CHICAGO — Standing in a security line at O’Hare International Airport seven years ago, the Rev. Bobby Gruenewald wished he had a Bible in his pocket to pass the time. Then the tech-savvy pastor raised in central Illinois had a thought: Wouldn’t it be grand if anyone could have their favorite version of the Bible within reach anywhere at any time?
“Could we be at one of these moments in history where technology, if we leverage it correctly, could transform how we engage in the Bible?” Gruenewald, 37, recalls thinking that day. “Drawing from the story of the printing press, for centuries, that really changed our access to the Bible. It’s probably something today we easily take for granted, but it came through invention.”
By the time he reached the gate to board his flight, Gruenewald, now the innovation pastor of an Oklahoma-based megachurch called LifeChurch.tv, had already registered a Web domain name, youversion.com, and hatched a plan that would lead to the world’s most popular Bible app.
That app, YouVersion, recently exceeded 100 million downloads and offers the holy book in 617 versions and 377 languages.
Represented by the simple icon of a Bible with a bookmark, the app offers audio versions for listeners, navigation tools to look up passages, social media capability to share verses on Facebook and Twitter, and private or public platforms to store or share notes. The app is free and generates no revenue for the church. It simply aims to fulfill the Christian mission of spreading God’s word, Gruenewald said.
But Gruenewald’s idea required more than technical expertise. It has taken nearly $20 million from donors, 30 paid staff and 500 volunteers worldwide to get off the ground.
It also needed cooperation from publishers to grant access to the hundreds of translations of the Christian Bible available on YouVersion’s menu, including ones popular with evangelical Christians, Orthodox Christians, Roman Catholics, and Messianic Jews, who blend evangelical Christian theology with Jewish rituals.
Tyndale House Publishers was one of the first companies to grant access. It took 90 scholars commissioned by the Carol Stream, Ill., company seven years to develop the New Living Translation, which is now the world’s thirdmost popular biblical translation. Company officials said they weren’t eager to give away their work.
But when Gruenewald shared his vision of making the Bible more accessible to people on the go, the west suburban publishing house reconsidered. It signed a two-year trial agreement in 2008 to license the translation for free. It has since renewed that agreement twice after discovering that popularity has soared.
“We found that when people read the New Living Translation they are able to experience it personally and it speaks to their heart,” said Jeffrey Smith, the New Living Translation brand director for Tyndale House. “We know that, for many, they’ll adopt it as their translation of choice, then follow through and purchase other resources from us. When something is so successful like this, it’s the hand of God.”