Bobby Gruenewald & Craig Groeschel: Making Connections

The past two-and-a-half decades have seen unprecedented and rapid changes in technology and culture. Throughout those years, Craig Groeschel and Bobby Gruenewald have been ministering to their growing Life.Church congregation with a simple goal—to use any method “short of sin” to share the gospel.

Groeschel, whose latest book is The Power to Change: Mastering the Habits that Matter Most (Zondervan), started Life.Church with his wife Amy in January 1996. Since then, it has grown to include dozens of locations across the United States and become known for its innovative use of technology, including launching the first fully digital church experience in 2006 and the most-downloaded mobile Bible app in history, YouVersion, in 2008.

Gruenewald is CEO of YouVersion, and pastor, innovation leader at Life.Church, and is widely considered an expert on digital innovation in ministry. Together, he and Groeschel have served Life.Church for more than 25 years.

Outreach editor-at-large Paul J. Pastor sat down with the pair to discuss their philosophy of tech in ministry and what possibilities and cautions exist for pastors in a rapidly developing digital culture.

Let’s start with how tech looked for Life.Church in the early years.

Craig Groeschel: In the beginning, our technology was pretty much limited to an overhead projector with transparency slides and handwritten song lyrics. Eventually, we added an underpowered air conditioner. Honest to goodness, that was the beginning. 

Bobby Gruenewald: There were plenty of churches at that time that were way more advanced technologically than we were. 

Groeschel: Things began to change when we had a guy who worked in video production offer to do a video as an illustration in a message. One thing led to another, and so we were one of the first churches, if not the first one, to start using a lot of video illustration in the late 1990s. 

Give us a snapshot of how tech plays into ministry for you today.

Gruenewald: Technology is simply a tool we use in ministry. And there are lots of tools we use in ministry. So, a snapshot today: You would see technology woven through so much of what we do. We deliver our content on the weekend via video at most all of our campuses. Then, throughout the entire week, our staff located at all campuses are connected through technology in all of our meetings, conversations and the things that keep our culture and staff very connected. Of course, technology empowers that. 

At this point, VR and the metaverse are almost experiments we do with technology, but we work to use technology, especially online, in a significant way. The goal is not to just deliver content, but to develop community. It’s how we interface and interact as a staff, how we build community online, how we deliver content, how the church is knitted together.  

Groeschel: There’s not much we would do that doesn’t need some form of technology, all the way from putting an address in your phone to going to visit someone at the hospital and following up with them after you lay hands on them in prayer with a text to care for them. It’s leveraging any use of technology to enhance ministry as much as possible. 

Talk to me about the leadership principles that govern how you choose to use technology.

Groeschel: In everything that we do, our hope is that we are reflecting our values. Technology has been a tool for us to live out ministry values. A traditional thing a church would say is “we value evangelism, we value sharing the good news.” The way we would say it to bring a little more color: “We’ll do anything short of sin to reach people who don’t know Christ, and to reach people no one’s reaching, we’ll have to do things no one’s doing.”

The way that might look now is if there’s a new form of social media, we might ask, Could we reach people or minister to people through that form of social media? If there’s a new way to broadcast content, we ask if that is a tool we’d like to use in order to reach people. Technology helps us live out any ministry values that we have. The time that we’ve lived has been the most exciting time in history—just to be able to do more than we could’ve done 20 or 30 years ago.

Gruenewald: To give another example, generosity is one of our values. We use technology to help us give more resources to ministries. We take our intellectual property and make that available to any church or ministry that wants to use it. 

Groeschel: We initially started giving content: videos, curriculum, resources, etc. Then we actually started giving technology, meaning we were able to give platforms to thousands of churches to empower their ministry. We would help other churches track and measure their ministry with metrics.

Or another example: One of our values is unity. We bring hundreds or thousands of churches together for different events through the use of technology. So, again, it’s a tool to help us live out the values.

What attitudes help you see the possibilities of new technology?

