Inside the Christian App Boom

It turns out prayer and smartphone habits go well together.

The American public is becoming less religious and less likely to attend church than in decades past, according to research like the Pew study released last month. But for Christians looking to spread the faith, there’s been a recent bright spot: apps that can put the Bible in the pockets of millions, plus open the door for new and potentially more habitual forms of prayer and meditation.

“Jesus met people where they were at and then drew them really deep into understanding the truth of God,” said Neil Ahlsten, who left Google last year to found the app Abide. “We’re creating liturgy that people can consume whenever and wherever and however works for them. It fits the modern life.” Ahlsten has heard from many users who check Abide in bed — first thing in the morning and right before they go to sleep — as many secular people do with their phones. Christians have been praying at morning and night for millennia, but it turns out the tradition fits comfortably with habitual smartphone use.

YouVersion was one of the first Christian apps and remains one of the most popular — and one of the most popular apps, period — but it almost didn’t make it into the App Store. Before it was an app, YouVersion lived online as a website created to “help people better engage with the [Bible],” said Bobby Gruenewald, the app’s founder. The site was on the verge of being shut down in 2008, when an early mobile version saw a spike in traffic with the adoption of smartphones. The team behind YouVersion put together an app for the App Store launch, and it had over 80,000 downloads the first day alone. Since then, it has been downloaded nearly 200 million times and consistently lands in the Top Charts section of the App Store.

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