EDMOND, Okla. -- More than 500 years after Gutenberg, the Bible is having its i-moment.
For millions of readers around the world, a wildly successful free Bible app, YouVersion, is changing how, where and when they read the Bible.
Built by LifeChurch.tv, one of the nation's largest and most technologically advanced evangelical churches, YouVersion is part of what the church calls its "digital missions." They include a platform for online church services and prepackaged worship videos that the church distributes free. A digital tithing system and an interactive children's Bible are in the works.
It's all part of the church's aspiration to be a kind of IT department for churches everywhere. YouVersion, with more than 600 Bible translations in more than 400 languages, is by far the church's biggest success. The app is nondenominational, including versions embraced by Catholics, Russian Orthodox and Messianic Jews. This month, the app reached 100 million downloads, placing it in the company of technology startups such as Instagram and Dropbox.
"They have defined what it means to access God's word on a mobile device," said Geoff Dennis, an executive vice president of Crossway, one of many Bible publishers -- from small presses to global Bible societies to News Corp.'s Thomas Nelson imprint -- that have licensed their translations, free, to the church.
When Jen Sears, 37, a human resources manager in Oklahoma City, wants to pray these days, she leaves her Bible behind and grabs her phone instead. "I have my print Bible sitting on my dresser at home, but it hasn't moved" in the four years since she downloaded YouVersion, Ms. Sears said.
The app, marketed simply as "The Bible," has brought new donors to LifeChurch.tv. About $3 million was given by a handful of large donors to support development of the app last year; the church raised nearly $60 million overall, according to its financial statements. The church says it will have spent almost $20 million overall on YouVersion by the end of this year.
The church was founded in 1996 by a team consisting mostly of former business executives. It is affiliated with the Evangelical Covenant Church, a wider association of 850 congregations, which gives its members wide latitude in their operations. It has 50,000 weekly attendees in 16 locations.
The Gutenberg behind YouVersion is the church's 36-year-old "innovation pastor," Bobby Gruenewald, whose training was in business, not religion.
Mr. Gruenewald grew up in Decatur, Ill., in an evangelical church, where as a teenager he started a Christian rap ministry.
He joined LifeChurch.tv in 2001 after playing keyboard in its house band. Since then, the church has allowed him to experiment without an eye to profit.
Mr. Gruenewald's early efforts for LifeChurch.tv included a virtual church for the online Second Life community and a Google ad campaign to lure pornography consumers to the church instead. But then, he had a critical insight: If the church wanted to attract younger people, it needed both to be technically advanced and to offer its resources free.
"We have a generation of people that can't fathom paying 99 cents for a song that they love," Mr. Gruenewald said, "and we were asking them to pay $20 for a book that they don't understand."