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. cm

    So the whole purpose of church is simply to read the Bible? Lisa Miller lacks a basic understanding about why people go to church, and what function it serves. Churches exist for worship, for personal teaching, and for communal fellowship and service with other believers. The corporate worship experience is a unique one that cannot be adequately replicated on any remote technological device. Singing and praising God in a room full of people together is something you can’t do on an iPad. Secondly, people go to church for personalized teaching from a pastoral staff that know them and care about them. No generic spiritual advice website or app can provide such personal, one-on-one shepherding. Thirdly, people go to church to be a part of a community of faith that supports and cares for one another as members of one family. That sort of fellowship cannot be enjoyed by social networking, people need to meet and share with one another in the flesh. You can’t give people a hug when they’re feeling upset via web cast, nor can you make a meal for them when they are sick, nor can you remotely visit them in the hospital. Technology undoubtedly is changing the way people study the Bible, and how churches operate, but it offers no equivalent alternative to what is offered by personally attending and participating in a church, and the personal human interactions one experiences by being a part of a community of faith.

    May 15, 2011 at 8:27 am |
  2. The_Mick

    The vast majority of fundamendalists only read certain passages. They do not study the flaws made in translating the bible in to Greek then Latin then English.

    When the King James version was translated into English, the authorities had several major problems with incompatible passages. So they simply changed them! For example, 2 Samuel 21:19, tells us Elhanan, not David, slew Goliath. So the King James folks simply changed him to "the brother of Goliath." ALL ancient official old testaments – from Aramaic version of Alexandria to the first Greek translation – say it was Goliath.

    Additionally, in describing one of Saul's campaigns, the scribe who copied what became the official modern version inadvertantly skipped over a phrase to another phrase that started with the same words and left a key explanation out. The correct passage was discovered in the Dead Sea Scrolls, clearly makes sense, and all organized Christian and Jewish organizations have agreed the correction shall be applied to all future Bibles.

    I could go on and on pointing out obvious incompatibilities, obviously figurative passages, passages copied from older-than-Abraham Mesopotamian and Egyptian sources and then fitted to Biblical figures, archeological evidence of Biblical fraud (Jericho's wall fell 1000 years before Joshua was born, etc.), etc. etc.

    Yet these fundamendalists will scream that the King James Bible is "THE truth"!

    May 15, 2011 at 8:27 am |
    • Gene

      I'm working on my masters in theology and Mick, you are telling the total truth.
      We need a new revised version more accurate to the original manuscripts and they are the only ones that were written with the Holy Spirit in firm control.

      How about The Holy Spirit? A she in Hebrew, neutral gender in Koine Greek, and a he in Latin.

      May 15, 2011 at 10:17 am |
  3. ton

    CNN have Christianofobia.

    May 15, 2011 at 8:26 am |
  4. Ryan M.

    Those who are faithful will always come- this is just silliness. If people are leaving churches, it is not because of technology.

    May 15, 2011 at 8:26 am |
    • Sesilia

      Dear Rose and Roy: Thank you. These are sensitive times, eepicsally in the news, around all religions and personal beliefs. May I be open to all. Open hands. Open hearts. Poets are my favorite people because they (you) do have open hands and open hearts. May blessings continue to abound. Jane

      August 1, 2012 at 1:06 am |
  5. Walter

    Anything that can make people rely on the church less is a good thing. I believe that religion's relevance will continue to decrease. If you can't afford to take care of yourself, don't have children you can't afford. Don't expect a god (or the government) to help you out.

    May 15, 2011 at 8:25 am |
  6. Rose

    p.s. to go with my previous post:

    "The kingdom of God is within you"

    May 15, 2011 at 8:24 am |
  7. Leigh

    This is a very unfortunate and misinformed article. If you actually READ the Bible, I don't care if it's the dainty golden edged pages, on the screen of your smartphone or what, Jesus and the authors of the New Testament epistles emphasize again and again and again the importance of living the Christian life in community – walking through life with other people, in *real* life, in *real* time.

    Yes there is value in online relationships, but it's not comparable to a real life friendship, and the joys and challenges of walking through life with other Christians in your local community. Btw, I am one of the young 20 somethings spoken for in this article, and I very much enjoy the access to information about the Bible I can find online, and the connections to local and global ministries and connecting on facebook with my *real* church friends, but I am 100% committed to my real life church and know that I can not be an authentic Christian without authentic relationships!

    May 15, 2011 at 8:24 am |
  8. aaa

    2000 years of catholic history, the catholic church was viaible in the age of codex wooden scripts just as in the age of the iphone
    read my article why the church is fundamental

    May 15, 2011 at 8:24 am |
  9. Doug

    "digital technology gives users the text, plain and simple, without the interpretive lens of established authorities"

    I guess you mean direct, plain and simple once it's been translated. Two thousand years later.

