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With 330 million downloads, top Bible app celebrates 10 years

Bobby Gruenewald, right, innovation leader for Life Church, founder of the YouVersion Bible app, works with his team in Edmond, Okla., on June 26, 2018. Celebrating its 10th anniversary, the app has been downloaded on 330 million devices and in every country in the world, according to the church. Photo courtesy of Life Church

EDMOND, Okla. (RNS) — A high-tech Bible in your pocket?

In 2018, it’s a reality for hundreds of millions of smartphone users around the world.

But a decade ago, when leaders of Oklahoma-based Life Church developed the popular YouVersion app, the concept was new.

“We just thought, ‘What if the Bible could be among the very first group of apps?’” said Bobby Gruenewald, pastor and innovation leader for the multisite evangelical church, which each week draws roughly 75,000 worshippers to 29 locations in nine states.

“It was profound how simple it was yet how well it connected us to God’s Word in places and environments where we didn’t have physical Bibles,” added Gruenewald, a onetime technology entrepreneur who entered full-time ministry in 2001.

Life Church enlisted a 19-year-old staff member named Sam Soffes — now a San Francisco-based software engineer for Lyft — to create the Bible app in 2008.

When Apple launched its app store 10 years ago this month, YouVersion was one of the first 200 free apps available — and the only Bible app.

“That first weekend, from Thursday to Sunday, we saw 83,000 people install it on their iPhone, and it blew our minds,” Gruenewald said. “We had no idea that was possible.”

That was only the beginning.

Views of the YouVersion app open on smartphones. Image courtesy of Life Church

Since then, YouVersion been downloaded on more than 330 million devices and in every country in the world, according to Life Church, which is a part of the Evangelical Covenant Church denomination.

Countless other Bible apps have followed, but YouVersion remains the “Gutenberg Bible” of online technology, religion researcher Scott Thumma said, referring to the first mass-produced book, printed in the 15th century.

“Indeed, YouVersion is the 300-million-pound gorilla of Bible apps,” said Thumma, director of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research in Connecticut. “It is true there are many others now, but YouVersion was the early front-runner and has continued to improve and offer features that make it the best and by far most often downloaded worldwide.”

At the beginning, YouVersion offered the Bible in 15 versions and two languages.

Through partnerships with publishers and Bible societies, those numbers have expanded to 1,700 versions and 1,200 languages.

In the shadow of a massive white cross that overlooks Interstate 35 in the city of Edmond, 32 Life Church employees — bolstered by 1,000 volunteers around the world — work full time with YouVersion. Tech support is offered in more than a dozen languages.

“The volunteers translate the buttons and interface work. They speak at least 50 languages because every time we add a new feature, it has to be translated into 50-plus languages so that the interface of the app is intact,” said Gruenewald in his newly built facility, where meeting rooms have glass doors and giant monitors and verses from the Scriptures are painted prominently on the walls.

YouVersion — the first option that shows up in an App Store search for “Bible” — remains free with no commercial advertisements.

John Dyer. Courtesy photo

“When I ask a group of people about their overall digital experience, they often talk about how when they are at work or at school, they use their computer to come up with (Bible) things,” said John Dyer, who teaches a course on theology, technology and digital culture at Dallas Theological Seminary. “So in that world, they’re going to be exposed to something other than YouVersion.

“YouVersion is going to primarily be an app on their phone, and that’s something worth mentioning in the whole digital realm,” added Dyer.

An $8.3 million annual budget, funded by Life Church members’ tithes and outside donations, pays for YouVersion. Benefactors support a mission to reach as many people as possible through their phones and introduce them to Jesus.

The church never has had to hire a development person to raise funds for YouVersion, Gruenewald said, “because God has always provided the amount we need each year.”

Fostering digital devotions has become a ministry hiding in plain sight.

“There are people from our own church who are surprised sometimes when they learn the app is put out by their own church,” Gruenewald said. “It’s a missional output of our church, but we’re not trying to boost our church attendance numbers from it.”

Laura Wasson Warfel is a member of Living Springs Community Church, a Reformed Church in America congregation in Glenwood, Ill.

Warfel said she switches between her printed Good News Bible and the YouVersion app, where she favors the New Living Translation.

“I use YouVersion all the time,” said Warfel, who is in her 60s. “I love the search feature. That’s probably my favorite part.

“I also love the Verse of the Day,” she added. “I have that set up as a reminder to come on before I even wake up in the morning. … And I also like the verse images, and I will share those periodically on my social media.”

Drivers headed north on Interstate 35 can’t miss the massive white cross at the Life Church campus in Edmond, Okla. The multisite evangelical church, which each weekend draws 75,000 worshippers to 29 locations in nine states, has an $8.3 million annual budget for the YouVersion app, a ministry of the church. RNS photo by Bobby Ross Jr.

David Regier, minister of music for the First Baptist Church of San Jacinto, Calif., said he enjoys the ability to scroll through Scriptures on his phone, but he prefers a paper Bible for church and study.

“The obvious downside (of an app) is that it’s not just a Bible, so there is the ever-present temptation of — gasp! — Twitter at a touch of a screen,” said Regier, 51, whose alter ego is the Church Curmudgeon, a cranky old believer with nearly 100,000 Twitter followers. “And actually flipping around in a paper Bible helps secure Bible knowledge in the brain.”

Regier said he has YouVersion installed on his phone, but he primarily uses the ESV Bible app and the NASB Bible+ app.

“I’m old-fashioned enough to want to have fewer bells and whistles on my programs,” he said, “so I don’t get distracted from the Bible while I’m reading it.”

