Recently, on our podcast, Today at Museum of the Bible, Chief Curatorial Officer Dr. Jeff Kloha interviewed YouVersion founder Pastor Bobby Gruenewald. Below is an excerpt of their conversation.
The following interview has been edited for clarity and space. To listen to the whole interview, check it out on our podcast, Today at Museum of the Bible.
Jeff Kloha: We're here with Pastor Bobby Gruenewald, who is pastor and innovation leader at Life.Church, a multisite church based in Oklahoma City, and the founder of the YouVersion App, which is the most popular Bible reading app in the world, [which] recently crossed 500 million unique installs.
In 2021, the YouVersion community read 55.8 billion chapters of the Bible. Again, in 2021, YouVersion users played 8.2 billion audio chapters, created 2.4 billion highlights, bookmarks, and notes., and completed 1.4 billion Bible Plan programs. As of yesterday, there are 1,834 languages of the Bible available on YouVersion. So tell us, what is YouVersion and why do you think it’s had such an impact?
Bobby Gruenewald: Thank you for having me. The YouVersion Bible App is a platform to help people engage in scripture. It started in 2006 as a way to leverage technology to help me read the Bible more consistently. I was a below-average Bible reader that had the desire to not be a below-average Bible reader. The initial idea was a website that didn't work to accomplish that, but it led us to try a mobile website on our Blackberries and then an app for the iPhone, available the very first day the App Store opened in 2008.
Jeff: Is it just that you cornered the market? Or was something clicking with people that it kind of took off?
Bobby: Clearly, we think it's a miracle. It's something God's done. As far as what's unique or different — we really did feel like it needed to be completely free. It’s funded by donors and it’s really a very missional thing. There are people that really need what's in this book and what's in this app. But for them to have any kind of barrier financially to get there would be just enough, we think, to keep many people from doing so. And if I'd pick one more thing, it would be the focus. We've really tried to focus the app experience on everyday people that are saying, okay, I wonder if there's a way I can understand the truth of this book and apply it to my life.
Jeff: On the History of the Bible Floor, we have the original phone that had YouVersion installed on it. It has a really cool design to the case. It's based on the Gutenberg press and the connection, of course, we have a Gutenberg down the hall. In the mid-1450s, Gutenberg changed everything by printing a Bible in Latin. Do you hear the comparison between Gutenberg and the printing press? Is that a fair comparison?
Bobby: I'm definitely not a historian, but the parallel is sort of easy to understand. So I think the speed at which information moves is accelerated because of the invention of the internet. So it's definitely a transformative moment on a timeline of history that would probably likely equal or even exceed the impact the printing press had.
Jeff: So, Bobby, someone goes, downloads YouVersion. What's the first thing people should do?
Bobby: We're actually trying to make that easier for people. Our app is built around structuring scripture in a way that lets you make a daily habit of engaging with it. One of the most effective and most popular are what we call Bible Plans. These could be everything from I want to read through the Bible in a year [to] I want to do a devotional on anxiety. What we're really trying to do is just create that habit or that process of making scripture a part of your everyday life.
The second thing is subscribe to the verse of the day. I don't think it's the totality of your scripture engagement, just an on-ramp to get into scripture.
Jeff: One concern we often hear is Americans are reading the Bible less. But according to your stats, in 2021, Monday through Saturday engagement was up 24% compared to pre-pandemic levels. Do you think that is the growth of technology or are people more engaged with the Bible?
Bobby: Well, we really do believe scripture engagement is growing. We'd like to really believe and have a sense there's a momentum right now and excitement. This is a trend line we definitely saw during the pandemic. Partly because it was a time of uncertainty. And in those times people were turning to scripture and we could see what they were searching for. It was encouraging because they're using the Bible to find answers.
Jeff: Another stat your team has is where the app is growing fastest. So Central Africa, Southern Asia, the Congo saw a 49% increase. Pakistan, 69% increase. Why do you think Pakistan?
Bobby: Practically it's because of the proliferation of smartphones. But the encouraging thing is we're seeing it grow in places traditionally difficult to get print Bibles into, or in some cases where print Bibles are prohibited. And the Bible app is used in every single country and territory, including North Korea.
Jeff: Do you face challenges from countries with censorship or suddenly the app disappears from a store? Is that an issue?
Bobby: Yeah, we have a couple of countries we have some challenges with. I won't name them.
Jeff: So, you've had this amazing success. What’s next?
Bobby: The Bible is God's word and we're fortunate to be able to have it in our language. There are many that still don't have the Bible in their language. We're a big advocate for Bible translation work, so there's a huge effort to try to get the Bible translated into everybody's language by 2033.
As far as our platform and our app is concerned, we're really focused on personalization of the experience.
Jeff: Bobby, thank you. You can come and see, at Museum of the Bible, the first iPhone that had YouVersion installed on it. And you can also learn more about the Bible translation project in our illumiNations gallery.
Thank you, Bobby.
Bobby: Well, thank you, Jeff. We love Museum of the Bible, and we are excited to be able to be partners with the museum and look forward to how God is going to use not just our platform but use the museum as well.