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. Will.V

    What about when the TV became more ubiquitous and we saw the rise of religious weekend programming? These were full services that we could watch and listen to. Did this cause for the end of the church? No. The online revolution does not pose any threat to the church, rather, if anything, it will open the doors to new believers and put more butts in the pupils.

    Why are there no articles on real religious issues such as US Military (tanks and troops) stationed in Mecca and Medina, a direct violation of Islamic law? imagine Saudi Arabia had tanks in Vatican City, something that is not even in direct violation of Christian Law.. this would cause outrage... Stupid articles like this is what keeps people dumbed down.

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

    There are always multiple perspectives to anything. For some, technology may be a means to move away from religious community. The problem that always ensues for the individual is that faith is not just about the individual. It is about community. Smart Church leaders are using technology to better communicate with their communities and bring those communities closer together. Some take the stance presented here that technology becomes a "wedge" between the individual and the Church and try to denounce technology. That is a fear based response and is absurd. Tech are tools, and like any tool that is used properly it allows you to do things you need to do in a better way.

    May 15, 2011 at 9:03 am |
  3. Gawd

    Common sense and reasoning will bring down the church.

    May 15, 2011 at 9:02 am |
  4. Paul

    The end of organized religion?! THANK CHRIST!

    May 15, 2011 at 9:02 am |
  5. Mark Johnson

    YOU VERSION http://www.youversion.com 'nuff said!

    May 15, 2011 at 9:02 am |
  6. Mark Yelka

    We wouldn't need scriptures if gods were real. Imaginary beings don't visit in person. Duh. Gods are imaginary.

    May 15, 2011 at 9:01 am |
  7. Jerry

    This is about the silliest article I have ever read. Did the King James Bible "bring down" the church? No. It changed it. Will other technologies "bring down" the church? Of course not, but it will provide challenges and opportunities to rethink how faith is practiced.

    There are so many other contradictions in this piece. Ipads mean anyone can access scriptures, but people don't read the Bible. Huh? People don't need church authorities anymore, they just flock to new authorities online. If you mean that people will go to the church building less, certainly. If you think the church is limited to its physical building, you have alot to learn about the Christian faith.

    May 15, 2011 at 9:01 am |
    • pa10sion

      My thoughts exactly. This is the most ridiculous article I've ever read!

      May 15, 2011 at 9:12 am |
  8. maximusvad

    Even your religion isn't safe from Natural Selection.

    May 15, 2011 at 9:01 am |
  9. Ray G

    The technical definition of the church is NOT a physical place where christians congregate. The church is simply a body of christ. Once you accept Christ as your saviour through Baptism, you are admitted into the body of Christ called the church; and you claim the body of Christ may fall as a result of technology?

    May 15, 2011 at 9:00 am |
  10. gdouglaso

    Thanks for a provocative piece that helps us to think about what is community and how we may engage on many different levels. Again thanks. If we go to the book of Acts we see that Christianity is much more than mere Bible study - education is part of the equation, but communal praise, celebration and caring for each other's needs will still be critical.

    May 15, 2011 at 9:00 am |
  11. Mike C

    If the church is the body of believers then as long as their are people who believe their will be a church. There will also be a church in the common understanding because anytime people go online to a group or Facebook page or chat, they are facilitating the same concept as the local building down the street. It is unfortunate that the topic of so many discussions revolve around the sins of the leaders of religious groups. Hopefully if people study the Bible they will be in a position to know when something wrong is being tought and can act. One of the issues the article raised is the personality behind the teaching. Scripturely the only personality that should be worshiped is Jesus himself. Technology is a fine thing that has the ability to change how we read and study the Bible. It also can provide another medium for abuse. Read and seek understanding and maybe we can have the body of believers that the book has always strived to gather.

    May 15, 2011 at 8:59 am |
  12. Harold Sargus

    I am 52 years of age. I joined youversion about a year ago and read the Bible daily on my droid. Prior to that I read daily out of a paper Bible. While I definitely feel that I am a part of the youversion body of believers, I believe that the Bible calls us to fellowship. Fellowship is breaking bread together and seeing each other and holding hands as we pray together. To me, one must be a part of a local church to in order to fellowship with other believers.

    I enjoyed your article.

    May 15, 2011 at 8:59 am |
  13. ObjectiveOpinion

    Technology shouldn't be what brings the church down. Intelligence will.

