With 330 million downloads, the best Bible app turns 10


EDMOND, Oklahoma – A high-tech Bible in your pocket?

In 2018, this is a reality for hundreds of millions of smartphone users around the world.

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

“We just thought, ‘What if the Bible could be part of the very first group of applications? “Said Bobby Gruenewald, pastor and innovation leader for the Multi-Site Evangelical Church, which attracts approximately 75,000 worshipers each week to 29 locations in nine states.

“It was profound how simple it was but how much it connected us to the Word of God in places and environments where we didn’t have physical Bibles,” added Gruenewald, a former tech entrepreneur. who entered full-time ministry in 2001.

Life Church hired 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, Thursday through Sunday, we saw 83,000 people install it on their iPhones, and it blew us away,” said Gruenewald. “We didn’t know it was possible.”

It was only the beginning.

YouVersion app views open on smartphones. (Credit: Image courtesy of Life Church via RNS.)

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

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

“Indeed, YouVersion is the gorilla of 300 million pounds of Bible apps,” said Thumma, director of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research in Connecticut. “It’s true that there are many more now, but YouVersion has been the forerunner and has continued to improve and deliver features that make it the best and by far the most downloaded in the world. “

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

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

In the shadow of a huge white cross that overlooks Interstate 35 in the town of Edmond, 32 Life Church employees – supported by 1,000 volunteers around the world – work full-time with YouVersion. Technical support is offered in over 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 more than 50 languages ​​so that the interface of the application is intact, ”said Gruenewald at his new facility, where the meeting rooms meeting have glass doors. and giant monitors and scripture verses are painted prominently on the walls.

YouVersion – the first option that appears in an App Store search for “Bible” – remains free with no commercial ads.

“When I ask a group of people about their overall digital experience, they often tell me that when they are at work or at school, they use their computers to suggest (biblical) things,” John Dyer said. , who teaches a course in theology, technology and digital literacy at Dallas Theological Seminary. “So in this world, they’re going to be exposed to something other than YouVersion.”

“YouVersion will primarily be an app on their phone, and that’s something worth mentioning across the digital realm,” Dyer added.

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

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

Fostering digital devotions has become a ministry that lurks in plain sight.

“There are people in our own church who are sometimes surprised when they learn that the app is published by their own church,” said Gruenewald. “This is a missionary result of our church, but we are not trying to increase the number of church participants. “

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

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

“I use YouVersion all the time,” said Warfel, who is in his 60s. “I love the search function. This is probably my favorite part.

“I also like the verse of the day,” she added. “I set this up to remind me to come before I even wake up in the morning.… And I like the worm images too, and I’ll share them periodically on my social media.

David Regier, music minister at First Baptist Church in San Jacinto, Calif., Said he appreciates the ability to scroll through the scriptures on his phone, but prefers a paper Bible for the church and study.

“The obvious downside (of an app) is that it’s not just a Bible, so there’s the ever-present temptation to – gasp! – Twitter by touching a screen, ”said Regier, 51, whose alter ego is Church Curmudgeon, a cranky old believer with nearly 100,000 followers on Twitter. “And in fact, leafing through a paper Bible helps secure Bible knowledge in the brain. “

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

“I’m old-fashioned enough to want to have fewer bells and whistles in my programs,” he said, “so that I don’t get distracted from the Bible while I read 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% of Americans who read, listen to or pray with the Bible on their own have a Bible app on their phone, according to the survey.

Still, 89 percent of Bible users say a printed version remains attractive, Barna reported.

“Print is always king,” said David Kinnaman, president of Barna, a Christian market research company based in Ventura, Calif.

However, he explained, “A lot of times it’s a situation of both / and – so it’s not that printing is replaced or digital not being used. It’s just that they are adding digital use to their print use of the Bible.

But while overall Bible reading has remained stable, Kinnaman said, the digital availability of scriptures “does not appear to make significant progress with people who had not been reached before.”

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

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

“We are really excited about this project because it is unique and at the cutting edge of current technology,” said Gruenewald. “The point is really to try to help people see the connection to the scriptures in their everyday lives.”

“They will have a lens through which to look at the world around them and say, ‘I never thought about how the scriptures connect with this place, at this time, with this situation. “”

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