(RNS) — I met Bobby Gruenewald not long after YouVersion had created a stir with its 2008 release. The Bible reading app had been downloaded 83,000 times in its first three days. Bobby and I clearly remember this occasion not only because we were seated in a busy cafeteria at our hotel in Rome, looking out on Bernini’s “Elephant and Obelisk”, but also because Jason Alexander — George Costanza from “Seinfeld!”! — was right next to me.
Alexander was just as engaged with his guest, as we were trying to avoid gawking.
But looking back, it’s clear that Gruenewald was the greater draw over the long-term. The hit TV show’s 26.6 million average weekly viewers pales next to YouVersion’s 500 million downloads, which the app passed this month.
To further put this achievement in perspective, that is more readers of the Bible than the total population of the world when Johannes Gutenberg revolutionized the world with his printed Bible around 1454. YouVersion is used by approximately one-sixteenth (or 8 billion) of the world’s population.
“YouVersion surpassing the halfway point to a billion downloads is a major historic landmark,” Harry Hargrave, CEO of the Museum of the Bible in Washington, said. “Gutenberg changed the world with his printing press and 180 rather expensive Bibles. Gruenewald is changing the world with just a few hundred millions more and all of them are free .”
Bobby Gruenewald, right, innovation leader for Life.Church and founder of the YouVersion Bible app, works with his team in Edmond, Oklahoma, on June 26, 2018. Photo courtesy of Life.Church
Gruenewald shuns the opportunity to claim credit, praises his team, and declares anything miraculous to God. Religion News Service: “YouVersion was founded by me asking the question: Could technology help me to read the Bible more consistently?” “I was a poor Bible reader at the time. But I wanted to be more consistent. I began to think about how technology could help me and others like me. We started small, but God has made it .”
He stated, “It is the Bible, not our App, that changes lives .”
Two factors must be considered in any accounting of YouVersion’s success. One is that Gruenewald and his team launched the app only 18 months after Steve Jobs released the iPhone on Jan. 9, 2007. The second is that YouVersion can be downloaded for free. Gruenewald stated that YouVersion was founded as a ministry for Life.Church. This multisite church is located in Oklahoma and Gruenewald said, “YouVersion was established to serve this purpose. We want it to be a good stewardship.” “From the beginning, YouVersion has been noncommercial and 100% donor supported.”
Pastor Bobby Gruenewald. Photo courtesy of Life.Church
It remains a significant fixed portion of Life.Church’s annual budget, and supported via 27 major partners.
Visitors can view actual pages from the Gutenberg Bible at the Museum of the Bible. Gruenewald found the original iPhone that downloaded YouVersion and gave it to the museum. It is displayed in a replica of Gutenberg’s Gutenberg press, and an LCD background keeps track of all the downloads.
Pages of a Gutenberg sell today for as much as $150,000. Will that 2008 iPhone fetch as much in a few centuries? This is more than just a financial question. Many Christians believe that only two things can last forever: people and God’s Word .”
(Jerry Pattengale, the University Professor at Indiana Wesleyan University, is one of the founders of the Museum of the Bible and author of the forthcoming “The New Book of Christian Martyrs.” The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service. )
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