No better symbol of the digital revolution's impact on the church exists than YouVersion, the ubiquitous Bible app that now spans more than 1,000 translations, 700 languages and 165 million users worldwide.
Yet the story of how it emerged from failure shows how God can transform efforts to bring Him glory into something humans never conceived. There is a lesson in this, particularly for small- and medium-size church pastors—cyberspace tools many consider beyond their reach are, in reality, at their fingertips.
Computer-geek-entrepreneur-turned-innovation-pastor Bobby Gruenewald at LifeChurch.tv in Edmond, Oklahoma, was in a long security line at Chicago's O'Hare Airport in 2006 when the thought struck: For spreading the Word, cyberspace could rival the printing press in historical significance.
The 38-year-old pastor's concept to meet this opportunity involved a new kind of website. Instead of just consuming content, people could create it; the church hoped to connect their content with Scripture. The trouble is, hardly anyone visited the site.
God, however, used the process to introduce Gruenewald's team to numerous publishers and other key sources that helped further the new Bible success. This interaction laid the groundwork for successfully answering the question: "What if we tried using a mobile device instead of a computer?"
Converting the website idea into a smartphone-based product proved divinely timed, coinciding with Apple announcing open season for app developments in 2008.
"We wanted to see if the Bible could be one of the first apps," Gruenewald says. "It's hard to distinguish the [app from the web site] because we feel God was preparing us for the mindset of developing resources for free.
"That led us to the app, and three days after it launched, 83,000 people had installed it. I'm amazed at how God has taken it and grown it."
The Power of Digital
Although YouVersion attracts the lion's share of publicity, the Bible App is only a small portion of LifeChurch.tv's electronic evangelism. This outreach has sparked the church's growth to 21 campuses, with another expected to launch by Easter.
Such mushrooming development illustrates how pastors who tap into the power of this transformation instead of cursing its sometimes bewildering aspects may help usher in a new Reformation.
"We have that focus of reaching out to unbelievers," says Brett Huckins, executive pastor of Gateway Church, whose Dallas area multi-site recently unveiled a dedicated social media platform to enhance its outreach.
"That's the idea behind our online video, streaming our services online and [other content]. Everything we do is to reach people."
Former pastor and social media innovator Justin Wise believes embracing such a philosophy is necessary for survival.
The author of The Social Church (Moody), Wise points to Christians' historic usage of radio (Aimee Semple McPherson) and televangelism crusades (Billy Graham) as paving the way for 21st-century adaptations.
"Not everyone will seize this opportunity," Wise wrote in a blog post last year. "In fact, some churches will stick their heads in the sand rather than face the changes head-on.
Nor should unfamiliarity with the rapidly changing technosphere hinder a pastor's willingness to learn. Gruenewald points out that when he started attending LifeChurch.tv in 1999, its only high-tech device was air conditioning.
What the one-time website developer tells church leaders is they don't have to master the entire learning curve of the process, which can present a formidable challenge.
Other megachurches like Seattle's Mars Hill, Nashville's Cross Point and San Antonio's Community Bible earn high marks for their use of social media. Yet LifeChurch.tv and Gateway Church have emerged as noted leaders in the digital age.
The Bible App isn't the only one developed by LifeChurch.tv's technology staff. The 25 YouVersion personnel and others have also developed the following tools.
Its Bible App for Kids made its debut on Thanksgiving of 2013, with its complete library of stories expected to be finished by this summer. By the end of December, it had been downloaded on 5 million devices. Church Metrics (also a website) helps churches track attendance, giving and other statistics. More than 26,000 churches have signed up.
Eight thousand more use the Church Online Platform. This platform enables churches to facilitate chats and interaction within their own community—alongside worship and a sermon. During the month of August, more than 1 million people "visited" church using this method.
Through Church Online, audiences can participate in LifeChurch.tv's worship services, sermon, live chats and one-on-one prayer. The main website also offers on-demand downloads of past services.
At a separate site (open.lifechurch.tv), the congregation offers an impressive library of 20,000 free resources. By year's end, approximately 163,000 pastors and church leaders had downloaded 6 million free tools, ranging from sermon notes to video clips to children's curriculum.
