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Tech-savvy pastor with Illinois ties reaches masses with Bible app

Tech-savvy pastor with Illinois ties reaches masses with Bible app
YouVersion tops 100 million downloads as faithful flock to social media Jeffrey Smith, the New Living Translation brand director for Tyndale House, has seen different editions of the New Living Bible soar in popularity through the free YouVersion app. "When something is so successful like this, it's the hand of God," he says. (Chuck Berman, Chicago Tribune / August 15, 2013)

By Manya Brachear Pashman, Chicago Tribune reporter
August 19, 2013

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 company seven years to develop the New Living Translation, which is now the world's third-most 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."

Gruenewald was an unlikely dot.com entrepreneur. Growing up in Decatur, dubbed the "Soybean Capital of the World" because of the presence of agribusiness giant Archer Daniels Midland, he followed his high school sweetheart (now wife) to Oklahoma's Southern Nazarene University to study finance in 1994.

When an outside company offered to build a website for the car dealership where he worked on the side, Gruenewald proposed doing it for a fraction of the price. He studied the HTML codes during his winter break in Decatur and designed the site in his dorm room.

Gruenewald created a site that helped the dealer peddle auto parts. Sales eventually grew to $100,000 a month and the dealer offered to invest in Gruenewald's talents. In 2001, after a series of successful Web ventures, Gruenewald and his wife joined what would later become LifeChurch.tv, in Edmond, Okla., where "the best technology was air conditioning" and where "my passion for the church eclipsed my passion for business," he said.

Tapped to work on staff a couple years after joining, Gruenewald helped develop campuses for the church in five states. The church's realization that its expansion couldn't keep pace with its ambitions prompted Gruenewald to conceive the idea behind the now-ubiquitous app.

YouVersion didn't see instant success, he said. Its full potential didn't emerge until mobile devices began to catch on. In fact, the church was on the brink of shutting down the endeavor when Apple introduced its App Store for the iPhone in 2008. YouVersion became one of the first 200 apps available, enabling Gruenewald's concept to take off and help other churches grow as well.

One of those churches, the six-campus Park Community Church in Chicago, encourages worshippers to download YouVersion Bible plans so they can access the scripture passages at the core of Sunday services and refer to the pastors' notes as they follow a sermon.

Josh Burns, director of Web and social media at Park Community, said combined with Twitter and Facebook, YouVersion enhances the church's potential to reach souls beyond the church walls as well as those seated in the pews. For example, Burns said, Sunday is the highest traffic day on Twitter for @ParkChurch. It's the highest traffic day for YouVersion, too, Gruenewald's spokeswoman said.

When Burns surveys the crowds Sunday mornings, half the worshippers, if not most, have smartphones and tablets in their hands instead of leather-bound tomes.

Burns, 25, admits he prefers to sit at the kitchen table poring over his paper Bible. But when he lays eyes on a verse that he wants to share with a friend, it's more difficult to do right away. He also has discovered people tend to be more receptive to what's posted on social media.

Variety is good, he said. "God can work through his word in any medium."


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