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. zen monkey

    This article is very scattered and seems to lack a real point. It states that churches will become obsolete, and then cites Luther in support of lay-reading of scripture. Isn't there a religion inspired by his methods? That's like saying there's no such thing as Catholicism anymore, and then quoting the pope.
    Also, the popularity of e-everything is very overstated. Facebook and Twitter have their place, but they haven't actually replaced conversation. People attend church for education and community. The education is because the Bible is a difficult book in some sections and people want to hear from an educated scholar. The community, in its various services and charities, certainly has not been replaced. I've never given food or clothing to the homeless via chatroom, or repaired a house online. Some things still require working with your hands and a physical presence, not just a few noncommittal keystrokes.

    May 16, 2011 at 1:23 pm |
  2. sadiesadie

    It is my opinion that this woman is a fool. I have not read something this foolish in a long time.
    First off, having the ability to receive the word of God online isn't new (Bible Gateway) and has been used to bring people to Christ when they wouldn't otherwise have had ready access to a bible. Also it is a great evangelical tool that most people have on them at all times.
    I have friends that use their phones instead of a physical bible at church but I can't see it ever replacing church.
    People have been able to hear and see church services for years and it hasn't seemed to cut down on participation at all.
    Lastly, I was not questioned on this poll so her numbers are nothing more than a guess.

    May 16, 2011 at 1:21 pm |
  3. Karin

    Thanks to social media, my family has been able to remain a part of our home church 2000 miles away from where we live now. And thank God, because none of the churches we have visited here have satisfied our spiritual needs.

    May 16, 2011 at 1:15 pm |
  4. richunix

    How long did the clergy think it would take, before people came to realize what religion really is? A fantasy created thousands of years ago, continually perpetuated over the century as truth without any truth to back up the statements.

    I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.

    May 16, 2011 at 1:10 pm |
  5. Red

    The problem is that we young people "know everything"...we've got it all figured out...we are constantly begging for someone to just prove us wrong...and in a world where people demand proof for EVERYTHING, they're fooling themselves by begging for proof behind faith. Do not try to find proof, but on the same page do not condemn what you cannot disprove. Disagree, maybe, but don't condemn.

    May 16, 2011 at 1:08 pm |
  6. Chris

    I could not disagree more with the thesis of this article. Giving more and more people access to Scripture is something that the Church has been working towards for 2,000 years and is the reason that missionaries have been travelling the world for millenia. The fact that, in particular, young people can have easier and more frequent access to the Bible and more easily discuss it will only bring more people to the Church, not drive them away.

    May 16, 2011 at 1:07 pm |
  7. John D Giotta

    The fear is we can chop, reduce and render the bible into raw text. Sweeping away the mysticism and revealing the naive and grotesque words that most people ignore because it doesn't fit their world view. Everyone has their own inner-church (which Jesus wanted us to have... to break from Hebrew doctrine), if people read the words in raw text it loses it's power. Personally, I don't think its a bad thing. The religious texts are a tool, but why are we trying to fix want isn't broken. We have brains... now use them.

    May 16, 2011 at 1:04 pm |
  8. Jesus

    The bible is a theory about how to live, with fictional characters filling the roles to illustrate the point

    May 16, 2011 at 12:55 pm |
  9. Dan'l

    "...the King James Bible revolutionized Bible reading, bringing Scripture into a common vernacular for the first time for the English-speaking world."

    Eh, not so much. Prior to the KJV there was the Geneva Bible. The purpose of the KJV was to enforce the pravda of the Anglican faith, and to that end it omitted the copious notes the Geneva Bible provided to aid in self-interpretation.

    But whatever.

    May 16, 2011 at 12:54 pm |
  10. Mike in Maine

    Bring on technology! Bible for the masses in your pocket!

    But Rob Bell's teachings are Cr a P. It's not in the Word.

    May 16, 2011 at 12:53 pm |
  11. Vulpes

    "... starting at noon, more than 10,0000 users logged ... ". Really? 10,0000. how about 100,000?

    May 16, 2011 at 12:52 pm |
  12. Drew

    Comments here amuse me. I can almost guarantee you that none of the people posting here a theologians. None have a Ph.D, masters, or even a bachelors. Can you say FAIL?

    May 16, 2011 at 12:46 pm |
    • John D Giotta

      Stop trolling

      May 16, 2011 at 12:53 pm |
    • richunix

      Why woiuld I want to listen a to person who continues to beleive in a fantasy and regard it as truth without any proof what-so-ever and then try to qualified it with "I have a PhD"..

      Argument from authority (also known as appeal to authority) is a fallacy of defective induction, where it is argued that a statement is correct because the statement is made by a person or source that is commonly regarded as authoritative. The most general structure of this argument is:

      Source A says that p is true.
      Source A is authoritative.
      Therefore, p is true.