Nationally, the use of technology to read the Bible has grown steadily, according to the 2018 State of the Bible survey, conducted by the Barna Group in partnership with the American Bible Society.

About 42 percent of Americans who read, listen to or pray with the Bible on their own have a Bible app on their phones, the survey found.

Still, 89 percent of Bible users say that a print version remains appealing to them, Barna reported.

David Kinnaman. Photo courtesy of Barna Group

“Print is still king,” said David Kinnaman, president of Ventura, Calif.-based Barna, a Christian market research firm.

However, he explained: “A lot of times, it’s a both/and situation — so it’s not that print is being replaced or that digital is not being used. It’s just that they’re adding digital usage along with their print usage of the Bible.”

But while overall Bible reading has remained steady, Kinnaman said, the digital availability of the Scriptures “doesn’t seem to be making significant inroads with people who were previously unreached.”

“I think the future is going to be churches helping people realize that it’s a lot more than just having access to Scriptures,” Kinnaman said. “But it’s also about how do we apply principles and understand what it means for us to live with discernment in this digital Babylon.”

Next in the works: YouVersion plans to launch Bible Lens, an app that will analyze the objects in a photo and detect biblical themes to suggest the Bible verse that best fits the photo.

“We’re really excited about it because it’s unique and on the front edge of where technology is today,” Gruenewald said. “The purpose is really to try to help people see Scripture connection in their everyday life.

“They’ll have a lens through which to look at the world around them and say, ‘I never thought about how Scripture connects to that place, that moment, that situation.’”

About the author

Bobby Ross Jr.

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  • Didn’t know about this one. But I sure do like Biblegateway.com on a desktop computer. Search capabilities in multiple versions are a big deal for anyone who is interested in the Bible.

  • It hardly matters what manner Christians read their Bible, if they won’t actually to do what its contents tell them to do. This isn’t new, either … for virtually the entire history of their religion, going back to the times when their sacred texts were written by hand on papyrus, they’ve fiercely refused to live according to what its text says. They’ve even devised all kinds of weird rationales to justify their disobedience. 

    Until Christians are willing to admit they don’t actually venerate their Bible the way they claim to, that they can read it on mobile devices doesn’t really matter. 

  • It sounds like you’re indicting all Christians. If so, isn’t that sweeping with too broad a broom?

    Most Christians I know — as well as most people of other religious traditions, for that matter — really do try to live out their faith. They’re not flashy about it and they’d be the first to admit that they often fail, but they do try.

    To be human is to often experience failure to live up to ideals and values. I try not to judge people too harshly for that reality.

  • It’s not too broad a broom to say there are few, if any, Christians who’ve ever obeyed Jesus’ instruction to “turn the other cheek” when struck. Even fewer have sold all they own, given it to the poor, and lived on (literally) nothing. Fewer still (among men, anyway) have emasculated themselves.

    I’m not saying NO Christians have ever done these things; the Church Father Origen emasculated himself, and St Francis appears to have given away his property. But the numbers of such Christians are staggeringly few.

    So no, I am not really overgeneralizing.

  • You’re also employing a unrealistically strict interpretation of Scripture. There’s a high wall and a deep ditch between hyperbolic passages about emasculation, for example, and the ideals expressed in passages about turning the other cheek, loving our neighbors, etc.

    The Gospels require more than surface study and literalism. They’re about a way of life that recognizes the virtue of sacrifice and embracing God’s presence in others. Christians who take those things seriously — and there are many — see themselves not as paragons of those virtues but as works in progress.

    And since it would have been impossible for you to have met all Christians, you are indeed overgeneralizing. I don’t begrudge you your right to do that, but I do think it’s fair to point out that it has nothing to do with empirical data.

  • Re: “You’re also employing a unrealistically strict interpretation of Scripture.” 

    Um, no. I’m not. There’s nothing “unrealistic” about treating Jesus’ order to his followers to “turn the other cheek” as just that — a clear order to his followers. He gave them lots of instructions, including never presenting their piety in public, which Christians historically have gone ahead and done freely, as though he’d never said a word. 

    Again, there’s nothing “unrealistically strict” about pointing this fact out. I get that you’d prefer Jesus hadn’t said such things, so you could justify not doing them … nevertheless, he DID say them (according to the Christians who wrote the gospels). 

    Re: “The Gospels require more than surface study and literalism.” 

    I’ll say it again, hopefully more clearly this time: The gospels contain many instructions to Christians, delivered by none other than their Jesus himself. Yet, despite claiming to revere his instructions, they generally refuse to obey them. Characterizing this observation — which is undeniably true — as “surface study” or as “literalism” changes nothing about this fact. You’re using labels to swerve out of the way of the clear and unambiguous instructions your Jesus supposedly left you. That’s just how it is. 

    Re: “And since it would have been impossible for you to have met all Christians, you are indeed overgeneralizing.” 

    No, I’m not. Which Christians, exactly, do you know of who’re living on the streets because they gave everything they owned away to charity and now own nothing? Do tell. It’s not a generalization for me to say such Christians essentially don’t exist. Because … well! … they don’t! 

    Telling me I’m “generalizing” cannot and will never magically alter this reality. It just won’t. Again, I definitely understand why, as a Christian, you wouldn’t welcome this … but too bad so sad for you, it’s true, regardless of however you might feel about it. 

    Look, the Bible is Christians’ sacred literature. Either they’re willing to do what it says, or they’re not. There’s really no gray area in there. And I didn’t make it that way … Christians themselves did, by claiming to revere a Bible whose contents they brazenly ignore. 

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