Gruenewald: I think people presume that we have some sort of foresight into the future as far as what the next big thing is going to be or the next technology or tool. That’s never been the case. What has made the difference for us is an attitude of preparedness. Focus not on planning but preparing. It’s great to have plans, but if you’re not in a ready posture, then when you ask that How can? question, you may have all kinds of ideas but no ability to do any of them.

We don’t have the ability to do all of our ideas, but we try to make sure we have margin to do some of them. We try to pick the right ones. They don’t all work. You have to be ready to embrace failure, which is also part of our culture. It’s how the YouVersion Bible app is the YouVersion Bible app, because it failed as a website. 

Our job at this point is to continue to ask those questions, but also to teach a new generation of people to ask the same questions. It’s our opportunity to make sure we have resources and preparedness so we can actually seize opportunity and green-light things, but we also are teaching a new generation of leaders how to do the same. The method and the way the church does stuff today will look different. The fundamental things like [Craig] talked about tend to be consistent over time. We didn’t have vocabulary for it, but at the very beginning we wanted to reach as many people as we could, do anything short of sin to reach people who don’t know Christ. To reach people no one else is reaching you have to do things no one else is doing.

What he mentioned was there at the very beginning, but he didn’t know and we didn’t know that that would mean a church in multiple locations. He didn’t know and we didn’t know that technology would enable our geographic reach to go global. That wasn’t foresight that happened in 1996. It was passion to reach people, combined with How can? questions. We can’t fit more people in this building. How can we reach more people? We can’t have more services with him preaching live. How can we have more services? It was never a plan of where we’ll end up in 30 years. It was always a posture and a passion that drove that. It’s not prediction, but a posture and a passion. 

You’ve said before that Life.Church is “100% in on physical church and 100% in on digital church.” What does that mean?

Groeschel: Interestingly enough, we would have said that pre-COVID-19 for years. When COVID-19 hit, those who were more hesitant about ministry online were forced to consider it as an option. Then many people who might have been skeptical found it was a valuable tool. To be really truthful, we believe in both equally, but we see different benefits in both. So, they’re both important—but they’re important for different reasons. 

Tell me more.

Groeschel: There are limitations and advantages to both. For example, someone communicating the gospel could not communicate to people all over the world at once without the use of technology. So, you can further your reach with technology. But it is more difficult to baptize someone on the other side of a computer than it is in person. Now, with that in mind, we have worked progressively to find creative ways to baptize people, but it takes a little more thought. It’s not as easy to lay hands on someone through a computer. You can still pray for someone and with them online, but there’s a difference when you’re hugging someone who is breathing right in front of you. So, there’s some advantages to both and disadvantages to both. Rather than elevating one as more important than the other, we just consider them to be equally important tools in order to reach as many people as we can.

How do you baptize someone digitally? That seems like a case study for something vital to our faith that is impossible to do digitally.

Gruenewald: We’ve had different ways we’ve approached it. In some cases, people who built a relationship with us digitally actually then physically came to one of our campuses to be baptized. They traveled for that. Other times we’ve had someone who’s a believer baptize their friend in a bathtub—but do it publicly with a video camera in an online context so that there could be a public display of their faith. We’ve sent people from our team to go baptize people in a city where there’s a group or cluster of people that want to be baptized, and we broadcast that event online so that, again, it had a larger public aspect to it. 

Groeschel: We’ve connected them with local communities as well.

Gruenewald: That’s right. We’ve sometimes encouraged people to go to other local churches, physical churches, in their community that we’ve partnered with to have them be baptized. It’s been a mixture of ways we’ve approached it, trying to be true to the purpose of baptism theologically in how we approach it.

Discussions about technology prompt a lot of conversation and even strong emotion among ministry leaders. After all, there is something innately embodied about our faith. How have you wrestled with the apparent conflicts between pragmatism and theology?

