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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. Charles

    I found it interesting to read some portions of the translated Dead Sea Scrolls to the Old testament and noticed how accurate it was after 2,000 years. I am not saying there are no mistakes in the Bible. It was copied by hand for thousands of years. Over time even the best scribe would make a mistake sooner or later.

    May 15, 2011 at 9:26 am |
  2. chuck

    There is nothing wrong with the kjv bible. No "mistakes". it never cease to amaze me how people think They know everything. As for the bible going digital, i believe that the majority of people still use the leather bound bible. At my Church, we pass out the kjv bible like crazy. I belong to a soulwinning bus running church that runs 400 in main service and 100 Jr church. No one uses a digital bible. The digital bible i feel is not for church. if you are into the message and want to take notes the digital bible is not the way to go.

    May 15, 2011 at 9:25 am |
    • Gene

      No mistakes? Gender of the Holy Spirit for example.
      In ancient Hebrew in the OT ...feminine.
      In the Greek neutral gender.
      In Latin the Holy Spirit became a he and remains so in the KJV.

      Ain't that special? (theology student working on my masters)

      May 15, 2011 at 10:55 am |
  3. rallohac

    This woman, by her own obvious but personally unaware admission, is about 500 years behind the times. HELLO.

    May 15, 2011 at 9:25 am |
  4. Allah Akhbar El-Salami En-El Culo

    The bible is a fairy tale book. you sheeple.

    May 15, 2011 at 9:24 am |
    • An Angel

      Say: We believe in GOD, and what was revealed to us, and what was revealed to Abraham and Ishmael and Issac and Jacob and the Tribes, and what was given to Moses and Jesus and the Prophets from their Lord; we make no division between any of them, and to Him we surrender. Holy Qur'an 3:84

      Just saying my Muslim brother that if the Bible is wrong and Jesus was not the Son of God then our Lord or aka your Lord does not exist. So tell me is that what you are trying to proclaim?

      May 15, 2011 at 12:53 pm |
  5. An Angel

    If God is a myth why post on this comment board? The article is about religion in the 21st century and how with technology we can be in our word, or the bible, everyday with no excuse. If you don't believe in God that's your own choice. God gave us free-will to do whatever we wish in our earthly lives. God also gave us guidelines that many people fail to realize the utmost importance of following them. God is forgiving; read the bible and you will understand that the only thing we can do is believe in Jesus Christ his son. Other than that we are just a spec of dust who can do no right in God's eye because of the trappings of our flesh. Don't criticize what you fail to understand.

    May 15, 2011 at 9:24 am |
    • Allah Akhbar El-Salami En-El Culo

      because you are easily fooled and it's fun torturing you about it.

      May 15, 2011 at 9:25 am |
  6. Truth

    If it was wrong to take advantage of technological advances when it comes to the bible we would still be reading out of scrolls....

    May 15, 2011 at 9:22 am |
    • purplepuppy

      If you hold up the Torah Scroll and have it completely unrolled you can see pictures in the spacing and breaks in the words. There is a reason it was to be copied exactly line for line space for space. If you change any of it you do not get the same patterns.

      May 15, 2011 at 9:58 am |
  7. Name*Mark Burris

    Tech is neat, and it allows young believers to 'get' nearly anything they want and need anywhere and anytime they want or need it, but as they keep moving on in faith, they will see that faith is not about 'getting' but about 'giving' and to do that, one has to be with people.

    May 15, 2011 at 9:22 am |
  8. Matt Yoder

    What would really be nice is if people who claim to be Christians actually followed the commands of Christ. Not when just convienient to their personal and/or political agendas, but ALL THE TIME. I am an athiest, but I have ZERO problem with people who actually do what Christ said to do. Those are the people NOT praying in public. Those are the people who LOVE THEIR ENEMIES as they love themselves. Those are the people who understand its not their place to judge others. Those are the people who understand greed is a mental disease. Problem is, I don't know a SINGLE person who claims to be a "Christian" who actually puts those things into practice. THAT is what needs to change if Christianity wants to survive much longer. Its not how the message is delivered, its how the message is IGNORED by those who claim to be the faithful...

    May 15, 2011 at 9:22 am |
    • Matthew J

      Matt, you seem to grasp the call of the gospel. Perhaps you could be the first to show the Christians how Jesus called them to live.