      I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.

      May 16, 2011 at 1:18 pm |
    • Aniram

      what's your point?

      May 16, 2011 at 1:33 pm |
  13. Tony Jones

    Thanks for the observation, I think that reading the Bible regularly has helped me. But getting the truth about the Bible has helped me the greatest. If you talk to Bible scholars, they have agreed that the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures is the most accurate translation of the Bible. Even the T.V.show Jeopardy had this as one of it's questions on the show.

    May 16, 2011 at 12:43 pm |
    • Holy Frijoles

      Huh? Seems like an overgeneralization to me, especially in regard to those bible scholars who don't agree.

      May 16, 2011 at 1:25 pm |
  14. Frogist

    Just read the t!tle of the article. Will read the rest, I swear. But was just too exited. Endeavour's final launch was this morning @ around 9. The sts-134 crew are in orbit right now testing the ams system that will be installed on the international space station. My absolute best wishes go out to Commander Kelly and crew. You do us proud. Come back home safely.
    BTW NASA tv will be giving updates and video from the flight till Endeavour returns. You should totally go check it out!

    May 16, 2011 at 12:42 pm |
  15. july4th1776

    Despite what this author advocates, the Scripture stills states in Hebrews 10:25 – "Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is." While some may say that you can "assemble" online, the reasoning is flawed. After all, who goes on a "virtual date" or "virtual meal" and equates it to meeting in person? Scripture has it right – we should be assembling together as a church family – but, as the article adeptly points out, no one knows or reads Scripture anymore. 🙁

    May 16, 2011 at 12:40 pm |
    • John D Giotta

      But who said the medium had to stay the same?

      May 16, 2011 at 12:52 pm |
    • Holy Frijoles

      Absolutely!!! I was thinking of Hebrews 10:25 (couldn't remember the address). The church is not the church if we do not assemble. We are strongest when we worship together, learn together, hold each other accountable, bear each other's burdens, and encourage one another. The new technology available for learning, reading, and fellowship can be valuable to an extent–it is a set of tools, after all–and there's the added benefit of reorienting us in relation to empty tradition in hopes of reconsidering how we worship and how we live out our faith in the world and with each other. But the anonymity that the internet affords us (hello, trolls) gives us the same "distance" between each other that can make for some pretty empty, and perhaps false, online "fellowship." I hope we can figure out how to effectively use all of it. Can't get away from the face-to-face, though. We are called to bless others at least as much as we are to humble ourselves enough to receive blessing. We gotta be available: the best shoulder to cry on is an actual shoulder; when you are physically hungry and without resources, your phone won't cook you a meal or give you a place to stay; bible study is best with others sitting next to or across from you; etc.

      May 16, 2011 at 1:11 pm |
  16. mattmchugh

    The fascinating - and perhaps not inaccurate - underlying assumption here is that ignorance is broadly beneficial to organized religion. Personally, I think a religion can survive and prosper with a literate and informed congregation - but it does need to adapt. Some are futher along than others.

    May 16, 2011 at 12:40 pm |
  17. Sam Houston

    Matthew 5:3

    May 16, 2011 at 12:37 pm |
    • richunix

      richard 1:1

      I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.

      May 16, 2011 at 1:14 pm |
  18. Matthew

    This is not very smart because half of the reason church exists in the Bible was for Believers to meet face to face and interact. It was just as much social as the teaching quality. It is also sad that believers don't believe the Bible and I notice that. There are a lot of things mentioned in the bible that Christians don't have any clue about and you feel like you have to teach them.

    May 16, 2011 at 12:33 pm |
    • Davidloc

      I wish everyone would read the bible and see what a man made construct it is. The other reason the church is there is to feed the church's insatiable need for wealth. Just enjoy life while you have it and stop wasting it on this garbage.

      May 16, 2011 at 12:53 pm |
  19. sealchan

    My two cents...God and humans have always struggled to hear each other. Ignorance usually accompanies sin. We must all strive to eliminate as much ignorance as we can but this is always a matter of personal choice as to where to begin. There is just too much to cover.

    One place I have chosen to start is by reading Willis Barnstone's "The Restored New Testament". It restores aspects of the New Testament that have been hidden by Catholic/latin and later changes.

    I find my understanding of the Word augmented and clarified by science, comparative mythology and depth psychological perspectives.

    May 16, 2011 at 12:32 pm |
    • MarylandBill

      How can it restore books to the New Testament that were never in the New Testament to begin with?

