For some time now we have been exploring the history of Christianity through a collection of objects. Each of these objects helpfully signifies or encompasses a person, an event, or a period of history crucial to the growth and development of the Christian church. These are objects, historical relics, you can see and touch and experience. You can stand in The Braccio Nuovo at the Vatican Museum and see Augustus of Prima Porta, standing today as he has for nearly 2,000 years. You can visit the Basilica of Bom in Goa, India, and see Francis Xavier’s forearm, enshrined there. You can visit the Angus Library of Regent’s Park College in Oxford, England, and sit upon William Carey’s couch. As we come to the twenty-fifth and final object, it is fitting, I think, that it is not an object at all. It is a virtual object that exists only in bits and bytes, and one that can be infinitely duplicated and freely distributed. As we complete this series on the history of Christianity, we turn to LifeChurch.tv’s YouVersion Bible App.
Craig Groeschel founded LifeChurch.tv in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma in 1996. He and a handful of congregants began to meet in a small double-car garage lit with nothing more than a pair of $20 construction lights. Very quickly, though, the little church experienced explosive growth and was forced to move to a larger location. Today, eighteen years later, LifeChurch.tv is a multi-site church that reaches tens of thousands of people every weekend through their eighteen physical locations and their online church. Collectively they are considered the second largest church in America.
In 2006, Groeschel and his team developed the idea for YouVersion, an online Bible for a new, digital world. At this time YouTube was becoming a household name, Twitter was in its early days, and Facebook had just opened its doors to the public, having previously been reserved for college students. The people at LifeChurch.tv realized that the world was rapidly changing and that the church would be forced to adapt. They found themselves thinking back to the days of the printing press when, for the first time in history, the Bible suddenly became widely available. They understood that another revolution was underway and they began to consider how they could take advantage of this digital explosion to carry the distribution of the world’s most popular book.
They dreamed big. They dreamed of more than merely distributing the Bible in digital form. They dreamed of allowing readers to have access to the Bible in every possible language, to interact with it, to annotate it, to share it, to form a global community of Bible-readers and Bible-lovers. Though such interactivity is common and expected today, this was still a new idea in 2006.
The team at LifeChurch.tv developed YouVersion.com and, having secured relationships with various Bible publishers, launched the site in September of 2007. They waited in anticipation, but were surprised to see that the response was muted. There was little interest. Though Groeschel and his team were tempted to give up, they first wanted to attempt one more thing: to create a mobile version of the site. They saw that people were migrating from desktop computers to mobile devices—iPods and smartphones—and wondered about the possibilities. Apple’s new iTunes app store provided the perfect means of distribution, so LifeChurch.tv rapidly developed a Bible App and chose to give it away for free. They anticipated they might see 100,000 downloads in the first year, but achieved 80,000 in the first three days alone. Even better, they found that people were not only downloading and installing the app, but actually using it. They were reading the Bible, looking up passages, and sharing what they learned with their friends.
Very quickly the developers began to add new languages, new translations, and new features. And the rest, as they say, is history.
By early 2014, the Bible App had been installed on almost 125 million devices, with 49 million of those happening in 2013 alone. The app now offers 739 Bible versions that together represent more than 460 languages. Many of these versions are available in audio formats, and in 2013 users of the app listened to 595 million chapters of the Bible. The most-read chapter that year was Romans 8 and it was read, on average, four times every second through the entire year. The app has been used to complete an astonishing 15 million reading plans and, all together, its users have spent more than 84 billion minutes reading God’s Word.
The Bible App represents a new era in the history of the church. The digital revolution is an entirely new phenomenon and it is changing everything. Most importantly, it is changing the way people read and experience God’s Word. Our survey of church history has shown that for most of the history of Christianity, access to God’s Word has been scarce. Historically, the Bible has been both rare and expensive. But in a digital world, the Bible can be infinitely duplicated and distributed with no cost at all. We are in a time of transition from an era of scarcity to an era of abundance. As the Internet extends to the farthest reaches of the earth, so too does the reach of God’s Word.
We end this series almost 2,000 years after it first began. We end it in a world so very different from the world that birthed the Christian church. And we end it in a time full of promise and possibility. God has promised that his Word has always been living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword. If God has worked so powerfully when this Word has been rare and expensive, we can only imagine how he will work at a time when the Bible can so easily be within the grasp of every person on earth. We can only imagine how God will glorify himself in a world like this.