(RNS) — Bobby Gruenewald might know more about how Americans read the Bible than anyone else in the country. For the past 15 years, Gruenewald, an online entrepreneur turned pastor, has run the popular YouVersion Bible app — a free application that has been downloaded more than 700 million times in the U.S. and around the world.
When people log on to the app, they don’t generally want to know what the Bible thinks about politics or hot-button social issues, Gruenewald said. Instead, they are usually looking for some reassurance that things are going to be alright.
“People are turning to Scripture and using it and looking at it in a way that reminds them of God’s faithfulness or hope,” Gruenewald told RNS in a recent interview.
That search for hope is reflected in a list of the top 10 verses that users searched for in 2023. The No. 1 verse for the third year running was Isaiah 41:10, which begins, “So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God,” in the New International Version.
Other popular searches included familiar verses like John 3:16, Jeremiah 29:11 — which speaks of God having plans to prosper his people — and Philippians 4:6, which reads, “Do not be anxious about anything.”
YouVersion is also one place where Americans aren’t arguing about God and politics. Gruenewald said the app — which includes hundreds of Bible translations in multiple languages, Bible reading plans, devotionals and a place to share prayer requests — tried to steer clear of politics or culture war feuds.
That’s in part because the app has an international audience and in part because the app’s developers want to draw people into engaging with the Bible, not drive them away.
“We didn’t want the Bible app to be a battleground for those issues,” Gruenewald said.
The YouVersion app has evolved dramatically over its lifespan. Gruenewald, who is a pastor of staff at Life.Church based in Oklahoma City, one of the nation’s largest megachurches, first came up with the idea for YouVersion while waiting in a security line in Chicago O’Hare International Airport in 2006. YouVersion launched first as a website, where people could look up Bible verses online, and then morphed into an app with the proliferation of smart phones.
In the early days, the app was focused on giving access to information about the Bible, said Gruenewald. Now the focus is also on engagement with the Bible. In recent years, the popular Verse of the Day function has expanded to include devotionals and more of a daily experience with the Bible, said Gruenewald. The app also now includes guides on how to pray and ways to let people share prayer requests and get reminders to pray.
“You can ask your friends to pray for those requests, and you can be notified every time someone indicates that they pray for you,” said Gruenewald.
Much of the app’s more recent growth has come in places like India, Latin America and Africa. Of the more than 100 million downloads in 2023, according to YouVersion, more than 80 percent were outside the United States, where a lite version of the app for less-robust smart phones has become popular.
The success of the YouVersion app comes with a great deal of responsibility, said Gruenewald. YouVersion has collected data on tens of millions of users — which requires them to have powerful data security. That data would have great value to advertisers and other outside groups.
But it’s not for sale, said Gruenewald.
“We have been approached by everybody on the planet that wants to buy data,” he said. “We don’t even entertain the conversation. We don’t monetize the data.”
Instead, the app is funded by donors both inside and outside the church. The app is owned by Life.Church, which runs YouVersion as a distinct operation. The church also started a second nonprofit, YouVersionINC, in 2023 to support the app, according to IRS documents.
Given the troubles of other popular social media websites, Gruenewald said the YouVersion team feels a responsibility to keep the app true to its mission and to honor the trust users have put in them.
“There are millions of people that are depending on the app to work,” he said. “And that’s not a trivial matter.”