      So many people seem to think there was a conspiracy to hide "authentic" scriptures from the common people. But looking at the history of the Bible, one can see that the books that were accepted, got accepted after centuries of sifting and comparison to Sacred Tradition. Yes, it is true that other "christian" groups, groups that did not survive into the Middle Ages might have held these books as being scripture, but they were never part of scripture amongst groups that would be identified as Christian today.

      May 16, 2011 at 12:54 pm |
  20. brad

    As the article says "...bringing Scripture into a common vernacular for the first time for the English-speaking world." It doesn't mention Enginlish-reading world. Lots of people could SPEAK English in thoses days. But anyone who could READ or WRITE, read or wrote in Latin. Furthermore, no book will interpret itself to you, especially the Bible. Can everyone who can read the Bible interpret it correctly? Apparently not, considering the vast numbers of disagreeing Protestant sects in existence. The Catholic church wrote the New Testament, translated, and safeguarded it for 1600 years before Luther. Only the church is qualified to interpret. In the Protestant churches, anyone who can read the Bible is the Pope.

    May 16, 2011 at 11:13 am |
    • Frank

      Interesting paradox.

      May 16, 2011 at 12:27 pm |
    • Johnny

      This is great! The Bible should be delivered to the masses in as many ways as possible. The Bible is the best interpreter of itself. Read Howard Hendrick's book, Living By The Book. He teaches the bible study methods course at Dallas Theological Seminary and his method is what pastors use when they study God's Word. His book is very down to earth and he is so honest and thorough. For those confused on how we have the Canon, buy a copy of The Bakers Encyclopedia Of Apologetics, by Norman Geisler. The Church did not just decide what books they liked and wanted to keep. The Holy Bible was revealed to the Church, in a similar way Christ was. The value of Scripture is established by God Himself, not the Church. To misunderstand this would lead to errors like accepting literature not inspired by God, but man, like the Apocrypha and other literature the Bible does not agree with or reference. Again, the Bible is the best interpreter of itself.

      May 16, 2011 at 12:45 pm |
    • Johnny

      Ok seriously, study the Scripture by Observing, Interpreting, and Applying it, in that order. Reading a verse or verses and then immediately concluding we have correctly interpreted it w/o Observing it first could lead to a sever MISINTERPRETATION, which would lead to a MISAPPLICATION. Then we have a situation where we are doing something that God would not want us to do. Anyone really can APPLY God's Word, but they have to actually study it. Studying Scripture will not replace going to Church. If people would read Scripture w/o preconceptions they would end up going to Church. Period.

      May 16, 2011 at 12:53 pm |
    • jbmar1312

      Brad, please forgive me for I know much of what I say will be offensive to you. You are taking a traditonal Catholic Stance. One without scriputrual basis. The Holy Spirit has the singular role of revealing truth to those who will listen and hear. The Barean's are commended for studying the word and showing themselves approved. Jesus said to knock, ask, and seek and the Father would answer. He certainly wasn't talking about the Pope. Although you would like to ascribe to the Pope being Chist on Earth, that is heresy. The Catholic church has done a noble and marvelous job of maintianing the scripture though, bringing many beautiful traditions forward ... along with some others that are heretical. No sir, you do not need a priest to interpet the Word of God for you. This is the role given to the Holy Spirit. The same Holy Spirit that resides in all believers. The same Holy Spirit that convicts the whole world of sin. The same Holy Spirit who resides here and now on this earth with us until Christ's return. Like you I was raised in certain doctrines. It takes a willingness to read God's word, to be lead by the Holy Spirit (as much as we can in this flesh) and to be open to repentance when what we begin to learn causes us to question the doctrines of man, not God. Church traditions do not always line up with God's Word. I beg you to entertain the possibility that not everything you believe today is of God and scriptually based. If it were other you and I would be perfect. We are not. God Bless

      May 16, 2011 at 12:54 pm |
    • TheOracle8191

      @ jbmar1312

      Amen, brother/sister 🙂

      May 16, 2011 at 1:02 pm |
    • David, CA

      Organized religion ( the RCC in particular) would wither and die without ignorance and fear to keep its' members in line.

      May 16, 2011 at 1:03 pm |
    • Norm

      Lovely little horror story the Bible...

      Just look at the example tweet in the picture above.
      It's full of barbaric, out of date social lessons from almost 2000 years ago.
      God better get here soon or at least write an updated version.

      May 16, 2011 at 1:12 pm |
    • HA25

      Sounds a lot to me like Pride and Hubris, Brad.

      I don't suppose, by the way, you want to remind readers what else the Catholic Church did for 1600 years? Like guard the status-quo; assert power through the judiciary; enact pennance essentially buying your way out of sin; and probably most of all repress any scientific achievements that didn't agree with beliefs held a thousand years ago.

      May 16, 2011 at 1:23 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.