The Bible as an app: One man’s quest to have everyone engaging with Scripture

January 2, 2019

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.

YouVersion’s success

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.”   

Lindsay Nicolet

Lindsay Nicolet serves as the editorial director for the ERLC. She oversees the day-to-day management of all content and resources from the Nashville office. Lindsay completed her Master of Divinity at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. She is married to Justin and they have a daughter and a son. Read More by this Author

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24