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. john

    What amazes me is that the Enlightenment happened 300 years ago and people still believe in the bible??

    May 15, 2011 at 8:21 am |
    • Dave

      It's the easy way to obtain control over huge swaths of stupid people. Always used by evil men to subjugate while holding on to power. Power. POWER. That is what the Bible represents to conservative and Christian leaders. The power over millions of fools.

      That's why it exists today. The Enlightenment was a thinking-man's philosophy. Religion is the exact opposite. For good reason: thinking people CANNOT be herded like cattle down the path of bogus ideologies that make some of the most evil men who ever lived rich beyond any of the worst cautious tales ever told in the Bible.

      May 15, 2011 at 8:28 am |
  2. John

    The gates of Hell shall not prevail against the Church, or the Deposit of Faith, or Holy Tradition, or Church teachings on morals. Give up Lisa. You are not the Christ.

    May 15, 2011 at 8:21 am |
  3. Jason R

    Too bad Rob Bell doesn't actually preach from the word, or at least without twisting the words found within.

    May 15, 2011 at 8:21 am |
  4. jerry

    one day the christians are going to be raptured and e4veryone who has been left behind are going to be so happy beause you are finally it the way you want it than it will be oh no what has happened and guess what by that time it will be too late

    May 15, 2011 at 8:20 am |
    • sara

      Can you please leave now? The collective IQ in the US may grow then. And I really think we need a bump.

      May 15, 2011 at 2:17 pm |
  5. Arran Webb

    "Aliens From Outer Space Land on Earth." Hi CNN you can use that headline if you ever need a lift.

    May 15, 2011 at 8:20 am |
    • Pumbaa

      According to the Epistle of South Park, God is some kind of a rodent, Jesus has a public access TV show, and Satan and Saddam are gay lovers living in Hell. God is Buddhist but the only people in Heaven are the Mormons.

      May 15, 2011 at 11:01 am |
  6. That's What's Up

    I've taken craps more interesting than religion is.
    dead folks in the clouds? ...for crying out loud...

    May 15, 2011 at 8:20 am |
  7. SidAirfoil

    I agree that the democritization of the Bible is a good thing, I have always believed that people read into the Bible whatever they want. The Bible is the ultimate Rorschach test. It is so open to interpretation that it can support or refute any belief. This is why it has been used through the millenia to justify war, murder, persecution, etc., in addition to other more benevolent pursuits.

    That everyone can now use a cell phone to access the Bible anywhere, anytime, and can link with like-minded people anywhere, anytime, will only accelerate the process of chipping away at the monolithic structure of Christianity. This process began with the break of the Protestants from the Catholics, and continued as the Protestants rapidly fragmented further into a plethora of smaller sects. And even among Catholics there are disagreements (see Mel Gibson). Soon technology will allow each individual to have his own personal religion (consistent with the expanding notion of a "personal relationship with Jesus"). At that point religion will, happily, be more self-conflicted and less dangerous overall than ever before.


    May 15, 2011 at 8:20 am |
  8. Corey

    The more people who read the Bible, and the more accessible it is, the better.

    May 15, 2011 at 8:19 am |
  9. April

    As a YouVersion user and a pastor, I have to disagree. A few weeks ago, I successfully completed a full year Bible reading program through YouVersion. I read in a translation that was unfamiliar to me. I believe my biblical understanding has grown so much this year, and through the pages of Scripture the call for community – the call for belonging to the body of Christ – has been so apparent that I think anyone who actually reads the word will be challenged to no longer live their faith alone. The word of God is transformative – regardless of what form it is read in. The bible used to be entirely spoken – carried with people everywhere they went. How is this different?

    May 15, 2011 at 8:19 am |
  10. Julie @ Willow Bird Baking

    Wow, this article is based on an entirely unbiblical definition of the "church" first off, and on such a skewed vision of what the church is for! Assembling isn't about having scripture interpreted for you - these people seem to know about the Reformation, yet still seem to think we go to church to have our faith explained to us? Weird.

    May 15, 2011 at 8:18 am |
    • Pat Griffin

      They also probably know about all the different denominations that sprang up after the Reformation and how people go to their churches and learn their church's interpretations of their faith.

      May 15, 2011 at 9:24 am |
  11. Giancarlo

    All religions are bogus. Except for the Jewish Religion, which is the only true religion that is affirmed by the word of God. All the others especially the Mormon Church is the most bogus thing that there is. The Christian religion is second, that is why there are so many factions of it. The Baptist, the Seventh Day Adventist, the Pentecostals, the Jehovah Witnesses and on and on. God's word is only one, not many of their own beliefs.

    May 15, 2011 at 8:16 am |
    • Dennis

      Except for the Jewish....ah ha ha ha ha

      May 15, 2011 at 8:18 am |
    • Pat Griffin

      That's what they all say.

      May 15, 2011 at 8:28 am |
  12. reanew79

    Hebrews 10:24-25 (New International Version)

    24 And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, 25 not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

    Anytime people come together for any purpose there will be imperfection and "problems" it's human nature. However, this is the way Jesus established his church. I think it's important for people to come together and strengthen and encourage one another, and I think it's important to be under the leadership of a pastor who will 'watch and pray for your soul.' Furthermore, I don't think the church is in danger because of technology, rather I feel it is strengthened.

    May 15, 2011 at 8:15 am |
  13. Jim

    This is the dumbest case for an article "needed to fill a page." The Bible has been around for hundreds of years, many other religious stores selll The Daily Bread, Scripture read and various other forms of religious readings and now that it is on the internet, you think the church can fold ?