      May 15, 2011 at 9:31 am |
    • Matt Yoder

      Not sure what you mean when you say I have a "grasp on the call of the gospel". I am able to read, if that is what you mean, but I hardly feel a call to believe an invisible man lives in the sky, and runs a country club for dead people...

      May 15, 2011 at 9:44 am |
    • Couldn't Help But Notice

      Surely you jest.

      The republican party has replaced Christianity with the C-Street Moral Code as its official religion. Just yesterday the only "Christian" dropped out of the race for the republican nomination and the rest of the field all argue that Jesus was a socialist. You need to get with modern times if you are to understand the evolution of political developments among the faithful in the run up to the 2012 election.

      May 15, 2011 at 10:44 am |
    • Gene

      Matt if you knew the verses describing heaven you might learn that it's a planet outside of this universe. (theology student working on my masters) Our earth is a shadow copy of heaven.

      May 15, 2011 at 10:52 am |
  9. Allah Akhbar El-Salami En-El Culo

    Look up in the sky, sitting in the clouds. Do you see him? It's the white bearded magical man.

    May 15, 2011 at 9:21 am |
    • Rico53

      You have a very big name ,and a small mind.

      May 15, 2011 at 9:52 am |
  10. Mark

    The Mormons should be shaking in their boots that potential converts can look up on the Internet, not subjective aspersions, but hard facts showing Joseph Smith fabricated the whole religion. Book of Mormon – replete with anachronisms, their Book of Abraham – proven by museums and experts around the world to be completely false.

    May 15, 2011 at 9:21 am |
    • Gene

      Even so Mark, you can't deny that God has truly blessed the Mormons.

      May 15, 2011 at 10:49 am |
  11. Rico53

    You cannot take communion online.You cannot gather together in the name of the lord online, remember Christs words to his faithful, "When ever 2 or more of you are gathered TOGETHER in my name I WILL BE THERE". You can not do this online.
    This is why for the true faithful, online bible study ,as good as it may be for the individual on the go, will never replace fellowship in person. So don`t let technology replace fellowship, technology is a tool for us to use , don`t become the tool of technology.

    May 15, 2011 at 9:20 am |
    • purplepuppy

      I would have to say if there is a like minded gathering in a chat room the minds are working together since YHVH sees our Hearts and minds, that how people gather does not matter. The minds become a collective, bodies need not be present.
      Taking communion is just breaking the Shabbat Bread and at Sundown people should be breaking the bread and blessing it and the cup of wine no matter with a group of people or not

      May 15, 2011 at 10:04 am |
    • Rico53

      Purplepuppy , i agree that group bible study with people in different locations is good for all , but i don`t believe you can have Jesus himself with you , certainly everyone in the group has the Holy Spirit , but when Jesus spoke those words ,there was no electronic communicatoins , there fore he could only have meant personal hand to hand fellowship where you have gathered together ( hand in hand) it is only then that i believe you get the true blessing of this promise.

      May 15, 2011 at 10:33 am |
  12. Asklepios417

    "Trust me you did not find a mistake in the Bible."

    You can almost open the Bible at random and find mistakes all over the place.

    Even little things like this:

    "The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds..."

    The mustard seed is not "the smallest of all seeds". There are many seeds that are smaller, like that of the South American Orchid.

    May 15, 2011 at 9:19 am |
    • Allah Akhbar El-Salami En-El Culo

      bible is bs. a book written thousands of years ago, translated hundreds of times over, and all this by men....

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

      Do you understand the concept of context in terms of time and place? Jesus was using a parable as a lesson to a crowd of followers. The setting was in the Mideast 2000 years ago. Mustard was a crop. The people understood and could relate to the idea of a mustard seed. Using a South American orchid as an example with people whose world probably didn't extend more than a few hundred miles would have been crazy. Sheesh.....get a grip.

