The best ideas happen when we least expect it.
At least, that was the case for Bobby Gruenewald in the fall of 2006 while standing in a long TSA line at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport.
“For whatever reason,” he said, “that particular day in the security line I was processing [this], ‘I wonder if there is a way that I could leverage technology to help me engage with the Bible? And perhaps, if I could, maybe it would help others as well.’”
As is the case for many Christians, Gruenewald had always struggled to consistently interact with Scripture. With a background in entrepreneurship, it’s no surprise he had an idea about how to tackle this challenge. And with a specialty in technology, it only makes sense that this vision would eventually involve the thing that most humans are never more than a few feet away from—the smartphone.
YouVersion was born
In that TSA line, the idea for YouVersion was born. It’s an app available on any smartphone or tablet, and it contains more than 1,700 versions of the Bible in more than 1,200 languages. It has a wide array of features including the Verse of the Day, Bookmarks, Highlights, Notes Bible Plans, Plans with Friends, audio versions of the Bible, sharable Verse Images, a community aspect for shared engagement, and more.
According to Gruenewald, “YouVersion is basically a digital tool to help people engage [with] Scripture.”
But it didn’t start out as an app, nor was it a “success.” Initially, the idea for YouVersion was a website, Bible.com. But, for Gruenewald, the features weren’t ones that helped him naturally connect with the Bible.
“So, basically, the first idea for YouVersion was a failure.”
Isn’t that where all good stories begin, though?
YouVersion becomes an app
The initial concept for YouVersion was on the verge of being shut down in 2008. The website didn’t have a good mobile component, which was a large part of the problem. So, the team redesigned a mobile-friendly version with small, simple changes that Gruenewald found made all the difference.
The timing of that change, as many say, was everything.
“Apple announced, at that same time, they were going to make it possible to develop apps for the iPhone and that they were going to create something called an App Store,” he recalled. So, his team developed an app called “Bible” for the new store in order to further the benefit of the mobile website. It’s now known interchangeably as YouVersion—which was the initial name Gruenewald came up with at the airport—because it just caught on.
“The App Store launched in July 2008, and The Bible App, YouVersion, was among the very first 200 apps that were available the day that the App Store launched.”
That was on a Thursday. From Thursday to Sunday, they saw 83,000 people download The Bible App—represented by a Bible icon—and actually utilize it. As a result, Gruenewald’s team reallocated resources and decided this was something they needed to give attention to full time.
“It started as an effort for me to try to figure out how to use technology to help me engage in the Bible—an effort that actually didn’t work but led us to an idea that God took and really ran with,” Gruenewald said, as he reflected on YouVersion’s beginning.
YouVersion’s amazing reach
Gruenewald and his team are continually amazed at how they see God using this app. As of the day of our interview, 315 million unique devices had installed The Bible App.
“And it is growing by about four million new devices every month.”
Even more amazing is that most of the app’s growth is outside of North America. “We have a lot of growth happening—I mean triple-digit growth happening—in many, many regions of the world [like] India, Russia, Syria, Central Africa, Brazil,” Gruenewald pointed out.
In fact, “it has been used in every single country and territory on earth.”
The YouVersion team has been able to see firsthand how digital distribution and the growth of mobile technology has meant “that the Bible has been able to slip right over the borders of places that people have been trying to smuggle [it] into for years,” as Gruenewald put it. And there’s a great irony in how this feat is being accomplished.
“Many of these countries want to advance their mobile technology and feel this is a high priority for their country,” he explained, “so much so that they didn’t realize they brought along with it things that they have been trying to keep out—the Scripture being the most important of those.”
The YouVersion team is humbled that the app is being accessed in places where people have lost their lives for the sake of the Word.
YouVersion highlights technology’s potential
The mission of Gruenewald’s team is literally a direct result of the local church. The team’s employer is also their church home, Life.Church. Yet, the app isn’t used as a tool to promote their congregation. Instead, it’s a natural overflow of the ministry Life.Church has already been doing.
“For many years, our church has really had the desire to figure out how we can use new tools and new methods to help connect people to the gospel,” Gruenewald recounted.
This is especially true of technology. In fact, one of the pastors on staff helped Gruenewald consider the possibility that he could use his technological gifts and skills to serve the church.
“I spent hours and hours at the church serving, and in spite of all that I never—not a single time—thought that what I did with technology had applications inside the church.”
His pastor’s encouragement and insight was invaluable. Though many churches
can be skeptical about technology because of its potential dangers, which Gruenewald encourages being thoughtful and careful about, he takes a view similar to his pastor’s.
“I feel like God has placed us here at this moment in history when all of these people are alive, and he has also put us in an environment where there are tools and the potential to reach those people with the gospel.”
Because of this mindset at Life.Church, what began as an individual’s idea and a tool for their congregation has turned into a global movement.
So, what made Gruenewald’s idea so successful?
“We attribute it to [God] completely,” Gruenewald said, “but we definitely are always trying to make adjustments. And oftentimes, what are our plans—like that initial website, as an example—are not necessarily the things that work. But when we simply look at what [God] is already using, already doing, those have tended to be where we see the most significant results.”
“If there is a secret sauce to it, that has probably been [it],” he quipped.
For example, the YouVersion team is [preparing] to unveil a new app to aid in their mission. This app will build upon something that’s already a part of YouVersion called Verse Images, where people share pictures with Scripture on them. The new app will help people connect the Word to their everyday lives by allowing them to pick any image—a new or existing one—and the app will apply Scripture to it by identifying objects within that picture and picking a corresponding verse to overlay on top of it.
To go a step further, the team wants to “redeem the selfie” by emphasizing with Scripture the importance of what God thinks about individuals when they upload an image, instead of what their peers think.
The team is excited about the potential of this new endeavor, especially because the verse images are well-received already, being shared about 350,000 times per day.
Gruenewald and his team never expected to be a part of something so vast. Though their vision started out small in comparison, God expanded it far beyond what they could have asked or imagined. As a result, Gruenewald said their faith has grown, and they’ve learned to dream bigger because of what they’ve seen, believing that 315 million users could turn into a billion, and that YouVersion could be the type of tool God uses to help transform, not just this generation, but generations to come for his kingdom.
However it’s used, the team’s ultimate desire is to see people engaging with Scripture, whether through their app or another’s idea.
The man standing in the TSA line in 2006 wasn’t trying to be a success. And the church that worked so hard to expound on his vision wasn’t trying to be known as a pioneer. Neither could have envisioned how God would use their dreams, desires, and efforts.
“I think God chose to use a church in Oklahoma and a group of people that are not necessarily known for being the leaders in technology,” Gruenewald reflected, “because it lets himself be known in the story, and not us. We can’t claim it was our abilities or our knowledge or our depth of experience that made this happen. It [is] completely something he has done.”