With 330 million downloads, first Bible app celebrates 10 years

With 330 million downloads, first Bible app celebrates 10 years

A high-tech Bible in your pocket?

In 2018 it’s a reality for hundreds of millions of smartphone users around the world.

But a decade ago, when leaders of Oklahoma-based Life Church developed the popular YouVersion app, the concept was new.

“We just thought, ‘What if the Bible could be among the very first group of apps?’” said Bobby Gruenewald, pastor and innovation leader for Life Church.

Life Church enlisted a 19-year-old staff member named Sam Soffes — now a San Francisco-based software engineer for Lyft — to create the Bible app in 2008.

When Apple launched its App Store in July 2008, YouVersion was one of the first 200 free apps available — and the only Bible app.

“That first weekend, from Thursday to Sunday, we saw 83,000 people install it on their iPhones, and it blew our minds,” Gruenewald said. “We had no idea that was possible.”

That was only the beginning. Since then, YouVersion has been downloaded on more than 330 million devices and in every country in the world, according to Life Church.

Mission through technology

Countless other Bible apps have followed, but YouVersion remains the “Gutenberg Bible” of online technology, religion researcher Scott Thumma said, referring to the first mass-produced book, printed in the 15th century.

“It is true there are many others now, but YouVersion was the early front-runner and has continued to improve and offer features that make it the best and by far most often downloaded worldwide,” said Thumma, director of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research in Connecticut.

At the beginning, YouVersion offered the Bible in 15 versions and two languages. Through partnerships with publishers and Bible societies, those numbers have expanded to 1,700 versions and 1,200 languages.

YouVersion — the first option that shows up in an App Store search for “Bible” — remains free with no commercial advertisements. Benefactors support a mission to reach as many people as possible through their phones and introduce them to Jesus.

Nationally, the use of technology to read the Bible has grown steadily, according to the 2018 State of the Bible survey, conducted by the Barna Group in partnership with the American Bible Society.

About 42 percent of Americans who read, listen to or pray with the Bible on their own have a Bible app on their phones, the survey found.

Still, 89 percent of Bible users say that a print version remains appealing to them, Barna reported.

“Print is still king,” said David Kinnaman, president of Ventura, California-based Barna, a Christian market research firm.

However, he explained: “A lot of times, it’s a both/and situation — so it’s not that print is being replaced or that digital is not being used. It’s just that they’re adding digital usage along with their print usage of the Bible.”

But while overall Bible reading has remained steady, Kinnaman said, the digital availability of the Scriptures “doesn’t seem to be making significant inroads with people who were previously unreached.”

“I think the future is going to be churches helping people realize that it’s a lot more than just having access to Scriptures,” Kinnaman said. “But it’s also about how do we apply principles and understand what it means for us to live with discernment in this digital Babylon.” (RNS)