Bobby Gruenewald: Bringing the Bible From the Page to the Pocket

Innovations in technology are allowing people worldwide to engage with Scripture like never before.

Bobby Gruenewald is the innovation leader at Life.Church based in Edmond, Oklahoma, and the visionary creator of the popular YouVersion Bible App which has been downloaded to more than 350 million devices worldwide. 

We caught up with Gruenewald to discuss the growth of the Bible App, the role of apps and other digital tools in boosting Bible engagement and the innovations that are changing the way that people interact with the Bible.

[Conversation edited for space and clarity.]

When was a time in your life the Bible came alive for you?

I became a follower of Jesus at a summer camp between my eighth and ninth grade year at school. I had attended church with my family for years, but I wasn’t following Jesus. When that happened it was a pretty radical transformation. The verse that really resonated with me was Galatians 2:20: “I’ve been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself up for me.” And that verse began to really define me. I was like a new person; my life was a different life. I came back to high school that fall, and I was not the same Bobby Gruenewald who left the eighth grade. I had a different set of priorities. I started a Bible study—actually the first one ever at our high school. I changed my activities at school and really got involved in youth group. That particular verse became a verse that came to life in terms of how I saw myself and this transformation that God was doing inside of me.

Fast forwarding a little, what was the driving force for you to create the YouVersion Bible App when app development first became a thing?

What happened was we had a vision to engage people with Scripture—and, really, I include myself. I was not as engaged as I wanted to be. In 2006, I was standing in the security line in O’Hare Airport in Chicago during the time I was processing this, and that was where the original idea for YouVersion came to me. It started as a website in 2007 that really didn’t work. It technically worked, but it didn’t really help me engage and others engage. That failure led us to try displaying the website on a mobile device, which we did in early 2008. We were using our Blackberries all the time, but we weren’t using our computers as much. So we wondered, What if we just had Scripture available on our Blackberries? So that was spring of 2008. We could see from our own engagement, as well as from traffic to our website from people using their Blackberries, that it actually really worked. It was a bit surprising, because Blackberry screens were so small we weren’t even sure if that made sense. But it was working.

Then Apple announced they we’re going to make it possible to develop apps for the iPhone and create something called the App Store. So this was right at that same time frame, maybe just a few weeks later. We thought, based on what we saw God doing through this mobile website, we should try to build an app and perhaps have our app available in this App Store when it launched. It was really just a side project based off of the kind of momentum we saw happening with our Blackberries and how it was helping us engage with Scripture.

Back then nobody had any training on how to build apps, so we found a 19-year-old on our team who loved Apple—and those were basically the only two requirements you had to have back then to build an app: to be 19 and to love Apple. It was a part-time project for him, and I worked with him to build the app and submit it to Apple. July of 2008 the App Store launched and the YouVersion Bible App was available the very first day [and was downloaded onto more than 80,000 devices in the first weekend]. I think the driving force behind it was that we were trying to figure out how to connect people to Scripture, and we discovered that doing it using mobile devices was working. In that same time frame, the concept of apps and the distribution method for apps all kind of came out, so we were able to jump on that opportunity quickly based on what we saw God doing.

How have you seen the YouVersion Bible App grow and adapt to help users in its first decade?

So when we first launched the app back then it was very, very simple, partly because there was a short window of time to develop it. It was basically a Bible reader that let you navigate between chapters and verses in Scripture. We had a handful of Bible versions that were available. Most of them were public domain versions. I think we had a couple that were licensed. The New King James version was one of the initial versions that we launched with, and I think we had a public domain Spanish version, if I remember right.

That was where it began, and if you look at the app today that’s a very humble beginning in terms of the current features and what’s available. As time went on, our first emphasis was trying to get the app available in different languages, and strategically we were doing that because the App Store was launching in other languages over the first several months. As we started to see people use it, we introduced the concept of daily reading plans to read through the Bible in a year. And that really resonated with people. Based on the momentum of that, we started to create other versions of that reading plan, so it wasn’t just a one-year plan. We had some options for chronological plans, and then we started to add daily devotional content.

We focused a lot on habit formation, because we were trying to make Scripture become part of our everyday lives. And in doing that we felt like we wanted to use the app as a tool to help with habit formation so that structuring our plans around daily activity really became a big emphasis for us. Some of it was based on what we saw users responding to, and some of it was based on an effort to try to get users fully engaged—not just something to use every once in awhile, kind of a utility or reference, but something that would become integrated in their life.

It moved from daily plans to adding some community features that allow you to experience Scripture with people that you know and trust. That was for accountability reasons as well as just discovery purposes, because I want to see my friends’ activity and that kind of pulls me back into the app to look at a verse or passage or look at a verse image. We also began to build a lot of shareable features in the app, which is part of what I think has helped with its growth. We have hundreds of thousands of people every day who are sharing verses and using the app to do that through social media and other platforms.

