is the timeless concept of doing unto others as you would have them do unto you.
    As for the rest...I don't belive in magic or witchcraft,and no technology can fix that.

    May 15, 2011 at 10:46 am |
  2. wade

    also, i don't believe Rob Bell was the appropriate person to interview for this article. I mean, Rob Bell himself can bring down "the church." he has his own controversy to deal with based upon his own views. But maybe all these questions can be answered on May 21st...another laughing stock that christians are having to defend,

    May 15, 2011 at 10:46 am |
  3. David

    Imagine that! God, Creator of the universe panicking over a crisis. That’s funny!

    May 15, 2011 at 10:45 am |
  4. didyouknow

    Did you know the bible is full of hate and criminal acts? Of course Christians don't know that because they never really read the bible, just listen to the highly edited/selected quotes their ministers use. go to http://www.evilbible.com and you will see the real bible and if you have any intelligence, you will admit that either god does not deserve worship or the bible has nothing to do with god at all.

    May 15, 2011 at 10:41 am |
  5. Good and Evil

    Believing is easy and part of the human brains response to manipulation and ignorance. Doubting is the divine inspiration. Standing on Truth will first slay your gods of traditions. The idol must first be taken down by doubting it's reality. Then and only then will we meet and fellowship with Truth. Follow your doubts first....it is inspired by God.

    May 15, 2011 at 10:41 am |
  6. Moderate

    Seems like we're getting off track with this discussion. Should it be about attacking/defending Christianity and people’s beliefs, or about the implications of the technology that the author enlightens us to? So, here's a thought… if the Bible is available to quickly look up verses, that can very often be taken out of context without knowing the background which church and educated clergy can provide, could it lead to more extremist Christians; similar to extremist Islamists who take verses out of context from the Koran, or other examples from other religions?

    May 15, 2011 at 10:39 am |
  7. Church Shopper

    When my kids were about 5 and 3 we went church shopping. We were not "religious". We bought a Christianity for Dummies and Judaism for Dummies. We read a few pages of each and put the books down. Googled a bit and found Beliefnet .com. Took the Belief-o-matic quiz. The results revealed of a religion that we had never heard of that encompasses many ideas of Christianity and Judaism – Unitarian Universalism. The web brought us there and we have been happy ever since.

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

    downfall of religion indeed – there was no jesus of nazareth as Israeli archaeologists have determined – and just look at the Egyptian god horus and compare it to jesus....i challenge you to. Horus was born of an immacculate conception on December 25th 3000 years ago, three wise men at his birth, baptised, crusified, ressurected.....i mean come on people...wakey wakey....

    May 15, 2011 at 10:36 am |
  9. A great man JC

    What I don't understand is why as science was allowed to be practiced, all the burning bushes, mana from heaven and all the wondrous " miracles " that men told about stopped. Some may say there are miracles happening every day, but those miracles are more great acts of kindness and self sacrifice. No more supernatural events. Could it be you can't fool people anymore. Religion had always used fear of damnation to obtain power an wealth and push their morals (agendas) on people. Unfortunately the religious fundamentalists form the three major religions are up to their usual shenanigans. All claiming their God has spoken to them and therefore it's ok to keep killing people that don't believe as the do.

    May 15, 2011 at 10:35 am |
  10. D Russell

    So Annabella – so your basic argument is that it can not be understood – so it must exist? To say that is logically weak is truly a insult logically weak arguments......

    May 15, 2011 at 10:35 am |
    • Theory

      Science, as we know it today, is based on theories. These are, simply put, ideas that scientists think explain how things work. The amount of proof we have for or against the theory does not matter, as long as the theory is the best explanation we have at that time and it fits most of the parameters. Many people will disagree with me on this next thought!! The problem with science today is that we cannot "disprove" a theory, only prove it wrong. What I mean is in order to say one theory is wrong, a scientist is expected to propose a better theory. No matter how much evidence we have against a theory, until someone comes up with something better that scientists agree on, the old theory sticks. The philosophy is that we have to have something to fill in that gap in our knowledge

      May 15, 2011 at 11:02 am |
  11. Lee

    My question is just this, why do churches exist in the first place? (besides for control) Jesus and his disciples preached outside all the time. Where does it say go to church on Sunday? Do any of these people think about this stuff?

