The YouVersion Story
Bobby Gruenewald talks about life before and after YouVersion
When did you first realize you had a gift for innovation and entrepreneurship?
I always thought I would be an Investment Banker. I studied for this career in college while working a job in a car dealership. One day a group of people came to the dealership and offered to build us a website for $2,200.
I approached the dealership owner and said,“Mr. Bailey if you’ll let me build the website, I’ll do it for $100.”
With nothing to lose, he agreed. The problem was I had no idea how to build a website. It was 1995. There were no books to help. I talked to my friends who knew about the Internet, and they helped guide me in the right direction. I learned how to code and built the website over the Christmas break. I was skeptical about making money from selling cars on the Internet. I suggested we sell car parts and accessories instead, and my boss agreed to the idea.
We launched ‘hondaparts.com’ from the back of the dealership. We made hundreds of thousands of dollars within months. I only made six dollars an hour, but it didn’t bother me because the challenge was fun.
One day Mr. Bailey called me to his office and asked what I planned to do with my life.He continued, “Whatever it is, I want to invest in it.”
Sometimes you don’t realize the impact that you have when you believe in someone and let them know. Mr. Bailey’s belief in me changed the way I thought about myself, and what I thought was possible.
“Sometimes you don’t realize the impact that you have when you believe in someone and let them know.”
So what idea did you start with?
I met with some peers, and we built a web-hosting company for customers in 33 countries. We grew rapidly and experienced lots of entrepreneurial challenges. Additionally, we were trying to manage our operation while being full-time college students. We worked night and day to provide tech support. There were all kinds of exciting yet challenging moments.
I sold the company 18 months later. There were issues in the leadership structure that made it best for us to move on.
The next company I built developed the largest professional wrestling website of its time. We sold it in December 1999 to a company that Goldman Sachs took public in 2000. It turned out to be a great deal.
How did you get involved in Life.Church?
I thought that building businesses must be what God designed me to do. I had started two successful companies by the age of 23. My wife and I were attending Life.Church. It was only three years old and growing quickly. We loved the church and its people.
I started to play the keyboard across multiple services every weekend. I never talked about what I did for business. I didn’t think it was relevant. An article was published on the front page of a local newspaper with my photo on it after I sold the wrestling website. My Executive Pastor asked to meet me for lunch — I assumed he wanted to make sure I was calculating my tithe! I loved to give. I believed my main purpose was to generate wealth and be generous. Instead, he asked me, “Have you ever considered using what you’re learning in business to serve on staff full-time at church?” I was shocked. I had been involved in ministry before, but I never connected my work with it. My pastor continued, “Would you consider working for Life.Church?” I quickly said, “No!”
“I realized that technology could be more than just a way to serve the Church, but it could be used as digital missions.”
That may seem strange, but I loved my church. I thought if it became my job, I may no longer enjoy it. I liked the way it was. I told him I would consult for the church as a volunteer instead. The role grew until I was spending 40 hours a week at church. In 2001 it became clear that God was calling me to work at church full-time.
It was one of those unexpected moments. I didn’t know how long I would be there. At the time, I did things in short durations. If you asked me then how long I planned to be on staff for, my guess would be a few years. I had no idea that 19 years later, I would still be there!
What did you do as you came into full-time ministry? What were you involved in?
I realized that technology could be more than just a way to serve the Church, but it could be used as digital missions.
I shared this vision with Pastor Craig Groeschel (the Senior Pastor) and the leaders. They all embraced it. I was fortunate to experience autonomy and empowering leadership. We started to share our materials online for free. It was uncommon at the time as most fast-growing churches would sell their materials, but we wanted maximum accessibility — even though our church was struggling with financial resources.
What led to the creation of YouVersion?
I was standing in a large security queue at the Chicago airport on October 26, 2006. Instead of being frustrated waiting, I wondered if there was a way we could use technology to help people read the Bible consistently. People come up with all sorts of reasons why they can’t read the Bible often. I wondered how we could use technology to help.
We were in the days of Web 2.0, where people changed from being consumers to contributors. It was the early days of blogging, podcasting, and YouTube. The original idea was to build a website where people could take any passage of Scripture and associate videos, pictures, or blog posts to it. I’m an activator, so I tried to come up with a name for it while I waited in the queue. YouVersion was the best name I came up with, and I registered the domain name before I got on the plane.
We discussed it as a team and decided to try it as an experiment — none of us thought it would be big. We met with all the publishers to gain permission to use their Bible versions. The only one who gave us a ‘yes’ was Thomas Nelson. We launched on September 30, 2007, with the New King James Version, New Century Version, and public domain translations like the King James Version. We announced it at our Catalyst conference in October 2007.
How would you like to see the Church use digital technology in the future?
The perspective we gained is that we are alive in a really unique time in history. The global population is exploding. There’s technology and tools that give us potential to connect with people like never before. It’s not an accident that God placed us here at this time.
“I believe the Church collectively has to step into this and occupy the space God has put us in.”
We don’t feel like it’s an opportunity, as much as it’s our responsibility to leverage the moment — to leverage the time. I believe the Church collectively has to step into this and occupy the space that God has put us in. We have a responsibility to reach our world with every tool we can.
What would you say to churches with limited resources to innovate?
Limited resources are a key ingredient for innovation. In many ways, it’s a requirement. When you have resources, you can buy solutions to your problems. When you don’t have resources, it propels you towards new ideas and approaches.
I would embrace limited resources as something that you need. I feel sorry for people who have too much because it’s difficult to innovate when you have too many resources. I view limitation as a blessing and an opportunity.
Bobby Gruenewald is passionate about exploring new ideas and finding practical ways to leverage them for the global Church. He serves on the leadership team at Life.Church as a Pastor, Innovation Leader and founder of the YouVersion Bible App.
Bobby is one of the leading voices in the Church on innovation and the use of technology to reach people for Christ. He was also named on Fast Company’s list of Most Creative People in Business.