It’s the latest twist on the world’s oldest book: Bible apps, with names such as PocketSword and Our Daily Bread, are exploding in popularity, injecting a new digital dimension to church life, classrooms and private prayer.
More than 40 percent of Christians surveyed last year by California-based Barna Group reported downloading the apps. The most popular, YouVersion, reports a whopping 271 million global downloads this month, up from 10 million when launched in 2010.
No one is predicting the demise of the Good Book. But the Greatest Story Ever Told is increasingly being spiced up with photos, video, 3-D graphics, maps and social media shares.
“They are simple, straightforward, and provide whatever version of the Bible you want, whenever you want it,” said the Rev. John Sommerville, of City Church in Minneapolis.
There are about 1,500 versions of the Bible in more than 1,000 languages, from Arapaho to Korean and Zaiwa. The apps, say their supporters, are doing for the Bible today what the printing press did for it in the 16th century — making it available to more people than ever.
“The Bible is one of the most sought-after content in the world,” said David Kinnaman, president of Barna Group, a Christian polling firm. “I think it’s exciting to see the proliferation of Bible resources in the digital age.”
Whitney Suhadolnik, 21, belongs to the key demographic targeted by app-makers. Young adult Christians have the lowest level of Bible readership, with about one in four checking out the Scriptures on a weekly basis, Barna surveys show.
The Bethel University junior has two apps on her smartphone, Our Daily Bread and BibleGateway. She swipes them open for personal inspiration, Bible studies at church and classroom discussions in her Introduction to the Bible course at Bethel.
A couple times a day, her text message alert pings with a prayer.
“I like it because it reminds you to do your devotionals,” Suhadolnik said. “And it has pretty pictures, so it gets your attention.”
The apps also help in class. On a recent morning, she sat at her desk while Bethel professor Mike Holmes lectured about early Christianity. He told the students, “Let’s go to John, Chapter 1. How does John begin?”
While many students paged through the open Bibles on their desks, Suhadolnik and others reached for their phones. That’s fine with Holmes, though he admits he looks to make sure it’s Matthew, Mark, Luke or John on the students’ screens rather than texts from Emily or Ethan.
Holmes’ own use of the apps is a bit more esoteric. He likes BibleGateway, and he prefers to read the Bible in Koine Greek, a dialect common in Biblical-era Greece.
“And if I want to compare translations, I can get dozens,” he said.
Phones in the pews
Head bowed during worship — with eyes gazing at a phone — is considered good manners at churches such as Crossroads United Methodist Church in Lakeville.
After years of printing out the sermon and related questions, Crossroads decided to go paper-free. The many interactive features of Bible apps made that possible.
“During announcements I tell people, ‘Take out your phones and follow along [the readings],’ ” said the Rev. Deb Marzahn. “And we show a little video how to use YouVersion.”
Folks in the pews highlight passages, take notes and share with their friends, Marzahn said.
“It saves on paperwork and time,” she said. “You have the Bible at your fingertips. And it’s free.”
But it can be a bit confusing for newcomers, she said.
“Someone new in the church left a comment card,” said Marzahn with a smile. “She said how disrespectful it was for the woman up front to be texting and on Facebook during the sermon.”
The right mix
YouVersion, launched from Life.Church in Oklahoma, found that people were far more likely to read Scripture on their phones than their computers. YouVersion initially was launched solely as a website, “but that didn’t go too well,” said Life.Church spokesperson Rachel Feuerborn.
In 2008, however, YouVersion Bible signed on as one of the first 200 apps in the Apple iTunes store, she said. Downloads exploded. Today, about every five seconds someone in the world is downloading the app, according to a ticking tally on the website.
While the Scriptures make up the heart of Bible apps, the apps also contain hundreds of “reading plans” and explore verses focused on specific topics such as “Rebuilding a Marriage” or “Finding Your Way Back to God.” They send reading reminders, verse of the day reminders and more via text message.
It’s not for everyone.
“It had way too many notifications,” said the Rev. Jerad Morey, a program director at the Minnesota Council of Churches, recalling an app he had downloaded. “There were daily notices, such as ‘Have you read your Scripture today?’ It made me not want to read the Bible!”
Morey prefers a no-frills approach, and stays focused on the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible.
“It’s easy to read, easier to find things,” Morey said. “It’s just click, click, click.”
Ironically, the easy search engines also have attracted a group of users that Bible backers aren’t thrilled to see trolling: the skeptics and the haters.
“It’s now easy for people to find whatever they want in the Bible,” Kinnaman said. “There’s ways to find your deepest darkest questions about the Bible confirmed.”
The hundreds of Bible-related apps being launched point to the evolution of Scripture-sharing over the centuries, from word of mouth to touch of the finger, religious leaders say.
It also reflects our need-it-now culture, and Christianity’s rush to stay on top of it.
“It used to be, in our tradition, that people carried their Bibles to church,” said Sommerville. “Then there were Bibles in the pews. Now they’re in their pockets.”