      May 15, 2011 at 9:36 am |
    • Rico53

      Have you ever read the original print King James 1611 bible , In the opening pages the men who translated it from the original manuscripts wrote YOU, the reader a personal letter in the opening pages,in that letter to you they explain that they realize that yes they made some errors ,but they are not monumental ,and they don`t want these to become stumbling blocks for those who don`t have a clear understanding,.this is why fellowship is so important.
      Remember these men did this manually word by word ,translating ancient Hebrew and Aramaic from the original old testament,and Greek from the new. Regardless of how much influence from GOD they had ,they didn`t have electricity to see by late in the night ,and did they have computers to translate like you and i have.
      It was a monumental task done by men of much faith. So remember don`t let a syntax error become a stumbling block to your faith in GOD .

      May 15, 2011 at 9:48 am |
    • Gene

      In ancient Israel it was the smallest seed. Remember the verses were written for the culture and environment of the day. To truly understand the Bible one must use the lens that sees the Word from an ancient perspective.

      May 15, 2011 at 10:47 am |
  13. thomas

    churches already hurt themselfs.....with scandals....twisting the bible to fit there own life styles....not paying it forward ppl give there money to the church and when they need a lil help the church turns there back on them....

    May 15, 2011 at 9:19 am |
  14. Tom

    I think the author has it all wrong. True, electronic access will make the Bible more accessible than it has ever been before. And that's a good thing. But those who are seriously seeking to understand God and his interaction with mankind will soon discover that they want and need more interaction than a smartphone can provide. If they are fortunate enough to find and attend a church where the Bible is preached, they'll soon discover that a good preacher and fellowship with a body of believers will do much more to grow their faith than spending a few minutes alone with an electronic gadget.

    May 15, 2011 at 9:18 am |
  15. Charles

    I am a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons). I think everyone should read the King James Bible from cover to cover. Also anytime some person whether it be a preacher or a someone they know quotes some scripture they should look it up. People should not take other people's word on anything. Preacher's can just as easily stretch what the Bible says into what they want to believe. Only by reading and studying the Bible can a person truly know the meaning of passages as they are written, in context.

    Anyone can take a quote out of context in the Bible and then make it mean anything they want. For instance recently some government official claimed the passage for the Widows Mite means that God wants us to use a progressive tax system. Then also Bill Clinton compared his actions to those of King David referring to his lover as "That Woman!" You have to be awful daring to compare yourself to a war hero and a prophet from the Bible. So if you hear someone reference the bible you should look it up. Sometimes I do look up references and quotations from the Bible. For one thing, if someone does quote something, then how do you know if it is even a real quote? No one should ever take for granted what some person says.

    May 15, 2011 at 9:17 am |
    • ChiefK

      Very true. Do you know where in the Bible it says, "God helps those who help themselves?"

      Nowhere.

      God helps all believers.

      May 15, 2011 at 9:28 am |
    • Gene

      Take this in context. In the Hebrew of the OT the Holy Spirit is a she. In the Koine Greek the gender is neutral. Then the Catholic Church made the Holy Spirit in Latin a he (spiritus). I could show you dozens of conflicts in translation mistakes over the centuries making the KJV far less than 100% accurate to the original manuscripts.

      The original manuscripts were controlled by the Holy Spirit. After that, future versions are the product of imperfect men.
      (student working on my masters in theology).

      May 15, 2011 at 10:44 am |
  16. v

    Also, I think Lisa Miller is cynical. She's more concerned with her prose than objective reporting.

    May 15, 2011 at 9:16 am |
  17. Raquel

    The argument made in this post is simplistic and flimsy. Take this quote, for instance:

    "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."

    It assumes that church replaces one's individual connection with God, when in fact the Bible's description of what we call "church" is an assembling or fellowship of bvelievers. The Bible, however, encourages having both fellowship with God and with other believers (1 John 1:3) and drives home that believers should not neglect meeting together (Hebrews 10:25, Matthew 18:20).

    The point is that whether a person is reading the Bible on their cell phone or on a traditional book, the message is the same. And if anything, churches will grow as more people read the Bible. On another point, It's not as if the Bible has not been widely available before smart phones. So the assumption that Christians who have never read the Bible before would all of a sudden start reading the Bible on their cell phones is unfounded.