    People don't go to church to learn how to be a Christian. They go to worship and pay respect to Jesus Christ.

    And for some of the comments, you are right, no one is perfect. Not Christians, not Jews, not Muslims, not Protestants...no one. This is why it is important to try to live your life the best way you can and in order in which you would want to br treated, one of the Ten Commandments.

    Anytime you have a massive "society," such as the Catholic Church or the Jewish Teples, etc, there will be cracks. Again, no one is perfect, which is the reason why we are needed to remember to strive to make ourself a better person everyday, whatever religion we may choose.

    I can assure you that the internet is not going to cause the Catholic Church to crumble, just as it will not cause other religions to.

    Again, this is the saddest form of a journalistic piece I have ever seen HEADLINE FORCED upon readers.

    May 15, 2011 at 8:14 am |
    • sara

      Im pretty sure you could have chosen not to read the article. Or not even read it the whole way through, and not to read all these posts and not to leave a post yourself. So don’t whine this was forced on you. You have free will, use it, and go the F away.

      May 15, 2011 at 2:14 pm |
  14. Mike Durning

    They said the same thing about everybody reading the Bible during the reformation. But the Word of God changes people. Those people get together. God's people getting together, in whatever form, is the church.

    May 15, 2011 at 8:14 am |
  15. Kuwait

    Here is how my Holy Spirit gives me PEACE all day and every day:

    1/ Read a few New Testament verses in the morning
    2/ Meditate these verses thru
    3/ When in doubt of my actions... Ask Jesus to guide me
    4/ Knee down ask night... ask God Trinity to forgive all the sins that I have committed.

    In Jesus I Trust.

    May 15, 2011 at 8:13 am |
    • Nick

      please tell me you're joking. Are you really that stupid to do all of the above, and not question ANYTHING? Do you ever think, and I mean logically? Come on people, religion is so blatantly and obviously fake and ridiculous, it pains me to think that others truly believe this nonsense.

      May 16, 2011 at 3:26 pm |
    • Mike

      Nick, it pains me that you don't believe and I want you to be in heaven with us!!

      May 16, 2011 at 4:52 pm |
    • Nick

      Mike, there is no such thing as heaven. When you die, that is it. There is nothing after death. As much as you want there to be, and as much as your fear of the afterlife inspires you to believe...there is nothing. Open your mind.

      May 16, 2011 at 7:53 pm |
  16. my two cents

    The entire premise of this article is off base – yes, God gave us his word to know and read and understand and throughout time the mode of accessing God's word has changed, but the words we read instruct us to live out our faith in the context of community... you cannot read the psalms without seeing that David loved and yearned to be with others to praise God...God calls Moses to lead Israel as a nation community to the promised land...Jesus calls his church to "go and make disciples of all the nations"..the letters of Paul in the NT speak of "you" over and over, not singular but plural "you"....Revelations speaks of the myriad of believers around the throne....all this to say that being a believer is not a "Lone Ranger" endeavor....I can sit under a tree and worship him and yes God speaks to me singularly through his word, but if I am to become more "patient, kind, gentle, faithful, loving, submissive" it is usually fulfilled by living out my life in a community of other people, ie. I get to practice what I am learning towards others..

    May 15, 2011 at 8:13 am |
    • LJ

      Exactly what I was thinking!

      Also, "anyone who has a smart phone" is a very, very small minority on a global scale. We represent an economic elite.

      So, not only is God relational and set the whole thing up for us to be in relationship with Him and with each other, but smart phones are only popular in a small economic "bubble" of global society, only affecting a small portion of the global church.

      We like the idea of being able to "do church" as an island, because relationships are messy and people let us down. But you cannot grow without them.

      May 15, 2011 at 8:32 am |
  17. JWH

    If they are lost anyway...a new gadget makes no difference.

    Is Islam in trouble with smart phones? Be fair now CNN, stop manufacturing news.

    May 15, 2011 at 8:12 am |
    • Shalisa

      I think Lisa Miller is an idiot. Why? We have had this technology for years as well. It is called a printed book. More Bibles exist than any other book and in more languages. This is nothing new. People could have 'instant' access to a Bible by purchasing a Bible (just as they had to purchase or 'rent' a cell phone). This article reminds me of how people claimed (in the past) that the first phones were dangerous to God, then radio, then TV, then computers, etc.

      Ever since Gutenberg, the Bible has been accessible to any literate person (unlike before). iPhones and iPads just continue this tradition in a new format, but this article really isn't NEWS!

      May 15, 2011 at 8:23 am |
  18. he is alive

    when the world fails to G O D...satan wins...that is the devils plan....everything science claims to know is absurd, scienece knows satan

    May 15, 2011 at 8:11 am |
    • Dave

      IGNORANCE is Satan. Not science. Science is fact is truth is the means to understand nature aka creation. Go learn or you are the Devil's everlasting helper among men.

      May 15, 2011 at 8:17 am |
    • Tom

      @he is alive – your comment is a slam against God that he/she/it couldn't create all the amazing things we have discovered in science. I personally feel closer to God knowing the wonders of the universe than I do sitting in a church.

      May 15, 2011 at 8:23 am |
  19. PhillUranus

    We hope so!

    May 15, 2011 at 8:11 am |
  20. doc77

    Nope, the church will survive. Denominations may change, but not the true Church of Jesus Christ...even the "gates of Hell shall not prevail against it". Not gonna happen.

    May 15, 2011 at 8:11 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.