    May 15, 2011 at 10:34 am |
    • Don Camp

      Church is not a place, it is people. Whereever the people met (or meet) to worship God, learn ans share from His word, and express care for one another that is where church is. I see churches meeting at Starbucks most every morning. The place is not important.

      There were (are) leaders because there are people who are further along in their faith and understanding than others. They are called by God to share their insight and encourage those who are following Jesus, just as they are. Thast also does not need a particular place for it to happen.

      May 15, 2011 at 10:59 am |
  12. wade

    technology is a tool that everyone must embrace and if not will be left in the dark. the times they are a changin'...and have always been. if churches want to play their cards right, they use the technology the kids' are already using! what if they preacher asked everyone in the congregation to pull up their smartphone apps. to look up a verse. to me, it sounds like technology can be a tool to recruit the younger generation. maybe it's the older generation that is stuck in their ways...

    and i thought one of the main concepts on why this country was established was because of religious freedoms? so, why do people have to come off so narrow-minded, stuck in their ways, ignorant. Religion = It's a choice people! If only people coudl respect that.

    May 15, 2011 at 10:34 am |
  13. Philip Pouliot

    It not just the technology that could bring down the church, it how the technology had grow them.

    The way I have seen what the technology have done to the church, they are growing to knowledge of God's word. Since we must know that church isn't the building site where people worship God, but the members of Christ or the body of God's children (beliver/Christians). Religious people are gaining better in there duities with what the technology can provide them.

    It not only the church that going well with the technology but also how many business company are growing too. The only problem we would see, there is a negative sign amoung to this subject. There are growing number of false/pagan church whom leading people the mixture true and false message. Because of how the pagan leader are gaining better in their service with the technology tool to trick or brainwash people mind.

    Yet, there is a good side effect amoung to this subject too. I know there are small number of faithful church members amoung us who are growing to knowledge of God's word better then before. That a good sign, because the bible did explain very clear in the book of Matthew 24:8-14. It explained that God in His power will spread His gospel to every one on earth before the very end of time.

    "All these are the beginning of sorrows. Then shall they deliver you up to be afficted, and shall kill you: and ye shall be hated of all nations for my name's sake. And then shall many be offended, and shall betray one another, and shall hate one another. And many false prophets shall rise, and shall deceive many. And because iniquity shall abound, the love of many shall wax cold. But he that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved. And this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come."

    Basically the technology is bring us the good side effect which including to the church members. Because I know that God is alouding technology in our life to get His message clear.

    May 15, 2011 at 10:33 am |
  14. FifthApe

    1 Peter 2:18
    Slaves, you should obey your masters respectfully, not only those who are kind and reasonable but also those who are difficult to please.

    This is gods word? Come on people – grow up.

    May 15, 2011 at 10:33 am |
  15. Ed A.

    Technology will bring down the church because people can now simply Google various bible verses to see the many contradictions and incredibly stupid things that may not have been noticed by the casual bible read of the past.

    I was brought up Catholic, later became a non-denominational Christian, now I'm a deist.

    It wasn't until I really began studying the bible that I realized how flawed it is. Back when I was a Catholic, it seems that those in power in the Catholic Church wanted to keep the flock of sheeple in the dark. Nobody really ever studied the bible more than what they just wanted you to know.

    Thanks to the technology of Internet search engines, it's much easier to see the blatant embellishments and fabrications in that so called inerrant book.

    I suggest that people read The Age of Reason by Thomas Paine, I can't dispute almost all he has to say about religion:

    http://www.ushistory.org/paine/reason/index.htm

    May 15, 2011 at 10:31 am |
  16. Jose Sanchez

    Reposting due to CNN's amateurish filter.

    Technology is bringing down the church as well as the religion, but that's due to being able to interact with many different viewpoints and criticize or seek critical viewpoints without reprisal. 50 years ago, in very tight-knit communities in the Bible belt, you'd be unlikely to run into a different viewpoint, and in any way doubting the religion would get you treated as a pariah. People are starting to realize that religion is more of an accepted insanity than a fundamental truth, and it doesn't stand up to criticism.

    May 15, 2011 at 10:31 am |
  17. Skeptic

    Can technology bring down the church? Can idiots become smart? Impossible.

    Lisa Miller has no clue what makes religious people tick. It's not reason. It's not logic. It's not intelligence. Rather, it's the lack of it.

