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

    the Gutenberg bible was 400 years ago, I wonder what people will say about us in 400 years...

    Probably not "they just needed more Jesus in their lives," but something like "they actually believed in a god?? Wow."

    May 15, 2011 at 8:36 am |
  2. Jenna Mary

    The more the BIble becomes readily avaiable, the better! Christians won't stop going to church; they'll just have fewer items to carry. The fact that people have the Bible on their phones will not diminish the desire to hear the Bible taught, nor will it lessen the need for human contact. Christianity is not a faith of the individual, but one of community.

    May 15, 2011 at 8:35 am |
  3. Mark Yelka

    Organized religion need not fear. They've got slick marketing. "Personal" savior? That's even slicker than "certified pre-owned" to distract people from the fact they're buying a used car. Commercial religion WILL figure out marketing strategies to entice the gullible to believe and be willing to pay, pay, pay.

    May 15, 2011 at 8:35 am |
  4. nick2

    Its all a bit of a silly argument since bibles are given away by so many groups. Perhaps in more fundamentalist congregations where so much emphasis is given to the written word and what the preacher makes of it, it make weaken his hold on the largely ignorant, but in the Catholic and Episcopaelian congregations, it is much more about pomp and ceremony – where the scriptural readings take on much more of a musical resonance than a study group – it will have little impact.

    May 15, 2011 at 8:34 am |
  5. NoWay

    Good. The sooner the better.

    May 15, 2011 at 8:34 am |
  6. JazzyNate

    The Christian Church is not defined by numbers of people meeting in buildings and certianly not by the measurementof those numbers exclusively in Europe and North America. The GLOBAL body of believers in Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour (i.e. The Church) will only expand and benefit from the proliferation and availability of Scripture in various languages accross multiple technology platforms. I read my Bible on my Blackberry (Youversion) and I had the option of choosing multiple languages. This is good for spreading The Word – no problem from my perspective. It is more of an problem if you are against the Bible and don't want the Christian message spread.

    May 15, 2011 at 8:34 am |
  7. MIke

    We could only pray that this will be the start of the end corrupt religious organizations.

    May 15, 2011 at 8:33 am |
  8. APK

    The author does not understand what "the church" is. It is not a building or a "constraining religious structure." It is the bride of Christ and those who dive into the word, whether on paper or through technology, will be drawn to other believers. That is the church. That will NOT go away. They will also learn that the purpose of scripture is not to simply "inspire and console." 2 Timothy 3:16-17 – All scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work."

    May 15, 2011 at 8:32 am |
  9. Jimmy

    your looking at your local church as just a place were we have the holy word delievered. What the local church is, is a place of like faith and community. A coming together for inrichment, to fallow after the bible as one church body. The becoming of one church family, lifting one another up and shairing in burdings and growing our faith. Loving, caring, crying,hurting,healing

    May 15, 2011 at 8:32 am |
  10. Adrian

    I will say that the church continue in a different form moving forward. The church will embrace technology like all the rest in order to continue to spread the word. However, this article is really out of date. The different versions of the Bible have been on PDAs...for Years now. So, the readers of this may want to catch up now.

    May 15, 2011 at 8:32 am |
  11. SilverHair

    All the 'technology' has done little more than make chic the ability to 'tweet' personal versions. A forthcoming tower of babble.

    May 15, 2011 at 8:31 am |
  12. Shawn Irwin

    The sooner people quit listing to the hucksters and child molesters the better. The more people that actually READ the bible, the more will discover what a reprehensable book it is. For many who are ignorant of it consider it to be the ultimate truth and authority, rather than placing a high value on truth itself. The "god" arguement was, is, and will always be, weak when brought up against evolution. If I were a perfect, all-knowing being, I certainly would not create a world where sentient beings must prey upon other sentient beings to survive. If all the animals came from the ark, why are the marsupials only in Austrailia, and likewise with many other endemic species? If "god" is all-knowing and knows the past and future, why is there a old and new testament? The real problem with the "god" theory supporters is that they are naive, gullible and under-educated, or simply mentally lazy. Those who are mentally lazy accept what others say as true without verifying it. It's simply another aspect of evolution manifesting itself, deception is a survival mechanism, political and religious leaders have mastered it.
    If you cower behind an imagined god and dreams of eternal life, you are lying to yourself and to everyone else, which, morally speaking, is reprehensible. Facing the truth takes courage. "All religions bear the traces of the fact that they arose during the intellectual immaturity of the human race before it had learned the obligations to speak the truth. Not one of them makes it the duty of its god to be truthful and understandable in his communications." Friedrich Nietzsche