    May 15, 2011 at 9:15 am |
  18. SuzinFL

    Online bibles won't be the end of churches. If there is an end, it will justifiably be because the majority of faithful church-goers are mean, judgmental, people who are taught by their leaders that they alone hold the monopoly on God. However hopeful the message of there being no more churches, therefore there being a lower number of hateful people on this earth, I don't believe churches will ever be non-existent. There will always be "lost" people who can't figure things out on their own and who need to have an authority figure telling them what to do and how to live, and there will always be ego-maniacal pastors and preachers to lead the sheeple.

    May 15, 2011 at 9:14 am |
    • Tom

      Wow. Talk about being lost.

      May 15, 2011 at 9:22 am |
    • Emily

      you are sooo right

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

    Is it too much to hope that technology brings down religion AND the church? Seems to me a bunch of people who already believe absolute nonsense turning to a more autonomous style of study of that same nonsense will propagate the fracturing of the system while actually encouraging more nutjob extremists.

    May 15, 2011 at 9:14 am |
    • George

      Agreed. I see and hear of too many "super churches" anymore. I'm not religious, but isn't the meaning of church to be one-on-one with "God" and the pastor? How the hell are you suppose to be able to accomplish this when you're in a church with thousands or even tens of thousands of followers?

      May 15, 2011 at 9:26 am |
    • Mike

      I agree with pithymcgee's post. I'am all for it if it ends religion. Look at the destruction religions have caused.

      May 15, 2011 at 9:29 am |
    • Gene

      Regarding super churches and mega ministers on TV. An old Jewish saying is: " If a prophet asks for food, feed him; if he ask for money, STONE HIM!

      May 15, 2011 at 10:38 am |
  20. Roger Yargah

    The premise (and analogy here) is a flawed one. Before the printing press, bibles were only in the hands of the few, who then then interpreted it to the many, most of whom were illiterate and couldn't read a bible anyway. In the modern era, most everyone can read and bibles are cheap and abundant. Reading a bible on my telephone is not going to change my interpretation as compared to reading it as a $5 paperback edition. Anyone old enough to read this have always lived in a world abundant in all manner of inexpensive texts, whether digital or analog.
    As far as churches are concerned, they will always be able to claim some authority because they have scholars who study bible texts for years and in multiple languages. Arguing that my understanding of the bible is as good as a scholars because I read it on my telephone is akin to me stating that I am an expert in Gilgamesh or The Dead Sea Scrolls because I bought a Penguin paperback.

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

      I agree. The premise of this article is much like the ancient church...give everyone a bible and the people will destroy the church. The more truth a person has access to the better, and that's why Jesus taught on the hills and streets instead of just inside the buildings.

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

      Exactly. Furthermore, that pastor that one is either listening to or watches on a simulcast cannot give a person pastoral care. The Church is needed now just as much as it has been in the past. There will never be a time when Christians do not join with other Christians in Bible study and worship.

      May 15, 2011 at 9:31 am |
    • Ed, Spring, TX

      Roger,

      You are perfectly correct in what you say. This article is silly saying that the availability of online bibles is diminishing the churches. The same thing was probably said about the availabiilty of the wrtten Bible 400 years ago and churches are still going strong today.

      May 15, 2011 at 9:39 am |
    • purplepuppy

      oh how I would love to see the Dead Sea scrolls and read them to see if my paper back Tanach matches up. Anyone reading a translation of the Tanach into what is known as the Old Testament, is open to the Translators interpretation, because the original Hebrew has much deeper and different meaning to each word. Every single letter means something and even the Hebrew Alphabet tells a story. Unless you know even some Hebrew you can begin to imagine the Depth of what is written in the Tanach

      May 15, 2011 at 9:40 am |
    • purplepuppy

      I also have this to say, one does not need to go to "church" to get a deep understanding of the Bible, one only needs to sit down and study. It is good to sit in a study group of like minded people and bounce ideas off each other and helps in learning. As most people go to church for only and hour on the Pagan sun god's day of worship, and only get a very watered down feel good sermon with a text book drummed into them interpretation, there is very little Bible and Scripture in church. Every denomination has its own watered down interpretation too.

      YOU DO NOT NEED TO GO TO CHURCH. OPEN YOUR BIBLE AND KEEP THE FEASTS (YHVH) PRESCRIBED. DO NOT FOLLOW THE PAGAN HOLIDAYS (CHRISTMAS, AND EASTER) or any of the others

      May 15, 2011 at 9:50 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.