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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. jwy

    Followers of Christ are called in community – the church. "Constraining religious structures" is a poor representation of what the church is really about!

    May 15, 2011 at 11:27 am |
  2. Ralph in Orange Park, FL

    Same s(tuff), different bowl.

    May 15, 2011 at 11:22 am |
  3. FifthApe

    Question for the Christians. What god would you be praying to had you been born in Mecca?

    Religion (god) is an accident of birth.

    May 15, 2011 at 11:21 am |
    • jwy

      Or put another way ... those born with easier access to Truth have a greater repsonsibility to respond by sharing and promoting that Truth with those who do not have that access.

      May 15, 2011 at 11:30 am |
    • FifthApe

      Again we see the religious mind at work. The ones in Mecca would say the very same thing. If you can't see the folly in your logic it speaks volumes about you.

      May 15, 2011 at 11:33 am |
    • Tim

      You can take Muhammed out of Islam and still have Islam. You can take Buddha out of Buddism and a still have Buddism. Christianity is the only "religion" where God inserted himself into the world to help us. All religions are about what you need to "DO". Christianity is about what has already been "DONE". It's simple and it works.

      May 16, 2011 at 11:48 am |
  4. Reality

    What technology, study and rational thinking will actually bring about:

    Recognizing the flaws, follies and frauds in the foundations of Islam, Judaism and Christianity by the "bowers", kneelers" and "pew peasants" will converge these religions into some simple rules of life.

    No koran, bible, clerics, nuns, monks, imams, evangelicals, ayatollahs, rabbis, professors of religion or priests needed or desired.

    Ditto for houses of "worthless worship" aka mosques, churches, basilicas, cathedrals, temples or synagogues.-----

    May 15, 2011 at 11:20 am |
  5. FifthApe

    God: I created you with free will, but if your don't accept me and praise me, I will BURN you in hell for ever and ever....

    But I LOVE you.

    Can a thinking person really believe the bible and all the nonsense it contains?

    May 15, 2011 at 11:18 am |
  6. Bensky

    Short story time. I was a born-again Christian, went on a short mission, read the Bible, starting asking questions, was told to "accept all things on faith alone," and quit the Church. Don't read the Bible and ask questions if you are intelligent enough to question the many contradictions.

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

      Therein is the problem organized religions have. It is all about control and they cannot control people who THINK.

      May 15, 2011 at 11:32 am |
    • FifthApe

      Or 'Blind Faith – because thinking is hard'

      May 15, 2011 at 11:38 am |
    • TIm Schmidt

      Who told you to "accept things of all faith"?

      Don't forget that all other religions are about what you need to "Do". Christianity is all about what is " Done". Hope to see you back.

      May 16, 2011 at 11:41 am |
  7. answer

    Here you can find the answers to all the contradictions:

    http://www.philvaz.com/apologetics/bible.htm

    May 15, 2011 at 11:15 am |
  8. Ann

    The wicked one according to his superciliousness makes no search; All his ideas are: “There is no God." (Psalm 53:1)

    May 15, 2011 at 11:12 am |
    • FifthApe

      Ann – there may well be a god. But with 100 % certainty its not any of the gods invented by humans – and that includes your version.

      May 15, 2011 at 11:35 am |
  9. Matt

    "According to a 2010 survey, more than a third of born-again Christians “rarely or never” read the Bible"

    Of course they don't – they've got far more important things to do: intimidate women at abortion clinics, preach hatred against Muslims, try to force schools to teach their religion instead of science, etc. And that's not even counting the never-ending battle against corporate taxes, environmental regulation and the social safety net! There's certainly no time to read about some hippie handing out free food and telling people to love their neighbors...

    May 15, 2011 at 11:06 am |
  10. PB

    I love the idea of religion moving online. I run http://www.quotethebible.com, and people seem to love it!