If you can think back to 2008, the social media landscape that we had back then looked very different than it does today. And it was really the very, very beginning of that. So we were able to “grow up” with social media along the way, building features that empowered our community to be able to share in those social networks, as well. It’s definitely evolved and adapted over the years, and generally speaking, we’re always looking at data to help us make informed decisions about what’s working and what’s connecting. But it’s built around a worldview that daily engagement with Scripture is important, so we really orient our thinking and feature set around that.

In that vein, you launched the Bible Lens App last year. How have people responded to that?

Yeah, we had a real significant initial response to it. We were really pleased. Over a quarter of a million people installed it in just the first weekend. And it shot up the charts on the App Store to the No. 2 overall of all the apps, and it was No. 1 in its category. There was a huge response, and that was only on the iPhone or iOS, initially. Then we launched a version for Android about a month later. The response has been very positive.

We’ve seen a lot of people who are amazed at how it’s able to find and connect Scriptures to the photos that they take. The team’s been working really hard to expand the number of languages that it’s available in. We’ve seen a million-and-a-half images that have been shared, to date, on it. We’ve got a team focused on continuing to develop it. So, we’ll see what God does with it, and hopefully we’ll continue to see a lot of great engagement come from people connecting Scripture to their everyday lives through their photos.

There’s a popular narrative that Bible engagement is decreasing, but you say the opposite: that this generation might be the most Bible-engaged ever. So where do you think that disconnect is happening?

I do hear that narrative. We just simply choose to have a different narrative because we see a lot of data that we feel points to a trend line that’s the opposite of that, as you mentioned. We’re not proclaiming that this is the most Bible-engaged generation in history; we’re just proclaiming that we could see that happen. It’s hopeful. But it isn’t hopeful in a vacuum. It’s based on the fact that we see a lot of momentum with people engaging with Scripture, particularly in the digital format.

I can’t always explain why other people have a different narrative. Maybe they’re looking at different sets of data. But we have a pretty big sample size that we’re basing our opinion on, and there are millions of people whose actual activity we see, not just their statements about their activity.

On top of that, we have a vision that we really feel like we’re going to continually find new ways to use this technology to make it even better. For us, it’s a constant road map of improvement. We’re not settled with what is and what has been. We’re always looking at new ways we can leverage new technologies to be able to do that.

At the end of the day, we’re about Bible engagement whether it’s in a print format or digital format or whatever format. But with that, we still think there might be ways you can leverage tools and technologies to help people engage in print in a more consistent manner, as well.

Dovetailing with that engagement idea, what role do you think apps and digital media play in increasing the global engagement with the Bible?

I think we view technology as a tool that’s helping us find new ways of creating more meaningful and engaging experiences with Scripture. That being said, like I mentioned, we’re about Bible engagement in whatever format. If someone is daily engaged in a print format and they’re very familiar with that format, enjoy it, like it, we’re not at all trying to pull someone away from that or say that the way we’re doing it is better. We are trying to help a generation of people who want to be engaged with Scripture but find that they’re not. And maybe print just wasn’t working for them, or there’s something about our increasingly mobile lifestyle that makes it difficult for them to engage with a physical book.

We do think that there are some advantages that digital formats provide. One is there can be a lot of intelligence and responsiveness in how you help an individual. We can cater the way we communicate—the opportunities that a person has to engage with Scripture—very much around their interests, who they are, their preferred time of day, preferred location … I mean there’s all kinds of variables that can be considered that print engagement may not offer the opportunity to consider. We can actually see that people are engaging, and that’s a tool that’s difficult to reproduce in a print context. Based on what we see them doing, we can encourage a specific type of reading plan, for example. And that might help them be more consistent in their connection with Scripture. So, we really feel like the data that we have, the activity that we see happening, allows us to customize people’s experience around it.

Another example is the fact that you can use digital engagement to interrupt people. You can send a push notification or an email that engages with them when they weren’t maybe even expecting to engage with Scripture. You simply reach out to them to pull them into Scripture.

Those are some things that technology can allow you to do today that just simply couldn’t be done before. As the tools change and the technology changes, we expect that we will change as well to make sure that we’re leveraging whatever is the best way. If certain features prove to be less effective because everyone is familiar with them and they’ve just become noise, we’re going to do what we can to adjust and adapt to that as well.

Again, digital Bible engagement is not going to be a solution for everyone, but we definitely feel like it’s meeting the needs and connecting with people who were challenged by the format the Scripture was in before.

What’s the next Bible engagement innovation that you’re hoping to champion in the coming years?

It’s a good question. I don’t know that we have a specific feature or things to announce at this point. We’re exploring several different things. I can maybe talk more generally about where we’re placing some emphasis in our development and exploration.

