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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. Robert

    "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."
    I think you have no idea what the body or the church represents in the Bible. Understand the teachings of the bible first – Christ – Head of the church , Body Or the Church the bride and his second coming to take the church with him.

    it is doesn't matter whether the bible is available on a floppy disc ( the so called technology revolution you just mentioned was brought up more than a decade back), CD, DVD, iphone, Blackberry or any other device. It does not have the power to bring down the church, in fact it has nothing to do with how the church is built.

    May 15, 2011 at 8:51 am |
    • MK

      Yeah, I think the author minced words. Is it the "end of the church" (church=the premise of going to a building to worship?), the "extinction of the Bible" or, is it a "crisis for organized religion"...all of these caused by technology. I think it's the loss of faith that's bringing down the house.

      May 15, 2011 at 9:04 am |
  2. Owlie

    I am okay with no more churches. They've been the cause of more evil in this world than good.

    May 15, 2011 at 8:51 am |
  3. chuck

    I hope all these people reading the Bible on their own get to Acts 8:26-31: How can I understand, unless someone teaches me?

    May 15, 2011 at 8:50 am |
  4. Mark Yelka

    I'm not afraid of elves, Santa, gods, leprechauns, fairies, Big Foot, and other imaginary beings. I am afraid of deluded people who somehow can actually believe in this rubbish.

    May 15, 2011 at 8:49 am |
  5. rkdres

    "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."

    Scripture IS the basis of constraining religious structure – it's irrelevant if believers no longer go to a building on Sunday to congregate and worship, the same ideological foundation persists.

    May 15, 2011 at 8:47 am |
  6. Mark Yelka

    http://www.extremelysmart.com/insight/mistaken/Bible_errors.php

    May 15, 2011 at 8:46 am |
  7. George

    Ya... the SAME things were said about the printing press and when bibles first became available to the average person... So, I'm going to go with 'NO,' this doesn't undermine religious authority or threaten churches.

    May 15, 2011 at 8:45 am |
  8. deepa

    Baby is very very important. Feed more.

    May 15, 2011 at 8:45 am |
  9. Mike Gantt

    The irony of celebrating the King James Version is that it was intended to bring the word of God to the masses and yet its vocabulary and syntax are foreign to most English speakers today. I hope that tools like YouVersion will make the truths of the Bible accessible to more and more people. If so, YouVersion will be the 21st Century equivalent of the 17th Century King James Version.

    Martin Luther did not fully appreciate how much of an anachronism church was in his own age. It is much more so now. People need to relate directly to the God of the Bible through Jesus Christ without any human intermediary. It is time for us to repent and live for Christ. Everyone is going to heaven, but we will all want to have repented before we get there.

    http://blogforthelordjesus.wordpress.com

    May 15, 2011 at 8:45 am |
  10. Carrie

    The King James version, while historically important, was NOT the 1st mass-produced Bible in common English.

    The printing press had been around about 180 years by the time the King James was published, with a number of other mass-produced English versions of the Bible already in circulation ahead of it. For example, the Geneva Bible–the Bible used by Shakespeare, Milton, the Puritans on the Mayflower, et cetera, was in production 51 years prior to the King James version. The Geneva Bible was commonly available to and read by the masses of Protestants in England and elsewhere. The Geneva Bible was the 1st to include a complete translation of the Hebrew scriptures into English.

    Before the Geneva there was the "Great Bible," (i.e. the Cromwell Bible) of 1538, the 1st authorized version of the Bible in English, commissioned by Henry VIII, for reading during church services. Before that was the Tyndale bible (incomplete due to Tyndale's execution prior to finishing it) which was mass produced on a printing press in common English in the early 1500s. The King James' version relied heavily on the Tyndale translation.

    May 15, 2011 at 8:44 am |
  11. Ian

    I don't agree that church will go away. People may turn to Christian Social Network sites like Gods Faithbook to get spiritual support during the week, but true Christians will still follow that up with Sunday Church.