    May 15, 2011 at 11:03 am |
  11. LouAz

    Has anyone heard from your god in the last couple thousand years ? Seemed to interact with his chosen people (which does not make sense) quite a bit "back then" but seems strangely silent to all you "worshipers" since. Is you god really working out for you ?

    May 15, 2011 at 11:02 am |
  12. wade

    Religion is a choice!

    May 15, 2011 at 10:58 am |
  13. Pastor Evans

    All I have to say to you idiots who spit out this garbage is Read Matthew Chapter 16. Nothing will change or bring down the Church that Jesus Christ builds. The Churches that mankind builds will come down, and that's a good thing because we need what is of Christ, not of mankind!!!!

    May 15, 2011 at 10:53 am |
    • Zachary

      The irony of a "pastor" calling people "idiots" and then rambling on about Christ is pretty par for the course these days.
      Critical thinking will bring down Christ's church

      May 15, 2011 at 11:18 am |
    • Sam A.

      WOW... a fiery pastor! must be becasue of the new generation of high technology.

      May 15, 2011 at 11:22 am |
    • John

      Agreed, but what the author of the original article doesn't tell us is that the whole problem with this is that the technological advances have a disconnect. People, especially young people, are totally disconnected from communication or from conversation because they do not know how to do either! They are whizzes at keypunching a keyboard, can't spell, and lack knowledge. The Church established by Jesus Christ will always exist namely because we are human beings and we need the connection with others and with God. And it's not about religion....it's about FAITH!!!

      May 15, 2011 at 11:29 am |
    • jim

      Your church may not be the church that Jesus Christ built. You just say it is. Did Jesus call the Pharisees or Sadducees idiots?

      May 15, 2011 at 11:30 am |
    • chico

      Jesus said quite clearly: " No-one can come to the Father except through Me" [J esus died on Calvary for all peoples so it is necessary to believe in Him in order to be redeemed.
      The Bible has been interpreted loads of times but THESE words were recorded by people who were with Him at the time. They can't be 'interpreted' any other way.

      For those who believe no explanation is necessary
      For those who do not believe no explanation is possible.

      Scientists are just blokes with a theory they can't prove. Why give them credit for guesswork – when we are handed the truth on a plate?

      May 15, 2011 at 11:36 am |
  14. Don

    In my opinion, the new technolgy only enhances the functions that a good church should be performing anyway. The author of this article seems to think that churches are about presenting a strict view of the Bible and forcing down it's members throats, That maybe be true of some churches, but its certainly not true of all. The church I currently attend has many different Bible studies. Each of these are open discussions in which any and all points of view are openly discussed. In a recent study I was a member of, we had people who held a literal interpretation of the Bible, others who took an intepretive view, and one person who did not believe in God or the Bible. Opinions from all these view's were openly sought, respected and discussed. The goal in our Bible studies is to understand and learn from each other's view, not to cram them down each other's throats. Our church is not universalist, but we want to understand all points of view. And we are not alone. Every church I have ever been a member of operates like this.

    If technology encourages this sort of interaction, I am all for it. The only danger I see is that it may be seen as a replacement for one of the essential functions of church, that of the physical gathering of believers. Technology, as wonderful as it, can not replace a welcoming smile, a hug, a hearty laugh, a shared tear or a shared prayer. Think of it this way, its great to listen to music online, but its even more wonderful to sing in a choir and be a part of the wonderful chords that resonate through the sanctuary.

    Church, when done right, is a community. Its a place to learn. Its a place to find love, support and friendship. Its a place to find opportunities to serve God by serving our neighbors. Its a place you look forward to going to. Such a church will embrace the value of the new tools that technology offers, but it will never be replaced by them.

    May 15, 2011 at 10:53 am |
  15. Sinner

    @CedarRapids...actually Life itself is Supernatural...so whether you believe in God or not, you just admitted we ALL believe in the supernatural. Because at one point in time, something came from nothing. That's not natural. ALSO, science DOES point more to a Creator than it disputes one. RESEARCH DNA...scientists are having a hard time w/ that one. What about MORAL CODE? If Darwinism was legit, I could murder a millionaire and take his posessions. Survival of the fittest, right? Wild animals do it all the time. If evolution is legit, how come we've never seen a dog driving a car down the street or an owl teaching high school? Of course, you will laugh that off and say that's ridiculous...an thus you just laughed at evolution.