In addition to connecting with church leaders, the Oklahoma City-based congregation's cyberspace initiatives reach into places where Christians are persecuted or religious freedom is restricted. At present, Pakistan has the most people-visiting church online.
LifeChurch.tv also uses unconventional methods like search engine advertising to appeal to cyberspace users searching such terms as "pornography," "depression" or "prayer." Pop-up ads have enabled staff members to reach out to many people in time of need and connect them with a supportive community.
Gruenewald says this online community falls into several categories, starting with people who use it to supplement their church connections when they can't attend in person.
Some new believers find Christ and get connected to a local church. Others consider the portal their church home, while the mission-minded see it as a new field.
Social Media Tools
Bibles aren't the only high-tech device gathering attention in this brave new world. Last August, Gateway Church launched The Table Project, a Christian-oriented social media platform that it acquired from a Minneapolis, Minnesota company in the spring of 2013.
The acquisition came the year after the debut of the original Gateway Church App, which Huckins describes as a consumer-based device—a place where people came to watch video or retrieve information.
The staff wanted more. Tired of seeing others finding random Scripture commentary and spiritual comments on Facebook, several suggested creating a tool they could use to pastor their members digitally.
Staffers wanted to do more than offer counsel. They could incorporate such elements as Gateway's service times and locations, online giving options and spiritual formation tools.
The key concept: Offer a community-like atmosphere that would encourage sharing of prayer requests, special needs and the development of special-interest groups.
The Table (tableproject.org) is freely available to anyone that wants to use it. After working to spread awareness of the platform, last August the church introduced the interactive version and the new My Gateway, the "branded" app linked to the platform. In November it introduced a paid version, Table Pro.
Aimed at smaller churches, the free version is a kind of "church app in a box" that
includes social features, service times and locations, and small groups.
Table Pro is designed for churches that want a customized expression of their app. Offering teaching material and product support, it includes the ability to customize names and links, includes a giving module and gives the church the option to offer apps through Apple and Google Play. Monthly costs vary.
In addition to helping churches join the digital age, the new social media tool is fostering interaction among members. Special groups cover everything from motorcycles to theology, while different staff members focus on reaching out to the curious.
This all takes personnel. From a staff of about 45, Gateway plans to expand its tech department to 60 by this spring as it expands The Table and other interactive technology.
Part of Gateway's electronic emphasis stems from its need to tie together its five campuses in the Dallas Metroplex, which host a collective 30,000 worshipers a weekend (an endeavor that requires more than 150 staff members and 7,300 volunteers).
However, it moves beyond through such moves as hosting technology in ministry conferences and partnering with some 173 ministries in 47 nations. In 2013, the nondenominational charismatic church founded its School of Tech Arts, a two-year program that uses the church's campuses as classrooms and industry experts as instructors.
Huckins calls this multi-faceted program its attempt to answer the question how they can better disciple people in the digital arena as traditional brick-and-mortar locations no longer occupy first place in many people's hearts.
He says it's working, particularly The Table. Among the testimonies returning from the field is the Table user who sat next to an airline passenger whose mother had just been diagnosed with cancer.
The member replied, "Is anyone praying for you? Let me post a request on My Gateway."
"The member turned around the phone to show them the app and could see tears in the other person's eyes," Huckins says. "It's also for a person who has needs and is exploring, asking, 'What's this church all about?' People can post a need that others can meet."
However, before getting too excited over the potential of technology, Gruenewald raises a couple yellow flags for church leaders. It starts with avoiding feeling pressured to adopt a certain kind of technology just "because everyone else is."
The other caution is to avoid mistaking technology for innovation. Sometimes from a well-intentioned desire for groundbreaking moves, pastors can reason they need the latest and greatest technology.
"In reality, the technology purchases we make say a lot more about our budget than they do about how innovative we are," Gruenewald says. "It's really about leveraging your passion and resources to work within your constraints.
"People are sharing their lives on social media with an unprecedented degree of transparency. The question is: Are we listening and responding?
How every pastor answers that question may well determine the future of the body of Christ.
Ken Walker is a freelance writer, co-author and book editor from Huntington, West Virginia, and a regular contributor to Ministry Today and Charisma.
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