EDMOND - In 2007, Decatur native Bobby Gruenewald created a Bible website for his church, dubbed "YouVersion," that was designed to allow users to associate online media such as YouTube videos or Flickr photos with Bible verses. The site was moderately successful, but Gruenewald knew it wasn't reaching its full potential. The next year, Gruenewald and the church developed the YouVersion Bible app for the newly launched Iphone app store. It was downloaded and installed 80,000 times in the first three days.
"Now more than 2 million people install the app every month," said Gruenewald, a graduate of Stephen Decatur High School and Pastor of Innovation for LifeChurch.tv, a multisite evangelical church with locations in five states. "We are leveraging technology as a tool to reach people using smartphones and handheld devices all over the world."
The app quickly became the world's most popular and downloaded electronic Bible, to date having been downloaded 22 million times, currently going at a rate of once every 1.1 seconds. The statistic Gruenewald finds more important, however, is the amount of time users have spent interacting with biblical text via the free app.
"We're excited because people don't just download it, they actually use it," he said. "To date our users have spent approximately 7.5 billion minutes using the YouVersion Bible. From where we stand today we can imagine a time when half a billion people will have access to the Bible via mobile devices."
The numbers are staggering, almost hard to fathom. Behind it all there's LifeChurch.tv, which developed the Pastor of Innovation's app. Gruenewald has worked on staff for the Oklahoma-based church for almost 10 years, after originally earning a degree in finance and business and starting several technology companies. He sold his businesses, however, to devote himself fully to the church staff in 2001. Since then, the church has grown by leaps and bounds.
"It's been pretty dramatic," he said. "When I joined the staff, there was one location. Now there are 14 locations in five states with around 30,000 attendees each week."
The hallmark of LifeChurch.tv is its technological aspect, as evidenced by the development of the YouVersion app and the "tv" moniker attached to its name. Congregants have a variety of ways to participate in the church community, including on-demand services available in the form of online podcasts or videos. An online-exclusive community also exists, bringing together members from 120 countries or territories in a digital congregation without a physical meeting place.
"I was actually quite surprised by how much I was able to apply my business background to this work," Gruenewald said. "I'm sort of like the entrepreneur-in-residence here. We brainstorm new programs, and we have a team of members called the ‘Digerati' who experiment with web technology and come up with programs to benefit churches."
For his efforts, Gruenewald has been recognized by several business publications. Recently, he was named one of Fast Company's "100 Most Creative People in Business" for 2011, joining names such as Conan O'Brien, Oprah Winfrey and Bruno Mars on the strength of his use of technology and influence in creating YouVersion.
Ultimately, however, it's all about using technology as a means to an end, not as a novelty for churches but a way of life. In a religious scene that is often characterized by traditionalism and hesitance to embrace the modern technological landscape, the LifeChurch.tv stands out sharply. Gruenewald believes other churches have a responsibility to do the same.
"This technology represents a huge opportunity for churches, but more than that, it's a responsibility," he said. "God has placed these tools in the palm of our hand, literally. If we can make the Bible accessible and part of our daily lives, we believe this generation could actually become the most Bible-engaged generation in history."