We’re in the age of big data. Twitter, apps, Facebook–they’re each giving science new ways to look at what people do and why. This includes religion. Big data is a social scientist's dream come true. We are now able to track how millions of people practice their religion.
YouVersion, a popular Bible app, released its summary of its Bible usage data from 2013. With over 120 million installs since 2008 and a billion opens or uses in 2013, YouVersion provides a unique window into how many Christians read the Bible.
The YouVersion data tells us how people use their apps to read and share the Bible, but it’s not clear how representative these people are. I once heard an evangelical pastor explain: in his “traditional” worship service, he hears the rustle of thin paper but in his “contemporary” service he sees the lights from iphones. YouVersion Bible reading may or may not be typical, but it’s still an interesting look into how millions of people use new technology to read the Bible.
1. People look up favorite verses for personal encouragement
The most popular verse isn’t John 3:16. It is not about God’s love, forgiveness, justice, or power. In fact, it doesn’t mention “God” at all. The most popular verse is about the individual’s ability to do anything with God’s help.
Philippians 4:13 I can do all this through him who gives me strength.
People look up verses that remind them of God taking care of them in hard times. The top five most popular verses encourage people to not be afraid or anxious because God will strengthen them. Here are the other verses in YouVersion’s top five:
Isaiah 40:31 but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength…
Matthew 6:13 And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil
Joshua 1:9 …Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged…
Philippians 4:6 Do not be anxious about anything…
2. People use the Bible in social media to make a point
YouVersion also lists off the top ten verses that its uses shared through Twitter, Facebook, or email. A couple of the verses are from the most popular list, but most aren’t. The most popular verse (Philippians 4:13) wasn’t on the top-ten. The most frequently shared verse was Psalm 118:24:
This is the day the the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.
Number two on the list: 1 Peter 5:6. Unlike the most popular verse I can do all things…, this one begins with the more somber So humble yourselves under the mighty power of God…
The other gem on the list is part of the back-and-forth over marriage and gender roles. Most of Ephesians chapter five deals with how people should serve others. One verse says that wives should submit to their husbands. This is followed by Ephesians 5:25-26, the seventh most shared verse:
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word.
No evidence of whether this is used to justify views of wives needing to submit to their husbands (i.e., yeah, wives should submit but it’s ok because husbands are required to do a lot, too) or call for equal and mutual submission (i.e, Paul is saying the same thing just in different ways). Either way, it’s an unusual choice. Of the 31,000-plus verses in the Bible, this is one of the most shared on social media.
3. People like chapters with big ideas
The bible is organized (though I use the term loosely) into books, chapters, and verses. People like verses with simple messages. They like chapters with profound ideas. Their favorite chapters, however, took on deeper theological topics including salvation, sin, love, and ethics. Indeed, they cannot be summarized simply (so, excuse the brief descriptions):
Romans 8 — Living a spiritual life and hope for eternal life
Romans 12 — Loving God, the church, and others
Matthew 5 — The Sermon on the Mount
1 John 4 — God is love
Hebrews 12 — Why God allows hardship and how Christians should respond