    May 15, 2011 at 8:43 am |
  12. gabby

    I stopped going to church years ago. I still believe in God and pray every day. I just don't think it's necessary to go to church. I don't have a problem with anyone who feels the need to attend mass. I just think everyone needs to worship in their own way. It doesn't make me less of a Christian.

    May 15, 2011 at 8:43 am |
    • GarrettH

      actually it may be evidence that you're not a christian at all even though you claim to be. One of the evidences that a person has truly been born again is that they love to be with other christians regularly. Plus God comanded that there be a gathering of the saints regularly, whether in a building or in homes does not matter. However if you don't come together with other believers to worship God in the name of Jesus, except if you physically just can't, then you are not being led by God. I remeber I used to think just like you until I really got saved and then everything changed. I now love gathering with other believers at church. We gather at homes too throughout the week. The Church is the people not a building anyway.

      May 15, 2011 at 8:57 am |
    • Mitch

      Same here. After 7 years with a a wonderful church that fit me to a tee and has done awesome things for the community and people in it, I stopped going. They are still doing all those awesome things, but the church evolved to be a little less "ME". I cannot find the connection that made me crave it, and I haven't found anything else in several months. So I'm still reading, praying, evangelizing, as always. Just without that church community right now. It does not change my relationship with Christ.

      May 15, 2011 at 9:06 am |
    • Vikki

      There is no biblical basis for mdroen children’s and youth ministry? I agree that it is the responsibilty of christian parents to be involved in their children's christian education, in some cases that may be monotoring what is being taught. The level that christian adults are taught (sermons,bible studies) should be far above that of most childrens comprehension and therefore would create boredom and frustration at an very young age. To offer them something at their level of comprehension I think makes much more sense. The only biblical basis I can think of is that of evangilism. I know that many unsaved people use sundayschools and churches, especially those that provide transportation, as sunday morning babysitters. So be it, I just wish there was a way to know how many of THOSE childern were led to a saving knowlege of Christ's love, mercy, and grace, I bet the numbers are staggering! Not every church has the resources to provide such a ministry, but if they can I think they should.

      July 31, 2012 at 10:43 pm |
  13. Khadijah

    Sadly, I am feeling very cynical and disillusioned by religion, and my life has been about finding God. So this is quite a shock for me. I think that men have done a truely pitiful job of revealing God to us, and perhaps it is time to lose relgious freedom becase so many religions are so abusive, especially to those who do not fit because of race, creed, or diversity.
    Maybe religion does best under persecution?

    May 15, 2011 at 8:42 am |
  14. Eric

    If you ask protestants if they follow the pope, they claim that they do not. Yet at the same time they consider the work of a 4th century writer under his pope mandate as the 'undisputed' word of God.

    May 15, 2011 at 8:41 am |
  15. dennis the menace

    It wasnt until i lost everything, that i realized i had anything. god is in the heart not a piece of technology. but as a thinking species we are capable of great things as well as monstrous. im a techno kid. my relationship with god is personal and i have constant disaggreements with other men of faith because of my past,and myreligious views. god loves me no matter what. i know this in my heart. ive been told to fear god and i always ask why? why fear someone whos only there to help me?gods got my back

    May 15, 2011 at 8:41 am |
  16. joe

    good maybe people will stop giving their money to colleges since you can access nearly everything online.

    May 15, 2011 at 8:41 am |
  17. Justin Observation

    Now if we can only convince them to digitally fight their holy wars on twitter or facebook as well.

    Peace.

    May 15, 2011 at 8:40 am |
  18. G. R.R.

    Great. Bring them ALL DOWN.

    May 15, 2011 at 8:40 am |
    • Erkman1999

      LOL....agreed.

      May 15, 2011 at 8:51 am |
  19. Amos

    To say that technology will undermine the church is like saying that WebMD will end the medical profession.

