The "Roman roads" of today are the Internet, the smartphone and social media. The famed Roman Roads of the Ancient Empire were among the foremost technological advances that helped Christianity spread so rapidly. Their construction was strategically well-timed to the Incarnation of Christ and the subsequent missionary journeys of the Apostle Paul. The building of these continent-connecting arteries started in 500 B.C. and ultimately spanned over 250,000 miles. They not only enabled the Roman Empire to grow, but also propelled the Gospel forward. The new roads are having a similar effect.
Some Christians, churches and Bible agencies have caught on to the fact that someone else has already paid for these new roads to be built. These electronic avenues are open and ready for a million journeys of faith and witness. One group of techno-evangelists have caught one and already made remarkable advances is the team behind the "Bible App" (aka YouVersion.com) and their founder, Bobby Gruenewald.
The Bible App and YouVersion sites make numerous forms of the Bible available to the reader and Bible student for free. While reading various electronic versions the user of the Bible App can also track their journey through a variety of reading plans and keep an online journal of their reflections and prayers. Users may also embed videos and article links they either may want to come back to personally or offer public access and interaction. This month the "Bible App" reached a mile marker of 50 million downloads, a rare accomplishment in the App World.
While the Old Roman Roads connected major towns and cities; the new ones are connecting homes and individuals. Not only is there an information component to online Bibles that is changing our use of Scripture, there is a social one, as well. New York Times columnist Tom Friedman recently said, "The world is no longer just connected; it is now hyper-connected." There are currently an estimated 400 million smartphones across the globe and growing. Mark Brown, the creator of Facebook-the Bible Page (8.4 million users and frequently the "most engaged" site on FB), says "more and more people are doing everything on their smartphones." He estimates that in the next few years the numbers will rise to a full billion smart phones.
I recently interviewed Gruenewald for an article in Christianity Today called "The Social Network Gospel" (June 2012 issue). As it turns out, the Bible App idea came to Gruenewald while in an airport. Four years ago while checking in his luggage it suddenly occurred to him that because of technology everyone has a virtual "printing press" in their home. This posed incredible possibilities for new forms of interaction with and around the Bible. Immediately he went online and reserved the URL www.youversion.com. Soon thereafter he began to assemble what has come to be known as the YV "Digerati" Team, the technological brains behind the project.
A finance major at a Nazarene School, Gruenewald did well during the Internet financial bubble; he started (and sold) two tech companies in 1999. Craig Groeschel, Lead Pastor of LifeChurch.tv and best-selling Christian writer (i.e., Soul Detox), took note of his business savvy and asked him to join his pastoral team. Initially Gruenewald thought his entrepreneurial spirit would be under-challenged in a church environment. On the contrary, he became the "Innovation Pastor" at LifeChurch and has been much of the creative genius behind the rapid online development of YouVersion and LifeChurch.tv (a congregation of some 30,000 located on 14 campuses and online).
On the heels of Gruenewald's early experimentation with the YouVersion site, he found out about Apple's plan to launch an App Store in July 2008. His team was fortunate enough to secure the simple name "Bible App." When the app first launched, Gruenewald's goal was 80,000 users by the end of the year. Instead, they gained 83,000 in the first 3 days. At that point, he knew he was on to something. The church decided to pull out the stops and invest much into the site which is currently gaining more than 3 million new users every month.
The immediacy of technology has changed the game of Bible reading. Printed Bibles have to be duplicated, bound, packaged, shipped, displayed, sold, taken home and then opened and read. Digital Bibles, however, begin as electronic bytes on a server and can become a thousand or a million (or more) copies on the faces of smartphones in just a matter of seconds. That's a game changer. Several Bible publishers and license holders, however, have allowed sites such as YouVersion and BibleGateway to publish their versions digitally since they have found it has not hindered print sales, but has actually increased them and provided broad network of promotion.
Gruenewald says, "I believe that this generation could become the most biblically engaged one in history." Five hundred years ago the prime technologies of Bible advancement were not Gruenewald, but Gutenberg, the developer of the earliest European printing press. For Martin Luther, this new technology was something truly glorious. He praised its timeliness and encouraged its potential. Luther had recognized a new "road." Now, another one has arrived.
Follow Robert C. Crosby, D.Min. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/rccrosby