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. Zee705

    I wonder how many people actually believe in god nowadays? I'm going to say less than everybody thinks.

    May 15, 2011 at 9:12 am |
    • DJ

      Mt 7:13 Go in by the narrow door; for wide is the door and open is the way which goes to destruction, and great numbers go in by it.
      Mt 7:14 For narrow is the door and hard the road to life, and only a small number make discovery of it.

      Faith in God is not determined by how many other people believe in him. The majority of people will refuse to believe, that is their choice. I believe, that is my choice. I can't let other peoples choices effect me. After all, history is full of examples of the majority being wrong.

      May 15, 2011 at 9:40 am |
  2. Daniel

    If you think religion is ridiculous e-mail me. danspeed001@hotmail.com

    May 15, 2011 at 9:12 am |
  3. Publius

    There seems to be good reason this author is the FORMER religious editor at Newsweek. Reading The Word is a good thing. Getting The Word out in many different ways possible is wonderful. Churches are not the sole place for Bible Study. Even any heretic would know that. Churches will bring people of a common Faith together. The Word itself inspires such congregations, or did Ms. Miller not read that in her Bible? Churches are expanding, not retracting. As The Word spreads, so do His Houses of Worship. Ms. Miller, I invite you to attend a Sunday Church service. Stay for the fellowships. You will learn people read The Bible, listen to The Bible, and discuss The Bible, outside the church, only to attend Sunday services and do the same as a group.

    May 15, 2011 at 9:12 am |
  4. John

    I agree with the majority of comments that emphasize the primarily emotional experience of community. That communal experience creates deeper motivation than any abstract readings. Unfortunately, it can be used for good or evil. Mother Theresa and Osama Bin Laden both inspired large religious communities.

    May 15, 2011 at 9:11 am |
  5. Chirs

    If this keeps those knuckleheads from knocking on my front door then I'm all for it!

    May 15, 2011 at 9:11 am |
  6. mtnmedic

    Organized religion is a CULT that has fostered segregation, hatred, brutality, abuse, hypocrisy, subjugation of the uninformed and has been the basis for violence and wars for thousands of years. Spirituality is an individual experience, no two are alike. We each perceive and appreciate God, or a higher force of some kind, in our own way. To say one way of belief or one god is correct while others are not is purely egotistical, insecure and un-godlike.

    May 15, 2011 at 9:11 am |
  7. Frater J

    The editorial writer, as are most churchgoers, unaware of the fact that there is a metaphysical component to the liturgy ( at least in the Greek Orthodox Church). A transformation is conducted every Sunday in the presence of the parish by the officiating Priest. By not attending the service, you are not in the presence of this transformation and you do not derive the benefit of being within its presence. The priest serves as an intermediary between Diety and the Parish in attendance during this phase of the service.. Perhaps this was never explained to you – you may want to consult your own Parish Priest and learn about this critical aspect – and benefit – of church attendance.

    May 15, 2011 at 9:11 am |
  8. v

    God can't be found in church. Imho.

    May 15, 2011 at 9:11 am |
  9. Mark Yelka

    Parents pretend to believe in Santa because they enjoy the happy delusion the kids experience. If YOU believe in a god, you're the kid and don't realize it yet.

    May 15, 2011 at 9:10 am |
  10. stan

    All this technology is the work of satan, it is only to get you away from God. Satan decieves the whole world into thinking there is no God. WE WILL ALL FIND OUT ONE DAY, we will ALL bow down to LORD JESUS!!!!!! Repent of you sins and come to Christ before its too late.

    May 15, 2011 at 9:09 am |
  11. HotJava

    Research project Bluebeam this seems to fall into the plans of the people who really run our world..

    May 15, 2011 at 9:09 am |
  12. Bud

    Just shows the writer doesn't understand who or what "the chruch" IS.

    May 15, 2011 at 9:08 am |
  13. Dana

    I just got 548,000 results when I googled "pedophile priests". It would be good if that didn't go any higher.

    May 15, 2011 at 9:08 am |
    • Dan

      It'll happen if you quit googling it...that's not the number of pedophile priests...that's the number of articles written about them. So divide by what? 1000? 10000? And, no that won't get you the right answer either.

      May 15, 2011 at 9:12 am |
  14. P G

    The church will not be affected by technology, it is benefitting from it. We can search scripture and access dictionaries faster. We can communicate our faith more widely, and we can communicate with one another more efficiently. We are more united now than ever. The body of Christ is one. We all await his return, will be vigilant and more fervent in our adoration of him.