We’re doing a lot right now with voice interaction with Scripture. For quite a long time we’ve had a skill on Alexa, Amazon’s voice platform, and on Google Home. There’s a lot of work to be done to enhance the features and what’s available via that skill set. The trend line we’ve seen with technology, that’s been going on for quite some time, is the humanization of technology—making our experience with technology feel more human. Surprisingly, most people view technology as something that’s somewhat cold or inhuman, but the trend of how we use technology is increasingly toward a more human focus. We like to use it to connect with other people, and when we’re not connecting with people we are increasingly wanting it to feel like we’re connecting with people. Voice is just an expression of that trend line. So that’s one area where we’re investing time and resources.

We have what we call a Bible Labs team. We hired someone from Apple who leads that team, and they’re focused on ideas that are out there a ways; things that are not right there in front of YouVersion, but things we’re kind of experimenting with. We were initially looking at several ways that you could use a camera to engage with Scripture, and that team is actually the team that came up with the idea for Bible Lens.

Just yesterday, I met with them and we were looking at different ways we can help with Scripture memorization—what the latest techniques are for memorization in general, and how those might play into technology. But I challenged the team not just to think about things in terms of technology, but really whatever the best way is. If it’s a technology solution, great, but it doesn’t have to be limited to that. They’re focused on ideas that we think can increase Bible engagement regardless of the tool or the platform.

Let’s pivot to address limited access countries. In the past, the church has tried to smuggle physical Bibles into closed countries. What kind of interaction have you seen through your data in countries that are closed or have limited access to the Scriptures?

We just recently heard from a man who lives in northeast Africa, and in the specific country that he’s in people can be arrested for carrying a Bible. He told us about a friend who was caught 11 years ago trying to bring Bibles into the country, and he’s actually been in prison ever since. They’ve not let him out in 11 years. And he said that’s actually not uncommon where he’s from, and he knows others who have faced the same kind of situation. He wanted to let us know that he was thankful because the Bible App is actually available in his country. They can access it; they can download it.

It’s really incredible that in almost all of those countries—where there’s either limited access to Scripture because it’s heavily controlled at a government level; or where it’s illegal, like where you could not be caught with a physical Bible without facing some kind of repercussions—to my knowledge it’s available in each and every one of those countries.

The countries so desperately want the technological advancements that they take everything that comes with it. And, quite frankly, many of them don’t have the technical capabilities to block it. Obviously there are countries that are more sophisticated like China—people are very familiar with China’s firewall. Our app is available in China, and we’ve had a few instances where there’s been a few challenges with access from within mainland China. But currently, and for the last several years, it’s actually been available to users there in China. We’ve had people who have used the app in North Korea. We’ve had people in every country and territory who have used it.

There are still some obstacles that we want to work to address. I mean, our app is distinctly a Bible when you look at it on your phone. Even though the app makes it into the country and people are using it, we’re considering some ideas that might give people a little more protection if their phones are confiscated, or if someone looks at their apps. But the exciting thing is that if someone wants to get access to Scripture they can do it, and they can do it in places that were really not possible before.

Before I let you go, do you have a story you could share about somebody whose life was changed simply through an encounter with the Bible?

I’ll tell you about Galisa. She told us how she suffered from postpartum depression a couple years ago, and was so lost and so depressed that she just couldn’t see any way out. She was driving her car and considered steering it off an embankment, or off a bridge, basically. And her two children were actually in the back seat at the time. I mean, that’s the level of despair that she was in. She just didn’t know if she could go on. And in that moment, she felt like something—like the Holy Spirit—something just stopped her and said, Just wait. Don’t do it. Just wait.

She went back home and started searching for answers in the Bible App, and when she was searching for “sadness” and “anxiety” and “depression” she found daily reading plans and started to go through them. She says the Bible verses she read in those plans gave her hope again, and now she’s grateful for what she considers a second chance at life. God used Scripture to help her through the state of depression that she was in, and in this case, in a very real way, kept her from taking her life.

Pretty dramatic, but it’s amazing to see how God uses Scripture and the accessibility of the app to create these types of opportunities. I’m really blown away by it on a personal level. I mean I hear stories. I’ve been stopped numerous times in public by people who want to share their story about the Bible App and what it’s meant to them. It’s a bit surreal because we know when there’s the type of numbers that we’re talking about that those numbers are people. And when we see millions of unique users, those aren’t just millions of computers or phones that are out there, but they’re millions of people. And to think that if Galisa is one of those stories, there has to be just an incredible amount of life change and transformation that’s taking place in the lives of many others who are represented in those millions.

Read more stories from our State of the Bible coverage in the March/April 2019 issue of Outreach magazine and at OutreachMagazine.com/Bible.