Why Technology Is Reinventing
Church As We Have Known It
by Pastor Paul J. Bern
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The celebration of the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible was back in 2011, and Bible publishers are still ostentatiously commemorating that landmark by producing an abundance of gorgeous hand-bound versions complete with illustrations – for a premium price, of course. The hoopla is entirely justified, since the King James Bible revolutionized Bible reading, bringing Scripture into a common vernacular for the first time for the English-speaking world. Although I personally use other versions (NIV, NLT, & Amplified), it is not too much to say that the King James Bible – mass produced as it was – democratized religion by taking it out of the hands of the clerical few and giving it to the many, thanks to a cutting edge technology from back then called the printing press.
Today, another much bigger revolution in the Church is underway. Today’s technology goes a giant step further, making Scripture – in any language and any translation – accessible to anyone on earth with a decent mobile phone. It need not be a “Smart-phone” anymore, just a basic one with a decent sized screen is all you need. Just like the 500-year-old Protestant Reformation, which was aided by the advent of the printing press and which helped give birth to the King James Bible, changes wrought by new Web-based technology have the ability to expand the reach and scope of the gospel of Jesus Christ like we previously never have. In the face of church leaders who claimed that only they could interpret the Bible for the common people, Reformation leaders like Martin Luther taught that nothing supersedes the authority of the Word itself. “A simple layman armed with Scripture,” Luther wrote, “is greater than the mightiest pope without it.”
In that vein, digital technology gives users the text, plain and simple, without the interpretive lens of established authorities. And it lets users share interpretations with other non-authorities, like family members, friends and coworkers. With the Bible on iPhone’s, iPad’s and ‘tablets’ of various kinds, believers can bypass constraining religious structures – otherwise known as denominations and brick-and-mortar churches – in favor of a more individualized connection with God. We can’t see God, and we can’t see the internet visually, yet people who have a hunger and a thirst for God – or at the very least some power greater than themselves – connect with God this way. This website is based on that fact, that there is an emerging new power outlet that we can plug in to that is like a direct link to God. Churches are getting on the Web in droves because they are discovering the same thing. There is an intensity now, a burning desire to bring ourselves as close as we can get to God, because millions of Christians all over the world are beginning to recognize that we are living in the Last Days. There is now a growing sense of urgency to get as many souls into God’s kingdom as can be because we are all running out of time! The more ways we can find to do this, the better.
This helps solve a problem that Christian leaders are increasingly articulating; that even among people who say that Jesus Christ is their personal Lord and Savior, too many folks don’t read their Bibles. Here in the 21st century, more than a third of those who self-identify as born-again Christians rarely or never read the Bible. They don’t even own one! Among ‘unaffiliated’ people – that is, Americans who don’t belong to a religious congregation – more than two thirds say they don’t read the Bible. Especially among 18-to-29 year old’s, Bible reading has come to feel like homework, associated with “right” interpretations and “wrong ones,” and accompanied by stern lectures from the pulpit. Today’s young Christians, or “millenials” if you like, have come to expect experiences that appear unscripted and interactive, which allows them to be open and honest with their questions. To put it simply, they are hungry and thirsty for an authenticity that can only be found by reading the Bible. If anyone reading this does not own a Bible because they can’t afford it, please send me your email addresses in the responses below, or contact me directly from this link.
This yearning for a more directly connected faith – including Bible readings and verses to inspire or console wherever and whenever they’re needed – is being met with an enthusiastic embrace. For growing numbers of young people, a leather-bound Bible sitting like an artifact on a stand in the family living room has no allure. It’s not an invitation to exploration or questioning. Young people want to absorb their spirituality the way they do their news or their music. They want to browse on Facebook, Tweet on Twitter, link up on Linked In, and Google whatever is left. They are also streaming Christian content on their various digital devices directly off the Web, bypassing cable TV and printed media completely. Thus we now have products such as “Youversion”, a digital Bible available for free on iTunes and developed by a 34-year-old technology buff and Christian pastor from Oklahoma named Bobby Grunewald. In an interview on a Christian TV channel recently, he said he conceived of it while on a layover at Chicago O’Hara International Airport, wishing he had a Bible to read. “What we’re really trying to address is, how do we increase engagement in the Bible?” he said. Now available in 113 versions and 41 languages, including Arabic, “Youversion” has a community component that allows users to share thoughts and insights on Bible verses with friends. It has been installed on more than 20 million Smart-phones since 2008.
Traditionalists (and I’m definitely not one of those) worry that technology allows young believers to practice religion without committing to what many churches call “a church home” – and they’re right. What they are really afraid of is that donations will falter as a result of this development. The very idea of not having the church participants right there with them so these hireling pastors can pass around a collection basket (or two) completely unnerves these types of ‘leaders’. That’s how you can tell if a pastor is in the ministry for the right reasons. Let me give you an example. I once watched a Michigan pastor named Rob Bell on a Christian video that I streamed off the Web. It was the eve of the publication of his new bestseller “Love Wins” (I don’t recall the date on the video, but it was a couple of years ago). It was said on the show that after the book-signing, many of Pastor Bell’s acolytes said they felt they knew Rob through his sermons, which they regularly downloaded off the internet, even though they had never met him. They hailed from places like Australia, South Africa and New Jersey. They listen to Bell while they’re working out, or commuting to work. They get their religion – like their meals – on the run. Pastor Bell is going about this in the right way, and traditional churches with their comparatively high overhead are being left behind in the dust of history.
The family Bible has long been given as a gift on graduation day or other big occasions and inscribed with special dates such as births, marriages, or deaths. Some of these Bibles would go on to become collector’s items that are treasured, protected and preserved. I can see a world in the not-too-distant future when the Bible may exist primarily online, or on a ‘thumb-drive’, especially due to the number of trees we must otherwise cut down to make the paper on which to print them. For right now, worship services and Bible studies are still done almost exclusively as public gatherings in a house of worship, or sometimes in a “home church”. But more and more people are beginning to trend towards Web-based Churches that offers a more personalized experience. As a result for some, the necessity of physically gathering each week in the same place with the same people becomes a traditional form of worship that has begun to fade into the past. Moreover, more and more people are getting by without the expense of owning and insuring (and fixing!) a motor vehicle. Without a doubt, these two trends represent a new crisis for organized religion if it has difficulty adapting to these new technologies that can reach audiences that number in the millions. This question already has organized religion seeking to redefine what it means to be a body of believers. Besides, with all this new technology, the faithful can now have church as little or as often as they want (but often is definitely better, even if it’s for only 5 minutes each time). Just remember to make sure your worship is as authentic as the Lord and Savior you worship! Search your hearts for the answer to this question. God sees all and He knows all. Above all, never stop praying and praising Jesus, because he’s coming back real soon.