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Saturday, July 27, 2013

The Bible Gets an Upgrade

On a recent Sunday morning, the pews of the Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church in Chicago were aglow with smartphones and tablets at the 10:45 a.m. service. Nathan Weber for The New York Times On a recent Sunday morning, the pews of the Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church in Chicago were aglow with smartphones and tablets at the 10:45 a.m. service.

Is it possible to improve on the word of God?

Most believers would say no, but what about improving on its user experience?

After all, the text of the Bible has been shared through scrolls, codexes and movable type. Now, the Bible is also a mobile app that has logged 60 billion minutes of reading time and has won a dedicated following. It has also changed the reading habits of the faithful around the world, as described in my article, “App Puts the Bible in 100 Million Palms.”

The success of that app, YouVersion, is due, in part, to how it has created an improved reading experience for Christians by incorporating tools for sharing and reading plans that divvy up the Bible on various themes (with gentle reminders to keep reading), as well as offering audio versions and even video clips to make the Bible a more modern experience.

More than 10 million reading plans have been completed since the app was introduced in 2008. The church team behind YouVersion sees a spike in activity on its servers every January, when thousands of Christians make New Year’s resolutions to read the Bible every day.

Some users, like Ali Supina, a youth pastor in Lake Ann, Mich., no longer even bother with printed Bibles.

Like many people who use the app, the Sears family of Oklahoma City has YouVersion installed four times. Jen Sears, a human resources manager, carries her smartphone with her on her lunch break and listens to the Bible in audio while she eats. She and her husband, Dave, both use daily reading plans that remind them to catch up and offer easy ways to post their progress to social media sites.

Their four-year-old son, Austin, has been confused at times when his mother picks up her phone when she wants to pray. She said, “I told him I was going to go talk to God, and his eyes got really big and he said, ‘you have God on your phone?’” Mrs. Sears then showed him how the app worked. She takes it with her whenever she wants to pray.

YouVersion users also say the app’s simple search function has erased the embarrassment of flipping through Philippians when the pastor asks you to find Ephesians. Now, no one can tell if the person using YouVersion is lost in the book that is central to their lives.

The Bible app’s ubiquity, however, has created new suspicions at church. Now during a sermon, people wonder if the glowing phone in the next pew is for scriptural reference or text messaging.

“I don’t read my bible on my iPhone in church, because I will visit Twitter while I’m waiting,” Jon Acuff, a Christian speaker and author, said in an interview last year. “I don’t have the self discipline to have a Bible app open.”

In this parody music video, Josiah Jones, a Christian performer, sings about the same dilemma: “I get all sorts of glances when I’m digging in the word, is he looking at his Bible, or playing Angry Birds?”

But perhaps the other reason for YouVersion’s success is that while there are hundreds of Bible-related apps available for download, few have the kind of technical foundation and elegant user experience that YouVersion displays.

In general, experts agree that the market for technical products aimed at traditionally religious people has been underserved by developers and software designers. Beki Gitner, a professor of human computer interaction at Georgia Tech, who has studied how people use technology for spiritual purposes, said about YouVersion, “the sheer number of downloads is a good reminder to all of us that if we think about technology as purely a secular tool, we are missing out on how it’s being used by people all over the world.”

After all, an app affiliated with God may provide the ultimate kind of “brand loyalty.”