BibleTech 2009; reaching eternity through technology

I love getting together with a bunch of tech geeks and talking tech and I also enjoy getting together with a bunch of brothers in Christ to talk about the Word. Logos Bible Software brings these two worlds together for a conference in the Seattle area and I had the pleasure of participating in BibleTech:2009 on Friday and Saturday. This was the second year of the event and it was encouraging to hear it grew from 77 to 119 attendees. My main interest was in how mobile computing can be used to study and spread the Good News and I was encouraged to see there were three sessions devoted to mobile, with others related and including aspects for the mobile user since mobile tech is becoming more and more a part of our daily lives.
Written by Matthew Miller, Contributing Writer

I love getting together with a bunch of tech geeks and talking tech and I also enjoy getting together with a bunch of brothers in Christ to talk about the Word. Logos Bible Software brings these two worlds together for a conference in the Seattle area and I had the pleasure of participating in BibleTech:2009 on Friday and Saturday. This was the second year of the event and it was encouraging to hear it grew from 77 to 119 attendees. My main interest was in how mobile computing can be used to study and spread the Good News and I was encouraged to see there were three sessions devoted to mobile, with others related and including aspects for the mobile user since mobile tech is becoming more and more a part of our daily lives.

I saw one other T-Mobile G1 and a couple of Nokia devices, but the large majority of people had iPhones. In one session they asked how many people were on Facebook and it looked like 90% of the people raised their hands. I did see a couple of netbooks, an OQO, several Windows laptops, and several Macs (about the same number as Windows units). The group was definitely a techy crowd and not just people who had a passing interest in tech.

With the number of attendees at the conference, it was very nice to be able to start off with an intro from Bob Pritchett, president and CEO of Logos Bible Software followed by personal introductions from every person in attendance. The event then kicked off with the hourly sessions with a format of two going on in two different rooms so you had to make a choice about which ones to attend. This was a bit difficult since there were so many great topics, but each presentation was recorded so we will be able to download and listen to each one in a week or so when they are posted on the BibleTech:2009 conference page. I have a few thoughts and some coverage of the sessions I attended below. You can check out the full list of speakers and their abstracts.

Session 1, Day 1: SMS Texting for Churches, by Craig Rairdin from Laridian. I attended this one because Laridian develops my favorite Windows Mobile Bible program, PocketBible, and my church is pretty high tech so I thought this service would be interesting to consider. Craig launched Church Texting Manager as a service to help churches get messages out quickly and easily. His presentation was interactive with the audience signing up for one of his "groups" and then testing out the service. He talked about how email is slow, relatively stable and easy, but does require the person to check to find messages. Telephone calls are another way to get messages out, but many times the message goes to a voicemail and may never get to the person or get to the person too late. I know if people call my home number and leave a message I will rarely get it so I always tell people to call my cell or text me. Text messaging is quick, reliable (sms protocol supports delivery confirmation), and easy.

Craig went into the technical details of the system behind text messaging that is managed by the carriers and it is a fairly complex system with lots of backend hoops to jump through. You can do much of what Craig's new service provides, but it requires lots of time and coordination along with technical expertise. There are multiple carriers to deal with, billing disputes, testing limitations, etc. Their service is available for $25/month for up to 3 groups and 300 messages a month.

There are some very cool functions that are supported too, including viewing the messages in a microblog, using text messages for polling, and the ability to send out announcement only messages. For instance you could have a bulletin board outside your church with a number that people could text and then get sent back directions, times, and more. Craig conducted a poll during the session regarding our favorite operating system and I voted quite a few times to bump up the Android OS. He then showed how you can filter votes by number so multiple votes by the same person only count once.

The service looks like a great way to send out reminders, updates when meetings change, prayer requests, and other types of timely messages.

Session 2, Day 1: How the Ancient Rabbis Invented Web 2.0 Before Their Time, by Dr Ellen Frankel. Dr. Frankel is the CEO and Editor-in-Chief of The Jewish Publication Society and gave a very informative presentation that made me feel like a child learning a new language. I have very little knowledge about the Jewish faith and was extremely impressed by the vast amount of information and advanced study that she covered in her presentation. She spent some time talking about the history of the Jews and how culture changed from oral to written over time and how the written words became extremely complex and well organized. The Tagged Tanakh project they are working on was extremely impressive and shows how digital technology enables her team to collaborate several different references into a single volume that is highly interactive.

Session 3, Day 1: Dramatizer by Mr. Jim Albright. Jim's presentation centered around a solution he has created to turn the written Scripture into scripts that people around the world can use to create audio version and dramatizations of the Bible. He stated that 60% of the world cannot or do not read and that by assisting missionaries with a way to parse the Bible down into character roles they can help these people to create audio versions in native languages around the world that can be listened to by local regions.

