EDMOND — LifeChurch.tv recently marked the fifth anniversary of its popular YouVersion Bible app, which shares its birthday with the Apple iTunes app store that helped provide the application to millions around the globe.
Bobby Gruenewald, pastor-innovation leader at the Edmond-based megachurch, said the free app made its debut July 10, 2008 — a “Gutenberg-type moment,” although its creators didn't know it at the time.
He said the Bible app is now one of the app store's top 20 apps, available in formats for most mobile devices, with 604 versions and 368 languages. The app hit the 100 million downloads marker July 7, a major milestone and an indication of its popularity, he said.
“When we started YouVersion, we had absolutely no idea that it would grow and become what it is today,” Gruenewald said. “Each step along the way, God's expanded our faith for what's possible.”
And to think, the app almost didn't happen.
LifeChurch.tv's founder and senior pastor is Craig Groeschel, but Gruenewald has been the face of its YouVersion outreach since its inception. That could be because Gruenewald came up with the idea for the YouVersion concept in 2006 while sitting in Chicago's O'Hare airport. In a recent interview, he said he initially had the idea for a website that would serve as an outreach tool to encourage people to read the Bible more.
But two years later, when the YouVersion website had not really changed how people interacted with the Bible, LifeChurch.tv's Digerati team was on the verge of shutting it down, Gruenewald said.
But “we decided to try one more thing.”
Gruenewald said that “one more thing” turned out to be exactly what he had envisioned years earlier in the Chicago airport.
He said he and his team decided to develop a way to make the website accessible on the small screens of the BlackBerry and iPhone. He said this was at a time when the only apps available on the iPhone were those that Apple installed. Gruenewald said he and the Digerati team noticed that they were reading the Bible more because it was accessible on their mobile devices they carried with them all the time. He said traffic on the website increased as more people began accessing it from their mobile devices.
“I was asking the right question in the airport that day. The question was, could we be at that moment in history where, if we could just leverage or develop the right technology, we could really change or transform how this generation engages in the Bible? Could we be at one of those Gutenberg-type moments?” he said, referring to Johannes Gutenberg's 15th century invention of the printing press, which made books, most notably the Bible, more accessible to the masses.
‘Something ... bigger than us'
Gruenewald said about that time, Apple announced its plan to allow others to develop apps and its intention to open an app store.
He said he and his team worked quickly to develop an app, and it made its way to the iTunes store on the day the store opened. The result amazed them.
“That was a Thursday, and from then until that Sunday, we saw 83,000 people had installed the app in just those first few days,” Gruenewald said. “For us, that was really when it began in terms of this sense that there was something sort of bigger than us going on here. That has been a five-year journey that brings us here today — where that 83,000 (downloads) has turned into a 100 million.”
Making Scriptures accessible
Several Oklahomans said the app has been an important tool for ministry.
Chris Forbes, a state-based missions and ministry communication strategist, has worked as a technology consultant with many churches across Oklahoma. He said the YouVersion Bible app has made an indelible impact on the Christian faith community around the world.
“YouVersion is pure missions. It bypasses the gatekeepers who want to control the spread of Christianity, making the Scriptures accessible to people who otherwise would never be able to read the Word of God,” said Forbes, author of “Guerrilla Marketing for Nonprofits.”
The Rev. Stephen Earp, pastor of Elevate Church in Moore, said the app has several benefits for churches and Christians.
“First is accessibility. Whether someone has a hard copy of the Bible or not, they can access Scriptures in a matter of minutes from their smartphone. The second big win is all the reading plans available. We regularly recommend that people experiment with different reading plans and devotionals on YouVersion,” he said.
Meanwhile, Gruenewald said the app's fifth anniversary and download milestone is not “a destination point,” however remarkable.
“We definitely believe it is just the beginning,” he said.
“Ultimately our goal is to see a generation that becomes the most Bible-engaged generation in history. So we really feel there are hundreds of millions if not billions of devices that we want to see the Bible on, and not just see it on; we hope to see people really using it. We want to see people using the Bible in their everyday lives.”