Seeking God? There's an app for that
Carrying leather-bound copies of scripture to church is so 20th century, a recent study indicates, and experts predict a continuing shift from print to palmtop device, such as a smartphone or tablet.
Where generations past would reach for a Bible, hymnal or prayer book in a religious service, it's just as likely that today's worshippers will click an onscreen "icon" to find spiritual sustenance, including perhaps pictures of original icons.
Now, members of various faith traditions are turning to hand-held devices to read scriptures, look up prayer times and even locate favorite hymns and make donations on-the-go.
In May, digital researchers at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas, investigated the range of religious mobile applications available on Apple Inc.'s iTunes App Store. The study of more than 450 applications, or apps, found common programs ranging from sacred texts to ritual how-tos "regardless of religious orientation," according to a statement from the school.
"Our study of Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jewish, and Muslim apps offers a clear set of categories for those seeking to understand how designers expect users to practice religion with digital mobile apps," said Wendi Bellar, a project team member at the school's Network for New Media, Religion and Digital Culture Studies.
There surely is reason to believe there's a growing market. At the end of last year, BI Intelligence, a market research firm, said that while 20 percent of the world's population own a personal computer, 22 percent own smartphones and 6 percent have tablet computing devices. That translates to 1.5 billion smartphones in use worldwide, a number that continues to grow this year, with new smartphones announced by Samsung and LG, along with hopes for yet another new Apple iPhone.
"The story of smartphone and tablet growth is truly amazing," a report in Business Insider, the online newspaper published by BI Intelligence, stated. The projections came on the heels of a November 2013 forecast by Swedish telecom network manufacturer Ericsson AB that the world will host 5.6 billion smartphones by 2019, as reported by the Associated Press.
The move toward hand-held faith doesn't surprise Rob Enderle, a veteran technology industry observer who heads the Enderle Group consulting firm based in San Jose, California.
"Given prayer is something that was inherently mobile, it isn’t a surprise that it has taken the industry awhile to wrap their arms around this segment of the market," he said. "However, much like companies are increasingly using mobile technology to better serve their customers, religious organizations have similar needs to stay connected."
And Tim Bajarin, founder and analyst at Creative Strategies, also in San Jose, told the Deseret News, "This is an evolution of mobile apps in that people have a variety of interests and developers jump at the chance to meet these needs. Hand-held mobile devices are the one device that they have with them all of the time, and when they want to gain access to info about these interests, or in this case, religious practices, they use the screen or digital tool that is readily available to them."
According to the Texas A&M researchers, some of the more common types of spiritual applications fall into 11 categories, including:
• Religious utilities that offer information to help users perform specific religious practices.
• Sacred texts providing interaction with digitized versions of sacred texts.
• Prayer apps that allow mobile devices to become a conduit for prayer.
Such apps include the Lulav Wizard, which "creates a digital replica of a palm tree’s frond, teaching the users how to swing it during the Jewish festival of Sukkot, and The Lord’s Prayer app that offers users simple text guides through a recitation of the well-known Christian prayer," researchers explained.
An "Islamic Free Quiz app uses a game show format to teach users about basic tenets of Islam," the researchers indicated, while a program such as the Hebrew Calendar Converter can help users track dates and times for religious observances.
"What this means is that developers tend to concentrate their app design around reminding users when to practice their religion, or helping users practice their religion whenever, wherever they are," Texas A&M's Bellar said.
Jim Baird, who is director of WordSearch Bible Software in Austin, Texas, said that while his firm's products are "still predominately desktop customer based," the balance is shifting to handheld platforms.
Today, he said, that's mostly for reading content such as Bible versions, commentaries and the like, but soon it will shift more towards "content creation," using Bible texts, commentaries and other reference works to create a Sunday School lesson or a sermon on the fly.
"The mobile device is where everyone's going," Baird added. "Our goal is to stay just ahead of the curve — not too far ahead, but not too far behind."
A onetime youth pastor, Baird now says his entire Bible study effort is paperless: "Years ago, I had a little over 3,000 print books. Over the span of seven years, I gave away my print library, and now, everything I have is digital."
Matt Morris, who holds the title of "transmedia leader" at LifeWay Publishers in Nashville, Tennessee, said congregations are adapting their operations to mobile use as well.
"We build a lot of mobile apps for churches that truly want to have a mobile presence," Morris said. "We do everything from online streaming of sermons to podcasts to photo uploads, prayer request walls, blog integration, mobile giving."
Driven by members
Morris said member demand is a key factor in how quickly a congregation moves to a mobile platform. "Quite honestly, whenever a church member squeaks, you're going to see more churches develop mobile apps and make them available to their members."
Indeed, if it isn't a "little child," it might be a teenager who leads the advance. Researchers at the University of Eastern Finland say that many of the 85 percent of Finnish youths preparing for confirmation in the country's Evangelical Lutheran Church are targets for two mobile games aimed at teaching both doctrine and the meanings of various Christian symbols.
"Up until recently, the attitudes toward the use of mobile phones and tablet computers in confirmation work have been reserved, as they were seen as a distraction," Eveliina Ojala, an early stage researcher at the school's Congregational Mobile Technologies project, said in a statement. "Nowadays, however, almost every young person has a smartphone, and the games (we've) developed are a way of acknowledging the world young people live in also in confirmation work."
In Washington, D.C., the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops said on Wednesday that its online myUSCCB resource — which is designed for handheld and tablet viewing — would be available free to church leaders, including staff and educators, until July. In a statement, Salt Lake Catholic Bishop John Wester said, "myUSCCB allows you to download, print and share important resources for your ministry and learn from experts through live Web events and podcasts. We hope people find it a useful tool for their good work."
Mobile applications produced by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints apparently are popular among the membership, with top favorites being the Gospel Library, LDS Tools and the Mormon Channel apps, the latter for media streaming.
According to Clint Bishop, the church's senior mobile adviser, how the apps are used is key.
"Collectively, the church’s apps have been downloaded millions of times," he said. "But primarily we are interested in how frequently the apps are used, how much or little time is spent using them, and how they positively impact the lives of members."
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