He gave a demonstration and showed how Dramatizer is about 95% effective at automatically marking the Word. There are then some steps that the user takes to finish up the final pieces. Dramatizer is available for free and could even be helpful here in the US for creating scripts to act out the Bible in youth groups or churches.

Session 4, Day 1: The Wild World of User Submitted Content by Bob Christenson. Two of the speakers in the program are podcasters that I listen to regularly and this first speaker records the Geeks & God podcast that focuses on tools for the church. His latest podcast is title Facebook for Churches and was covered in his presentation. My church is on Facebook and our pastor uses it daily to post devotions and thoughts.

Bob stated some of the Facebook stats that are publicly available, including that there are 175 million active users, 3 billion minutes a day are spent on Facebook, and 850 million photos are added each month. He highly encourage churches to get a presence on Facebook and share it with the congregation and the world.

Bob talked about opening up church websites to user submitted content and open two-way dialogue with trust being the major roadblock to such an open system. He talked about the benefits (gives users ownership, users feel trusted, richer content on the site, and forms a community rather than a corporate image) and different methods of moderating a site. While it seems quite risky to fully open up a site, he recommended that churches start with a free and open system and then throttle things down if it gets out of hand. Bob said things may not be as bad as we might think and that churches should trust the users. The talk was definitely one for pastors and churches to think about and encourages two way communication and open dialogue.

Session 5, Day 1: Web-Empower Your Church by Mark Stephenson. Mark was an engineer who then felt a calling to give up that life and focus on ways to minister to churches by empowering them to make their presence known on the Internet. He is the director of the Web-Empowered Church and provides churches with free and powerful tools to help churches reach the world. He ran through some of the tools they provide and modules (sermon management, devotions and journaling, media communication, and many more) that any church of any size can use and implement to have a valuable presence on the Internet.

I was very impressed with the tools and functionality they provide for free and wish I would have used these back when I ran the church website a few years back. I also like how their software provides auto linking to any Bible verse that appears on the site to the EBible so you can quickly jump to Scripture while browsing the site.

They also provide church hosting services so it truly is a one stop shopping place for churches looking to have a presence on the Internet.

Session 6, Day 1: Software Tool for Bible Translation, by Frank Böegelsack. Frank is a mechanical engineer who created his own tool as he tried to develop a deeper understanding of Scripture through study of the Greek and Hebrew translations. He went from notes on paper, to Excel spreadsheets and then into a database application that he called BibleStudy 2006. He is now working on finalizing BibleStudy2009 with a scheduled launch date of July 2009. This is a free tool that you can use to help with your personal Bible study.

The conference then held a dinner followed by Birds of a Feather open discussions. Unfortunately, I already had other commitments and was unable to make it to the BOF sessions.

Check out some thoughts on Day 2 »

Session 1, Day 2: Technology is Not Neutral: How Bible Technology Shapes Our Faith by John Dyer. I was intrigued by John's title and think he made some excellent points that definitely encouraged you to pause and think more about the use of technology. He asked if Google was making us dumber because we no longer have to retain lots of information in our hands, but can rely on quick searches to find what we need. He conducted a poll to see how many people know actual phone numbers and only a couple knew more than 10 numbers because we have come to rely on our phones storing the names and numbers for us. I remember as a kid we used to know all of our family's numbers and then numbers of the school, local pizza place, etc.

John shared his view that technology is not necessarily good, bad or neutral, but it is the way we use technology that effects what it is. For example, the automobile could be thought of as bad because it put blacksmiths out of work, kills people in accidents, and separates us farther apart from friends and family. Then again, it can be good because the industry employs car builders and road builders, it can be used to take people to hospitals and respond to emergencies, and can be used to delivery goods to people.

John then went on to talk about the medium and how to apply McLuhan's Four Laws of Media.

The history of Bible technology was then covered, that included moving from oral to written to printed and finally to digital stages over time. The oral version was changed to written as people started to spread out around the globe and offered a more consistent approach, but was still costly and thus community shared. The printing press revolutionized technology and allowed people to mass produce the Bible and let everyone access the truth. It also created a bit of individualism as people retreated into groups, depending on how the Bible was interpreted. Today we have the digital Bible that uses photos, video, and the computer to spread the Word.

The issue today is trying to stay focused on the Bible and not getting overwhelmed by the vast amount of information that is out there and easily available. The Bible can get last as just another piece of information rather than the sacred Word of God and we need to try to get back some of what we lost. John encouraged people to continue to read Scripture aloud and try memorizing large chunks of the Bible and start to use our brains again without relying too much of technology. Technology can be an enabler, but we need to make sure it doesn't overwhelm us and keep us from "knowing" the Word.