    May 15, 2011 at 10:52 am |
    • Zachary

      It's apparent that you have no idea what evolution even is by your incoherent ramblings. You've succeeded in only making yourself look like a fool. "Moral code" has nothing to do with natural selection and even less so with random mutation.

      May 15, 2011 at 11:13 am |
    • Tyler

      You have to the right to be as misinformed as you want, but that does not mean you should go around utilizing that right. Furthermore, you shouldn't showcase it to the world by typing an entire paragraph about a subject that you know NOTHING about. Every generalization, assumption, and statement about science and/or evolution in that paragraph was wrong. Do you have any science college courses under your belt? If not, please leave the science stuff to the rest of us. Come on people, it's not even about God with this one. You guys can have your religious/ anti religious arguments on here until your blue in the face. I just want people to except reality.

      May 15, 2011 at 11:27 am |
    • CatS

      If you look at 'moral code' it it nothing more than a written out set of natural 'rules' that any social animal must observe for the good order of a society. It balances the needs of the individual with the needs of the social group. It is not beneficial to the trust and cooperation of the social group to allow any member to simply kill another an take his possessions. It s also not good for the group to allow members take what belongs to another or sleep with another's mate. As for the rules about God – 'religion' is a social unifying mind set that's built into our DNA. Believe in God because you choose to. But morality is part of the human animal.

      May 15, 2011 at 11:30 am |
  16. Patrick McBarron

    Although it has been this way for centuries, it is sad that anger, hatred, cynicism and in many cases self promotion get in the way of honest, open dialogue concerning all aspects of scripture. I am a Catholic and in most respects embrace the interpretations of the Church concerning the Bible and related subjects. I also love the Baptist celebration of Christian values. The Friends/Quakers are an example of humility and brother/sisterhood.The Menonites and Amish call for a different, reverant , "old fashioned" livelihood and faith in forgiveness is an inspiration. I have been fortunate enough to visit Israel, the Holy Lands and the Palestinian Territories. Agree or disagree, I find the different Jewish interpretations of Scripture very fulfilling. The Moslem Call To Prayers sends positive chills through me and remind me of the need to be more mindful of God's presence through the day. Other religions show me different ways to live that help me through the day. I am a Catholic and I believe the constantly evolving Church and its tenets for living a God-loving and respectful life are best for me. Anger, fear, resentment, hatred and condescension are not going to "change my mind." Honest, open dialogue will serve to promote fellowship and a different way to look at things. The Church will get through this time as will other faiths and ways of life.

    May 15, 2011 at 10:50 am |
  17. RMD

    Uh, the first version of the bible to be published in the vernacular of the people was done by Martin Luther a couple of hundred years earlier. It helps to be factualy acurate on the few facts you use to help establish the credibility of your opinions.

    May 15, 2011 at 10:50 am |
  18. bob

    @att.... I never mentioned Religion in any of my comments. I said that my beliefs were my own. I have learned to except many concepts as fact thou they haven't been completely understood or proven. My original comment was addressing an observation of how the patrons treat one another.

    May 15, 2011 at 10:50 am |
    • AttnMustBePaid

      if you have come up with your own beliefs based on thinking, then i salute you. that is the way everyone should do it. we will still have disagreements, but we will be a better world if more people tried thinking objectively once in a while.

      May 15, 2011 at 10:55 am |
    • Aezel

      "I have learned to except many concepts as fact thou they haven't been completely understood or proven."

      That would be known as brainwashing. Despite whatever you may say, believing something without any proof is categorically insane. The only way your brain can come to do that is if someone has conditioned you to accept what they say without questioning them.