    May 15, 2011 at 8:40 am |
    • Justin Observation

      umm, the medical profession is partly physical, the religious "profession" is completely mental.

      Organized religions can transfer their fear or guilt to people without physical contact.

      May 15, 2011 at 8:49 am |
    • MK

      except when you're sick and possibly dying, it may be in your best interest to get a prescription or seek treatment from a licensed physician. What an absurd comparison.

      May 15, 2011 at 8:56 am |
    • Couldn't Help But Notice

      Which no doubt will lead Apple to buy out the Swiss firm that makes Swiss Army knives, so that people will be able to purchase an iPhone and an app they can use to take out their appendix and save on medical expenses, which no one can afford nowadays anyway.

      May 15, 2011 at 10:34 am |
  20. Jo

    If people read the bible only on smart phones and think they can replace true religion entirely by reading the bible themselves they are sadly mistaken. The bible itself says to "not be foresaking the gathering of yourselves together AS SOME HAVE THE CUSTOM" but to be encouraging one another and all the more so as you behold the day drawing near." Hebrew 10:25

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

      Well of course it does! How else can you collect 10 percent of people's income if they don't show up weekly?

      May 15, 2011 at 8:41 am |
    • HAL9000

      I'm sure when the printing press was invented, and the first few Bibles printed, the same question was posed. With everyone having their own Bible, will it mean the end of the church?
      CNN, you really need to come up with smarter articles. Who is your target audience anyway?

      May 15, 2011 at 8:44 am |
    • rker321

      As a Catholic I was never required to read the Bible, it seems to me that perhaps reading the Bible wouldn't have made me more religious. I believe that the Bible is a historical account of the birth of the Catholic Religion. And should not be taken literately, Even the Jewish religion who have always been very accurate about their scriptures, simply take them as history. Believe in God is very personal.

      May 15, 2011 at 8:48 am |
    • WY Willkomen

      Getting the scriptures on line is one thing. But be in presence of the God in Church is another. In Church is where you can feel his presence strongly. In Church is where you feel the Holy Spirit strongly. In Church is his home. I read it online myself, but I also go to see the Heavenly Father in Church with devotion.

      May 15, 2011 at 8:58 am |
    • Asim

      if God had made the religion, then:
      1. He would have made it perfect.
      2. There would have been on one religion.
      3. God knows how dumb humans are, and hence he would have clearly spoken to each human directly, not thru someone who would create doubts amongst half the poeple...thus dividing people.

      May 15, 2011 at 8:58 am |
    • John Marshall

      In every church I've been in, eccept for one small one, Its been about telling me I need them to talk to God. That I need them in between to interpet and support them while they do it. No church or man has a corner on the truth. I really miss that small Church and the non judgmental man in it. And I found that an argument isnt very strong if it cant stand true debate.

      May 15, 2011 at 9:00 am |
    • HAL9000

      "rker321: As a Catholic I was never required to read the Bible, it seems to me that perhaps reading the Bible wouldn't have made me more religious. I believe that the Bible is a historical account of the birth of the Catholic Religion. And should not be taken literately, Even the Jewish religion who have always been very accurate about their scriptures, simply take them as history. Believe in God is very personal."

      rker321, I was born and raised Catholic. Even attended Catholic school. One day for assignment we had to choose a religion topic and write about it. I chose "purgatory." So I figured 'what better source for the information than the Bible?' I looked and looked and looked and discovered that 'purgatory' is nowhere in the Bible. During my research I also discovered many thing in the Bible that surprised me. I began reading the bible for the first time. That was the beginning of my departure from the Catholic church.

      Remember, we are to worship God, not the church. Truth is the ultimate goal even if that means throwing away all that you have been taught to beleive once you find that it is A LIE. The TRUTH shall set you free.

      Signed,
      HAL9000
      Christian and Former Catholic

      May 15, 2011 at 9:12 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.