This talk really gave me lots to think about and I agree that we need to start using our brains more and avoid turning ourselves into just Google search tools.

Session 2, Day 2: The Study Bible Challenge for Mobile Devices, by Drew Haninger. The other mobile Bible client I use on just about every device is OliveTree because they have versions for the iPhone, Windows Mobile, BlackBerry, Symbian, and Palm with an Android client under development. You can access your library wirelessly and once you purchase a Bible translation or other document you can use access it on multiple platforms.

Drew talked about some of the challenges for developing software for all of these mobile devices, including the different operating systems, screen sizes, development environments, navigation and GUI controls, and more. It is not an easy task to have software on so many different platforms and there will not be a single one for many years, if ever. He stated that the iPhone has set the standard to make getting software onto devices much easier for end users and the iPhone application does have great performance and functionality.

Session 3, Day 2: Creating Dynamic Peer Learning Communities by Lance Ford. Lance is the co-founder of God's Mac podcast and read about his Digital Disciples project a few months ago. After hearing Gabe talk about his life and some personal challenges I can totally relate to him and many of his personal challenges (ministries isolate him, introvert personality, etc.).

Gabe stated that becoming a disciple does not mean just becoming a Christian, but it means developing your spiritual maturity and knowledge of the Word and be willing to give it all up to serve the Lord. He also mentioned that there is power in going out to reach others in twos so don't feel like you should do it all alone.

His presentation was given on a Mac that was controlled via his iPhone and many slides were presented that asked some good questions and gave some valuable advice on how to become a disciple of the Lord. He said the door is wide open for us to help out and we are each given a platform and resources. Technology is not unique, can lead us to believe it is all about us, can be confusing for the church and youth, is interesting to the world, and is what we make it and not what makes us.

The current Digital Disciples ministry is up and running near Columbus, Ohio and consists of people attending a 60-90 minute session(s) on technology and then moving onto a time of Bible study and fellowship once a month. I think in the area I live (Puget Sound, Washington) there could be a rather large organized gathering with all of the tech companies present in this area and am praying about such a group.

Session 5, Day 2: Mobile Technology and Connecting Communities, by Antoine RJ Wright. This was the second mobile focused topic of the conference and was given by a guy that I have known for a couple of years through his work on the Mobile Ministry Magazine (MMM). Antoine was truly mobile as he gave his presentation on a Nokia N95 connected to a projector. He also started off by handing out cards with QR codes on them that could be scanned with just about any mobile phone with a camera. I scanned it with my T-Mobile G1 after finding two QR code reading applications on the Android Market. The codes contained his contact info and website URL.

Antoine talked about how you can use the Bible on a mobile phone as a way to initiate a conversation and share the Word. He stated that the positive implications of mobile technology are accessibility, accountability, and approachability. Negative implications include invasion of personal space, active dissonance, and escapism.

Session 6, Day 2: Sermon Preparation in a Digital World, by Jim Coakley. The last session I was able to attend (I had other required obligations) was most valuable for pastors who prepare sermons, but I wanted to hear about it since I do study the Bible and thought some of the information could be helpful for personal study as well.

Jim talked about how the way pastors study and prepare for sermons has evolved over the years with the movement from paper to digital medium. He stated that 85% of what current students learn comes from a computer or TV screen and new resources and databases are primarily only available in digital form. The digital world does save on space, improve the search experience, save time by reducing time to search and flip a page, and are available just about everywhere while being very portable.

However, it is also tougher to get the big picture at times with all of the information and tools helping you find details. He stated that we need to internalize via mediation, communicate via devotionals, and communicate via teaching and make sure to not get overwhelmed with so many details.

There was one more mobile-focused presentation by Stephen Johnson from Olive Tree Bible Software titled, "Rolling with the Revolution: Developing Mobile Bible Software", but I was unable to stay and listen to it so I will definitely be looking for it online when the recording is posted.

Wrap up: Like most conferences some of the most valuable and interesting conversations take place during breaks and meals. I had the pleasure of meeting Mark Salazar from HearLife.com and talked with him about his upcoming products, called SoulBytes. SoulBytes are downloadable audio tracks that are created and organized into topic categories, similar to something like a devotional. Scriptures paraphrased in today's language are read by a professional speaker (the quality is very good) with modern music playing in the background. These SoulBytes could serve as a resource for you when you are looking for answers to life's difficult questions (What is salvation? What does God say about money? How do I deal with a death in the family?) and need to know where in the Bible to find the answers. You could start with a SoulByte and then look up the verses in your Bible for further, more detailed study.

BibleTech:2009 was a valuable and interesting conference and I look forward to attending again in 2010. The Lord may even put it in my heart to offer to give a presentation on mobile technology and the Bible next year.

Editorial standards