    May 15, 2011 at 8:31 am |
  13. True Beliver

    My concern would be that the internet squeezes the time people have to be close to God, and that is what will push them from the church. Not the lack of a hard-bound Bible. I worship nature, and to do that, I must find the time in my busy schedule to be in nature. I consciously make an effort NOT to let technology and internet and Facebook keep me away.

    May 15, 2011 at 8:31 am |
  14. Mudak

    There really are only two websites any bible student needs to be aware of:

    The Iron Chariots Wiki, and the Skeptics Annotated Bible.

    May 15, 2011 at 8:30 am |
  15. gogogopher

    Researching the Bible.... that's going to wake up the world.... MYTH.

    Jesus killed children with bears?
    A father kills his virgin daughter, then burns her body.... spreads blood on the coals..... so JESUS can smell her burning body?
    Angels havin' boom a boom with human GIRLS and Women.... creating a RACE OF GIANTS?

    All can be found in the Bible.. Would Jesus really kill kids? Angles and women havinin' smokin' goin' on...? Church leaders are lying to you Christians....

    May 15, 2011 at 8:30 am |
    • GarrettH

      Ok you didn't get any of that right. You should probably read the Bible instead of just repeating what some other fool said.

      May 15, 2011 at 8:38 am |
    • sara

      okay let me help. Genesis 4:17
      "And cain knew his wife; and she conceived and bare Enoch..."

      please tell me where his wife came from. if god created adam, then eve from adam, and they had Abel and Cain. and Cain killed Abel. Then who the Hell is Cains wife?

      the first amoung many questions.

      May 15, 2011 at 3:27 pm |
  16. Andrew Jones

    II'm not religious, and as a non-religious person, I don't understand all this business with the "interpretation" of the bible. How can christians or any other religious person take their scripture which is supposed to be the divine word of their god, and interpret it as they see fit? Do they think their god didn't do a good enough job with it the first go around that they need to dive into it and figure out what he meant to suit their needs better? Isn't he supposed to be infallible and omnipotent? Seems rather arrogant of them to me, but what else is new.

    May 15, 2011 at 8:29 am |
    • Scott

      Andrw: If you don’t interpret it the thing is just gibberish

      May 15, 2011 at 4:42 pm |
  17. Matt

    "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."

    This one quote totally undermines the entire article. The KJV as the first vernacular English Bible? What about the Wycliffe Bible? (1300s) or the Geneva Bible (1500s). People ignorant of the history of the Bible and the Church should not comment on such matters...

    May 15, 2011 at 8:28 am |
  18. That's What's Up

    the thing I love the most about organized religions is the tolerance they preach. Unless of course you ask a follower to be tolerant of another's belief...... then your heathen a.s.s is going straight to hell

    May 15, 2011 at 8:28 am |
    • chris

      halleluyah brother!!

      May 15, 2011 at 8:34 am |
    • CDM

      You have been talking to the wrong Christians. A true follower of Christ would never say that.

      May 15, 2011 at 8:36 am |
    • That's What's Up

      @CDM – I never mentioned Christians in my statement. ....but your reply says it all

      May 15, 2011 at 8:45 am |
    • sara

      Haha! CDM = fail.

      May 15, 2011 at 2:51 pm |
  19. Sam

    The idea that one piece of technology will do away with the "Church" is ridiculous. The "Church" is its people/community. Not the organized structure of Buildings, Religious Hierarchy and offices. The church is an expression of mankind coming to worship and interact with God and as long as there is Man (in the generic rather than a gender) and he/they are looking for something greater than themselves, there will be a church. And if the bible becomes a microchip embedded into ones brain for instant access, there will still be a church. Its form may change, its expression may change, but its existence will not.

    May 15, 2011 at 8:28 am |
  20. claire fraser

    That is not one of the ten commandments. That is the 'golden rule'.

    May 15, 2011 at 8:27 am |
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