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The Ultimate Bible App

From the Dead Sea Scrolls to your smartphone, the Word of God has connected with people. And never more so than today.

Craig (right) with Bobby Gruenewald, who came up with the idea for the Bible app
Credit: photo shevaun williams

It was a German printer named Johannes Gutenberg who made the breakthrough. We call it innovation today.

For centuries the Bible had been laboriously hand-copied by scribes and monks in medieval towers. A king or queen might have an exquisite illuminated prayer book or collection of the Psalms, but few others did. Not many could read anyway.

Then, in 1455, Gutenberg, pioneering the use of movable type, printed a complete Latin Bible. A revolution had begun. God’s Word became more accessible, and people could experience a more personal relationship with God.

Martin Luther translated the Bible into everyday German; then William Tyndale did one in English, claiming, “Before very long I shall cause a ploughboy to know the Scriptures.” The monumental King James Version, produced in 1611, could soon be found in nearly every English-speaking home.

I’m not Gutenberg, I’m a pastor, but I am passionate about getting Scripture into people’s hands. Not long ago, my church came up with a way of doing that, something we believe can be as revolutionary as Gutenberg’s Bible.

Much like the early popularizers of the printed Bible, we struggled to get it right. In fact, I felt like the last person God would pick for this work. But that’s God for you.

Picture a college frat boy who had never been interested in the Bible. I wasn’t the wildest one by any means, but my sophomore year my fraternity was at risk of being kicked off campus. I thought, as sort of a PR move, we should show the fraternity council that we weren’t such bad guys.

“Let’s have a Bible study at the house,” I said. “Anybody can come.” We needed to let people know that our place wasn’t just for wild parties.

Even though some of my fraternity brothers laughed at the idea, we decided to do it. We handed out flyers all over campus, put up posters and called everybody we knew.

The day of the Bible study came and I was feeling pretty proud of myself. In the middle of class, it dawned on me that I didn’t own a Bible. It was too late to buy one, let alone read it. If there ever was a foxhole moment this was it. God, I need a Bible, I half-muttered. NOW.

When class was dismissed, I dashed outside, hoping one of my buddies might have an extra Bible lying around. I almost ran into an older gentleman in a coat and tie. His name tag said he was from Gideon International, whatever that was.

He was handing out small green books with faux-leather trim. Bibles. “Do you want one, young man?”

“Sure.” I took out my wallet. I would have given him a hundred bucks if I had it. “How much?”

“Nothing. They’re free.”

A God I wasn’t even sure I believed in had hand-delivered a Bible. I took it and thumbed through it on the way back to the fraternity: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John….

What I hadn’t realized was that he had given me a copy of the New Testament. So when we gathered in a circle in the den, the place still reeking of beer and cigarettes, I announced, “We’ll start at the beginning, Matthew.…”

“Mine says, ‘Genesis: In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,’” one of my frat brothers said.

“Mine doesn’t,” I said. “Let’s start with Matthew.”

And we did. I was hooked. I whizzed through the Gospels and devoured Paul’s letters. One night, when I read about God’s grace in Ephesians, I became so desperate for a conversation with this savior I barely knew that I climbed out the window to escape the crowded frat house.

I wandered to the softball field, knelt on the damp grass, offered myself up to God, and stood up a different person.

To my surprise, a buddy from the fraternity made the same decision that night. “Let’s celebrate,” we said. We were so green in our faith that we did the only thing frat boys knew to do when something good happened. “Let’s get a beer.”

Eventually I found a Bible complete with Old and New Testament. I joined a church, went to seminary and became a pastor. That free Bible changed my life. I wanted to help other people connect to it.

I started a church which by the grace of God grew by leaps and bounds. Yet I was discouraged with how little people knew about Scripture. I could hardly blame them, given my past.

We held meetings to come up with ways to bring the Bible into people’s everyday lives. We brainstormed, tried different things. One day, Bobby Gruenewald, one of our pastors, was waiting in a slow security line at the airport, heading back to Oklahoma, staring at his new smart phone.

He wondered, What if we create a website where people can share Scripture and upload videos? By the time he reached his gate he had registered the domain name, YouVersion.com.

His concept seemed solid–so we ran with it. As excited as we were on launch week, our new idea didn’t catch on. Most of our users were staff members, and even they didn’t love using the site.

After a few months, I realized that if we couldn’t find a way to turn things around, attract more traffic and get our numbers up, we’d have to take the website down.

Knowing that Apple was about to launch the world’s first app store, Bobby had another idea. He asked, “What if we created a Bible app? We can modify what we’ve already built and offer different translations, Bible studies, reading plans.” Bingo. That was it.

Everyone thought we should charge for the app. Certainly 99 cents would be reasonable–a bargain, really. After all, it would help us cover the massive expense of developing the app.

Then I thought of that frat boy in a panic, desperate for a Bible. “No,” I said. “Someone once gave me a Bible for free. Let’s do the same.”

I knew it sounded nuts. How was our church going to afford an app that gives the Bible to people for free? And yet, it just felt right.

We worked around the clock, doing things by the seat of our pants. Our one dedicated YouVersion employee was a 19-year-old college kid. We reached out to Bible publishers to get the rights to offer their versions for free.

Even knowing this could potentially hurt their sales, publisher after publisher generously agreed. We sent out e-mails to our congregation and friends. Then we went live. We figured we’d be lucky if we got a few thousand downloads in the first month.

We had 81,000 downloads on the first weekend!

The numbers have continued to astound us. We’re up to 150 million downloads and over a billion hours of Bible reading. We offer 747 versions of the Bible in 476 languages.

We have hundreds of Bible studies from legendary pastors like Billy Graham and Joel and Victoria Osteen, and the numbers continue to climb. You can download it to your phone, tablet or computer; you can listen, you can watch videos. We’ve even launched a Bible app for kids.

I used to put tabs in my old Bible so I could find the different books. No need to on my phone. I just type in the book, chapter and verse and go right to it.

I’ve noticed too how our Bible study discussions have been enhanced. On YouVersion, you can stay on the same verse and switch to a dozen different translations. It’s also easy to bounce around to different parts; and it levels the playing field.

“Let’s read from the first chapter of First Thessalonians,” someone will say. It used to be only the well-versed Bible students who could immediately turn to the right page. Now everybody can do it.

Today we have a staff of 30 who work on YouVersion and hundreds of volunteers around the world. After English, Portuguese is the most popular language, followed by Korean and Spanish.

The project is entirely supported by our church, by donations and by the passion of people who want to share Scripture with virtually everyone on the planet.

Did Bobby have any idea what he happened upon in that airport security line? No way. He was just grasping for a new approach and wondering how technology could help.

The truth is, God uses our inventions, from the printing press to the Internet, to spread his Word, not the other way around. Talk about an Innovator.

Download your free eBook, Let These Bible Verses Help You: 12 Psalms and Bible Passages to Deepen Your Joy, Happiness, Hope and Faith..

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