    May 15, 2011 at 8:59 am |
  14. rker321

    The Bible is probably the most important book ever written, having said that, It is an account, a historical account of the times of Jesus Christ in the new Testament. Is still does not make it less important.
    I think that everyone knows that the Hebrew religion was extremely accurate in their writings. And thru them we have learned what has happened in ancient times.
    That, in any manner diminishes the importance of the Bible. As a Christian, I follow Christian values and respect others. But I cannot take a literal interpretation of the Bible as the word of the Lord. I believe that the Lord gave us the knowledge of right and wrong and values that we all must follow.

    May 15, 2011 at 8:58 am |
  15. The Half Baked Lunatic

    "god" is an absurd idea promoted by immoral people to control and pacify the weak minded people. Don't wait for technology to bring down the church, just stop giving them your money and they will eventually go away.

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

      Wow, you have all the answers. Congrats.

      May 15, 2011 at 9:21 am |
    • GARY dAVIS

      religion is like a gated community . it keeps people safe , and keeps honest people from becoming thieves . but humanity needs to have something to believe in or we would just kill anyone that threatens our family . so believing in a GOD , has merrit , but it should not control our lives . and yes churches suvive on people giving money , to support the cause. I don't go to any church studied more buddist style . take what you need but don't waiste , an don't do to someone else that you would not like done to you .be part of the planet not the cause of its destruction , so for the weak , yes church helps them stay some what civilized . it would be nice of there actually is a GOD and a place we go to after we die . , but I feel it is pretty much the cycle of life . we are born to procreate or species . and then we die

      May 15, 2011 at 9:24 am |
    • flippin

      Wow, another one with all the answers. So Daniel is a murderer, eh?

      May 15, 2011 at 9:27 am |
    • flippin

      Half baked is a murderer, too. Better be in touch with the authorities about them atheists.

      May 15, 2011 at 9:29 am |
  16. J. C.

    As a pastor, I see no need to worry about the ramifications of the digital age. Any way people can take time to read, study and allow the Word to penetrate their lives is good. Like the article said, so few people among the church crowd read the Bible period, either digital or print. The danger is when you get one verse and read it and say wow but not realize that is not at all what it means when read in light of the words before and after. Community is a big part too and having folks that can "rightly divide the scriptures" is very important too. I totally affirm the reading of the scriptures and allowing the Holy Spirit to guide you in its understanding but people will always read what they want to read and allow it say what they want it to say. That issue has always been here, the digital age has not brought that on, maybe just in greater numbers.

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

      Excellent response pastor. Thank you.

      May 15, 2011 at 9:15 am |
  17. Mark Yelka

    Generally, more intelligent people have less belief in gods. Let's hope that technology helps us to be sufficiently intelligent to dispense with the need to have gods.

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

      Einstein was a very religious man. In fact, I personally know people with genius IQs who are devout followers. I don't know where you heard this, but it's a crock.

      May 15, 2011 at 9:19 am |
    • KC

      I don't understand the need to insult people who are religious. IMHO it shows insecurity. I don't feel the need to insult non religious people, to each his own. If you truly didn't care than you wouldn't feel the need to treat other people like crap.

      May 15, 2011 at 8:30 pm |
  18. Pete

    Certainly 'brick-and-mortar' churches will lose some of their utility, but the church as a community may thrive even more, as people are even MORE connected. And this is what it is really all about– the community.

    May 15, 2011 at 8:56 am |
  19. Jason

    It's not going to bring down the church, because the whole point of religion is not that it's fact based and rational. The point of it is that some people want to be told, and some people want to do the telling.

    The printing press was a wonderful piece of technology that made it so cheap to print religious books that they can be left sitting in every cheap motel in America. Just because any one can afford to read the bible any time they want doesn't prevent some people from twisting it or lying about it to those who are too lazy to do their own thinking. I mean, if they were all that interested in doing their own thinking in the first place, they wouldn't be following a religion anyway.

    May 15, 2011 at 8:55 am |
  20. Jan

    Actually your premise is wrong. In today's high tech society, people crave high touch. While we may listen to a pastor's podcast recorded thousands of miles away, as humans we are drawn to each other. A central theme of the bible is relationships. Our ipads may put scripture at our beck and call, but we don't have a relationship with it. I perceive the eventual outcome to be that ipad scripture reading person to seek out a local church.

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

      Religion is and always has been stupid. Stop being needy children and take care of yourselves. Your imaginary god isn't going to do it for you. Do you really think we came from Adam and Eve? Do you really think Noah got two of every animal on the ark? Are you nine years old and stupid? Grow up.

      May 15, 2011 at 8:56 am |
    • flippin

      Daniel, don't be so judgmental. Just because you are miserable and impatient does not mean you should expect everyone else to be.

      May 15, 2011 at 9:16 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.