      May 15, 2011 at 11:04 am |
  19. Mike

    The fastest way to become an atheist is to read the thing.
    (oh, and to correct the article: the KJV was NOT written in the common vernacular. The editors explicitly choose a version of English ~200 years out of date to make it sound older and more authoritative.)

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

      Mike, investigate before you speak. 85% of the KJ Bible was word for word of Tyndale's Bible of 1534, and he was not using the English of 1334. You want the results of when atheists get into power; then look to the French Revolution, Lenin-Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot and the Kim's of North Korea. Atheism killed more people in the 20th century than religion ever did.

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

      i agree

      May 15, 2011 at 11:01 am |
    • Capo

      Totally agree Mike. Get rid of religion and the hate that it teaches and the world would be a better place. Sure, there are some non-religious people who have done misdeeds, but theses are the exception perpetrated by fanatical, and not the rule expressed by the vast majority of peaceful non-believing free thinkers who want to apply logic and reason instead of mysticism and mythology.

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

      Chris, the problem isn't atheism. There are just as many examples of Christian involving injustice and mass death. The problem is when an ideology is forced on a people. No matter what that ideology is.

      May 15, 2011 at 11:16 am |
    • schuylermac

      Yeah but their was more people in the 20th century than there ever has been (manipulative use of facts); It was still blind faith whether it was in ideaology or God and a lack of respect for human life. Theists are quick to justify the lack of humaness of those they are fighting as quick as athiest.

      May 15, 2011 at 11:18 am |
  20. Bonnie

    LIsa, I agree with you that the broad availability of the Word of our Almighty God in these last days is key to the freedom of people who truly want to know our God AND His Son, Jesus Christ-two distinct spritual individuals. This is a blessing from God who, out of His great love and powers of forgiveness has given mankind still another opportunity to come to Him by means of His own word, through the "WAY" presented by Jesus Christ. Jesus said, "But I tell you, something greater than the temple is here." (speaking about himself) Matthew 12:6. We must read Jesus' teachings on our own, to find out exactly what Jesus taught, whose wisdom was given him by his God and Father in heaven to show us the way to God's TRUE house– away from the falsehoods and the mindless, meaningless rituals promoted by men in the church designed to mislead, control, and extract money from unaware people who do not know the truth regarding our God. If we don't take this final opportunity to truly know our God, by His own words, how can we expect to live as family members in His house?

    May 15, 2011 at 10:46 am |
    • mcore

      "In these last days?" Oh brother....

      May 15, 2011 at 11:05 am |
    • j317

      "We must read Jesus' teachings on our own. . ." Which Jesus? The one from Matthew or the one from Luke? They obviously aren't the same. Read the lineages your bible gives you from each book. Not only do the names not match but the number of generations are so far off that the two different Jesus' couldn't be alive at the same time. One thing the internet helps to do is spread the word on the gross contradictions of that fiction and make them easier for everyone to find that chooses to actually read it for themselves. The reason so many Christians are believers is mentioned in the article. Many don't read the Bible. And I'm positive it's more than a third. It was just a third that admitted to not reading it. There are lots that claim to read it and don't. They just don't want to sound like bad Christians. Kind of like asking teens if they smoke marijuana and only reporting on those that admit it.

      May 15, 2011 at 11:25 am |
    • Casual Observer

      seems that you have a lot of blind faith. the Bible itself is a wonderful piece of historical religious literature
      perhaps parts of the OT – those that weren't ripped off from previous texts – may have had some divine inspiration
      but the NT is clearly the work of religious zealots who had many agendas and used the "word of God" as a hammer against the uneducated through the 20th century
      you reference "bible study" – what exactly does that mean? studying the bible itself is much different then studying the message that is in the bible I offer up that no one needs the bible to understand the difference between right and wrong traditional religion has been accurately described as an opiate for the unenlightened – much easier to blindly follow then to ask questions and look inward and find the real meaning of faith and truth in many cases religion is for the intellectually lazy

      May 15, 2011 at 11:32 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.