Gruenewald: When we started church online in 2006, the idea had come years prior. We were waiting for the technology to get to the place that we felt like it was ready to try. We wanted video to be a component of it, for example, because we felt like visually being able to see and experience the content was an important aspect of it. But it was also about connecting people to people, about having community. It wasn’t about content delivery. It was really about people connecting. That was the priority from the beginning.

There was a lot of criticism that came from that choice. Some of that was just an instinctive reaction and the perception people had around technology. Because up until that point, in 2005, 2006, most of the technology we’d seen modeled wasn’t about connecting people to people. It was about connecting people to information. And so, some of that tension was a presumption of a category that people put technology in: It’s impersonal, it’s not relational, it’s not about community. But we saw some of the power of how it was connecting people. Of course, over the last 15 years, arguably the big emphasis on technology has been around connecting people to each other: social networking, community, conversations.

There were theological critiques and practical ones—the idea that this is going to erode real community. Well, fast-forward, and the pandemic happens. I remember being on a call with a group [that included] a couple theologians and a pastor—some different folks—and it was really interesting because the perspective on that in that little conference interview was talking about how technology was really effective in helping churches stay connected and build community during this pandemic, and what a great benefit it was that we had these tools available to us at this time. Some of the people on that Zoom conversation were some of the people that had been critical of it 10 years earlier, and I made the comment: “It’s really interesting how everyone’s theology aligned when the pandemic came.”

The feedback on that was understandable. Given the circumstances, it’s the best approximation for what would be ideal or better in their minds, which would be an in-person, physical gathering. I think that’s a fair perspective, however what I wanted to remind them was that there are a lot of people every single day in the same circumstance that the pandemic created who are living in parts of the world where they don’t have proximity to a Christian community. It doesn’t look like it does in the center of the United States or even in rural parts of our country where it’s not as evident or prevalent as most people might presume. And so, even when there’s not a pandemic present, there are still people who face a lot of the same challenges that technology has the opportunity to bridge. That’s not the only reason we do it or the only place we see it work, but it’s just a reminder that those circumstances are present outside the pandemic.

There’s a quote from the author, Douglas Adams, who wrote The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which goes something like this: “Anything that’s invented before you’re born is the natural order, the way things always were, the way the world works. Anything invented between when you were born and when you were 35 is new and exciting, something you want to start a career in, something you want to start a business in. Anything that’s invented after you’re 35 threatens to undermine the natural order of society, it’s going to ruin and destroy civilization as we know it.”

There’s an element of truth to that. In some ways, that’s what we’ve struggled with. New things can feel threatening. When people being born now come into ministry they will have a different paradigm. The notion of 100% physical, 100% digital is partly because there’s some people who have a preference for one or a preference for the other, but also because there is a growing group of people that don’t know how to distinguish between the two because their life is both/and and they live it in a both/and way. Having the church see it that way helps the church meet all three of those groups of people.

Groeschel: When there’s something new in ministry and we don’t understand it, it’s easy for us to be critical. I must train myself to do what Andy Stanley says: “Be a student, not a critic.” What I want to do instead of criticizing something I don’t understand is to try to understand what is possible. Whenever pastors are critical of some sort of technology as being incomplete, what I always try to help them see is that almost every form of ministry is incomplete and imperfect in some way. Our goal is not perfect ministry, our goal is ministry. For example, if you’re out of town, can you go to your physical home church? The answer is no; therefore, it is incomplete. Can you receive a message and have some community online, the answer is yes. But could you be baptized, no. They’re both forms of ministry and in my opinion, ministry doesn’t need to be completely perfect to be effective. A person who might criticize online community may watch Christian TV, which is funny to me, because would anybody argue that Christian TV is not effective at times? Yes, it is. Or a book, or a podcast. 

Gruenewald: I completely agree. When we posture ourselves with How can? questions, that becomes a helpful tool to keep you from being a critic. How can _____ be used for the gospel? How can this new thing, whatever it is, this new development, this new idea, be used to further our ministry? How can?