    Why in the 21st century, after most humans knew the world was not created 6000 years ago, and religions are just the smartest enterprises to create jobs for priests, preachers, rabbis, and the Pope, religious people are still trapped in this well versed term "blind faith"? There is only one explanation. Some people are just plain STUPID.

    May 15, 2011 at 10:31 am |
    • Lou

      Right on! It's time to evolve!

      May 15, 2011 at 10:40 am |
    • rcamero

      Yep, that stupid Martin Luther, that stupid Thomas Merton, that stupid John Adams, that stupid Bob Dylan, and so the list may go. The questions and the available answers haven't substantively changed with the scientific revolution or with the advent of the 21st century. 'Sorry you're concerned about others' wrestling with the larger questions. 'Hope it all works out ok with you, and that you get just a bit less angry about it all.

      May 15, 2011 at 10:49 am |
  18. R

    I'm not a believer in the church. It was my understanding that being involved meant physically going and participating with that community. This is the problem with technology today, it has completely watered down the concept of human interaction.

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

      You're right. The technology is not a threat, it's a complement to one's faith and pratctice. Some people prefer to pray alone, however, the tradition is about community. The religion is based on faith, a sense of community, and Grace. The printed version didn't bring down the Church, it actually helped spread the religion, allowed for more interpretations hence, many new denominations.

      May 15, 2011 at 10:58 am |
  19. Meridian MS

    One should get their history right before writing articles for CNN. The King James Bible was not the first Bible published in the vernacular, and was, likewise, not the first Bible published in English. Two English Bibles preceded the King James in the Tyndale, and Douay-Rheims translations. These two, the Tyndale, and Douay-Rheims, are but two of the most successful; English Bible translations go back to the dawn of the Christianity in the English speaking world. Vernacular translations of Holy Scripture was common in the time of Christ. I understand that the printing press made books, and Bibles affordable. I realize that the King James being a state sponsored translation made its dissemination wide spread, but it is hardly the seminal work that this article makes it out to be.

    May 15, 2011 at 10:27 am |
  20. study it

    OK, since some people are already on edge whenever religion is mentioned, let's change it up with something less intense: Once, I did not understand football. If anybody asked me about it, I would shrug and say a bunch of stereotypes I heard from others. I would argue my hatred vehemently "Just a bunch of dumb guys jumping all over each other to chase a ball for points. Ugh! Barbaric! They must be stupid, and anybody who watches football must be just as stupid..." (hint hint, sound familiar?) It wasn't until I sat down with somebody who loves football and who can explain it clearly and rationally so that it makes sense to me, that I could appreciate it for what it is. Even if I am not a fanatical lunatic, I can now at least enjoy a game and understand why others feel the same. Perhaps some of you who hate God and the Bible and all things associated with it should calm your nerves and ask somebody who clearly and rationally loves God to show you why. Even if you are not converted, at least you will understand what these "barbarians" and thier followers are all about. Since you are so smart and enlightened surely you can appreciate the virtue of learning to understand a way of life from another's perspective and not just your own [bad or unfortunate] experiences.
    #truth.

    May 15, 2011 at 10:26 am |
    • GAW

      I guess we live in an age of growing intolerance. Religions all have their dark moments but lumping the little old lady who says "God bless you" along with the Taliban is poor thinking. What amuses me the most is that most of the so called atheists who post here are giving atheism a bad name in the same way that fundamentalists give Christianity a bad name.

      May 15, 2011 at 10:49 am |
    • Katie

      you could say the same thing about Islam.

      May 15, 2011 at 10:57 am |
    • Katie

      What about the people who read the Bible often, were very religious, attended Church services every week, thought deeply about everything, and still think it's barbaric?

      May 15, 2011 at 10:58 am |
    • GAW

      Facepalm

      May 15, 2011 at 11:17 am |
    • kevin

      Very nice argument, and I agree to a point. But when you suggest talking to someone who is rational and believes in the bible, it falls apart. I can see the allure of the core Christian message, which, much to the surprise of most Christians is a very socialistic one, but the Bible has so many fairy stories that you'd have to be selective about what is true. You can't rationally believe in all of it. Most Christians have an "all-or-nothing" approach to Bible truth, so they profess to believe it all even if it makes no sense. Peace to you if your beliefs help you and others. Too often religion is used as a bashing tool.

      May 15, 2011 at 3:29 pm |
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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.