NYT front page discovers the most popular Bible app

Hey, guess what? If you want to read the Bible online, there's an app for that. I know this because I saw it on the front page of today's New York Times.

Sorry, but I couldn't resist poking a little fun at the Old Gray Lady for discovering an e-trend that's old news to millions of Bible readers.

The story caught my attention because it's datelined Edmond, Okla. — my neck of the woods — and involves a church that I've written about for The Oklahoman and Religion News Service, including a 2005 feature on the spread of satellite churches.

My teasing aside, the Times story is actually quite informative and interesting.

Let's start at the top:

EDMOND, Okla. — More than 500 years after Gutenberg, the Bible is having its i-moment.

For millions of readers around the world, a wildly successful free Bible app, YouVersion, is changing how, where and when they read the Bible.

Built by LifeChurch.tv, one of the nation’s largest and most technologically advanced evangelical churches, YouVersion is part of what the church calls its “digital missions.” They include a platform for online church services and prepackaged worship videos that the church distributes free. A digital tithing system and an interactive children’s Bible are in the works.

It’s all part of the church’s aspiration to be a kind of I.T. department for churches everywhere. YouVersion, with over 600 Bible translations in more than 400 languages, is by far the church’s biggest success. The app is nondenominational, including versions embraced by Catholics, Russian Orthodox and Messianic Jews. This month, the app reached 100 million downloads, placing it in the company of technology start-ups like Instagram and Dropbox.

“They have defined what it means to access God’s word on a mobile device,” said Geoff Dennis, an executive vice president of Crossway, one of many Bible publishers — from small presses to global Bible societies to News Corporation’s Thomas Nelson imprint — that have licensed their translations, free, to the church.

Alas, the story sputters in a few places and makes me think that maybe Mollie was right when she joked that the Times should hire someone who has been to Vacation Bible School.

The first sputter:

When Jen Sears, 37, a human resources manager in Oklahoma City, wants to pray these days, she leaves her Bible behind and grabs her phone instead.

“I have my print Bible sitting on my dresser at home, but it hasn’t moved” in the four years since she downloaded YouVersion, Mrs. Sears said.

Um, since when does praying require a Bible? Did the source tell the reporter that she grabs her phone when she gets ready to pray? Or did the writer make an awkward turn of phrase because of a lack of understanding?

The second sputter:

On Sunday mornings, as pastors around the country preach from iPads while congregations click on Corinthians, YouVersion’s servers track more than 600,000 requests every minute.

Which Corinthians — 1 Corinthians or 2 Corinthians? By my count, this is the second case of GetReligion questioning the Times' failure to specify which book of Corinthians.

The third sputter:

Today, the app contains everything from the New International Version to “The Message,” an ultramodern interpretation that reads like a juicy novel. It also includes the so-called Orthodox Jewish Bible, which was actually developed for a religious sect known as Messianic Jews, who believe that Jesus is the Messiah that the Jews await.

The description of Messianic Jews as a sect seems pejorative to me.

The Religion Newswriters Association stylebook contains this entry on the use of that term:


Refers to a group that has broken off from another. Avoid this label unless you are sure it fits; it often carries negative connotations.

Despite the sputters, the story succeeds overall and provides important perspective on the growth of YouVersion, including these ending paragraphs:

Scott Thumma, a professor at the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, who studies large American churches, said YouVersion filled a longstanding vacuum for technological products aimed at a religious market. He called LifeChurch.tv “the most innovative congregation in the country in developing and using technology.”

The app has gained appreciation in the tech world as well.

“This is a remarkable tech start-up by any measure,” said Chi-Hua Chien, a partner at the Silicon Valley venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins and a Christian who has offered informal advice to Mr. Gruenewald. He compared YouVersion with well-known ventures like Pinterest or Path.

“It is certainly going to be the most important distribution channel for anyone who is creating Christian faith content,” he said. “Where else can you go and reach 100 million people?”

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