    May 15, 2011 at 8:24 am |
  10. Erin F

    As a Catholic I can say that for 2000 years the church has faced all kinds of threats and attacks. Attacks from nations, attacks from within, attacks from outside, reformations, etc and without fail everytime the church has survived. Why? Bc Jesus promised to remain with his church until the end. As he said: "the gates of hell shall not prevail against it!". That includes this postmodern, secularized, technology obcessed age!

    May 15, 2011 at 8:24 am |
  11. Southern Gentleman

    I hardly think that smartphones will bring an end to church system that has been in effect for roughly 2000 years. Despite the ability to quickly refer to scripture in quick and easy manner with a smartphone, individuals still need the social interaction that comes with church. Church in today's America is just not another program to attend to attain some sort of spiritual gratification. It is an avenue for people to come together in a social community with others who share similar religious views. In other words, people are social beings and use church as a means to socially interact with others like them. Personally, I'm tired of reading such headlines as "How Technology Can Bring Down The Church." These headlines are only used to catch someone's attention in the hopes they will click on your article, because otherwise no one will read the article based on the illogical context it contains. Alas "you got me" to read your article, but I only hope that my comment will make the author think twice before she posts another silly and useless article.

    May 15, 2011 at 8:24 am |
  12. yesimabeliever

    Perhaps the end of the church as we know it today is not a bad thing:)
    That being said, the church, His church, will have no end. It's in the Book. Look it up on your smartphone. Matthew 16.
    God Bless America

    May 15, 2011 at 8:24 am |
  13. Cambob

    Religion is a drug for people who can't handle reality.

    May 15, 2011 at 8:23 am |
  14. Rosemary

    People don't necessary go to church because they can't read. They go to church for the fellowship of like minded people. The internet can do a lot of things, but it can't give you a hug when you need it.

    May 15, 2011 at 8:23 am |
  15. That's What's Up

    the closest I've been to heaven is the hummers this little waitress used to give me.
    she, and her abilities, were truly some of the lord's best work. ....let us all give praise...

    May 15, 2011 at 8:23 am |
  16. Bruce

    This is silliness. The Religion part of Christianity started with Christ's direction to Paul. Jesus deliberately sent apostles out among the Jews, the Gentiles, the Romans... to EVERYONE. You can point at the troubled times of Martin Luther, but Christianity was always meant for all people in all language. Even a cursory reading of the bible would tell you this (Lisa... read it would you?) The idea that putting verse out electronically is going to 'undermine' the church is ridiculous. It actually helps spread the word of God to people that would not open a hard bound book.

    May 15, 2011 at 8:23 am |
  17. steve

    if you mean stopping wasting money on expensive buildings – hopefully yes.
    if you mean relationship wih God and People – that will never happen because the Church is God's not pastor's.

    May 15, 2011 at 8:22 am |
  18. Rose

    The real church, synagog, temple, cave, is found within you. If you go within first, and nourish your relationship with God within yourself, there you will find the peace and love and understanding one seeks. Then when people who do likewise gather together...that becomes a church filled with true lovers of God. On the other hand, if one takes their 'body' to church or not, but never inwardly makes a sincere connection with God from within their heart and soul, it matters not whether they can recite the words of the bible at home or in church. They remain separated and merely a human tape recorder.

    May 15, 2011 at 8:22 am |
  19. carol

    I wonder why she did not mention public education. With the same media she is speaking of, we would no longer need the expense of teachers, which is the single biggest budget problem of cities and states. Maybe she is on to something here. With out the need for teachers and learning via on-line (as she states above for religion) we could rid ourselves of the teachers unions and the outrageous expenses associated, as there will soon be no need. YIPPEE!!! That alone could save America!

    May 15, 2011 at 8:21 am |
    • kkb777

      Is this post a joke? Are you being sarcastic?

      May 15, 2011 at 8:27 am |
    • 20th Maine

      Oh sure-and you SERIOUSLY think PARENTS are going to all stay home with their children all day every day? Or are all the kids going to be in one big room all online together? Yepper, kids are so good at self direction..Oh and by the way-when you are old and sick and needing help-and you WILL by the way-hope the doctor got his degree in online-but then you did save all that expense of paying a teacher..should be alot of comfort to you...

      May 15, 2011 at 8:37 am |
    • sara

      Really? No teachers? Hey if teachers were a premium though do you think it would help lower the birth rate? Because that is the only benefit I can see to getting rid of teachers. All these church idiots need someone to tell them that 2+2= 4. They may have a miss print in the bible that says its 5 and believe it.

      May 15, 2011 at 2:22 pm |
  20. Jason R

    Gene, what mistakes do you find? Outside of grammar, etc?

    May 15, 2011 at 8:21 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.