    May 15, 2011 at 9:08 am |
  15. Tiffany

    The author of this article is misinformed. Obviously, you don't read the scriptures yourself. The church is a multifaceted ogrganization. We do not have churches all over the world just for the sole purpose of interpreting scripture. The bible tells Christians to forsake not the assembling of ourselves together. It also says that one can chase a thousand and two ten thousand. The bible also discusses in great detail the gifts of the Spirit. These gifts are givien from God to edify the "Church". We must come together not just to interpret scripture but also to edify and strengthen one another. The church isn't going anywhere because it's not built based on the premise that we gather to hear an interpretation of the bible. Yes technology has granted us access but Martin Luther has helped put a bible in every home. People have been able to interpret scripture on their own for centuries. Yet we have seen an increase in churches.

    May 15, 2011 at 9:07 am |
  16. Mott the Hoople

    Technology is a two-edged sword. Technology give people in countries where Christianity is strongly discouraged (some Islamic countries, for example) a look into the Bible. And it gives people where non-Christian religions is strongly discouraged (like the Bible Belt in the U.S., for instance) a look into other the scriptures of other religions (Buddhism, Hinduism, etc.). So it's a trade-off. It puts all religions on a level playing field; people will be less pressured by their society to conform to the local religion.

    May 15, 2011 at 9:06 am |
  17. Jenn

    People can have both a weekly service and the bible available available on a phone (AND in real life.) I don't see how one replaces the other. A live service is inspiring in itself. A pastor can interpret passages to really reflect our everyday struggles today. A family bible is a cherished item – and sometimes it is nice to sit and read a real book. Ebooks are nice, and I love my Nook, but I also find myself getting a real book here and there. The Bible is one of those books. I can't get enough of the word of God and I seek it out all week long. That's a great thing. I think our generation is blessed. How we use our technology is up to us. We can choose to squander it or help us to be better followers of Jesus Christ.

    May 15, 2011 at 9:05 am |
    • Donna

      Good for you, Jenn! It's refreshing to hear a young person not being deceived by "pop culture" views on the important issues in life. Keep seeking the truth (found in God's Word), and your heart will be free!

      May 15, 2011 at 9:28 am |
  18. Better wise up Pediphile Priests

    All the people got smart one day after taking a magic med. They realized the religions are a lie. There is no truth to them. They were wild legendary stories. Read Joseph Campbell. You remember he was the inspiration for George Lucas AKA the Star Wars guy. You need to use tech to get to the bottom of thing. You can not build a foundation on a mud bank. That is what all religions did. They just collected stories and told the local idiots it was true. Soon everyone believed in the so called miracles. Big mafia money is collected by the Catholic Church. The New Testament was rewritten by them to be more Hollywood. Sell nonsense like the Pope is the one who speaks to God and only he and this Pope will give you God's knowledge if you pay the price. Muslims need to rewrite their fictional foundations and come up with something of scientific reason. Maybe then the Christian churchs will wise up.

    May 15, 2011 at 9:05 am |
    • Dan the Red

      Not very analytical, are you? You'll put Joseph Campbell up against every Christian author of the last two millennia? And the only "re-writing" going on here, is your take on history. Sorry, even most atheists won't swallow that crock.

      May 15, 2011 at 9:10 am |
    • vanessa

      I'm sorry you feel that way. Not ever priest is a pedophile.

      May 15, 2011 at 9:13 am |
    • DJ

      Your comment is saddly ignorant. The New Testament was written hundreds of years before there even was a Catholic church. As for "pediphiles", they are still far more of them who are atheist than those who pretend to be religious, just ask any social worker. Your problem isn't that you don't believe in God, the truth is that you are rebelling against God and are attacking Him. You will only hurt and make a fool of yourself and God won't quit loving you or trying to save you, so you might as well give up.

      May 15, 2011 at 9:33 am |
  19. Dan

    This article is way off. If anyone "scrolls" to the verse about not neglecting to meet together, they'll find that digital bibles won't "bring down the church" anymore than the KJV did, nor did radio preacher, televangelists. Church attendance has a history of rising & falling; it's been on a downward slide for years, well before the digital book became popular.

    May 15, 2011 at 9:05 am |
  20. Dan

    Imagine there's no countries
    It isn't hard to do
    Nothing to kill or die for
    And no religion too
    Imagine all the people
    Living life in peace

    May 15, 2011 at 9:05 am |
    • Dan the Red

      Imagine all the peaceful, godless places like Maoist China, USSR, Vietnam, Cambodia...atheists don't seem to score any better than "people of faith."

      May 15, 2011 at 9:08 am |
    • Rizzo

      Thank GOD for john Lennon

      May 15, 2011 at 9:10 am |
    • Katie White

      The bible calls it heaven.

      May 15, 2011 at 9:13 am |
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About this blog

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.