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Will Bibles designed for the Instagram generation get millennials into religion?

The Christian startup Alabaster expects to sell nearly $1 million worth of religious books this year.

Alabaster is a startup that’s redesigning the Bible for the Instagram generation.

Brian Chung was working as a campus minister with the national Intervarsity Christian Fellowship a few years ago at the University of Southern California when he decided something was wrong with the Bible.

Chung, now 30, would stand at the back of the room during Intervarsity events and hand out New Testaments. The reaction from college kids was always the same; they’d take the book and flip through the pages. Faced with small fonts and outdated language, they’d snap it shut, hand it back, or toss it, disinterestedly, in their backpack.

“That experience reminded of getting my first Bible and finding the book to be really intimidating,” Chung says. “Even the first few pages are usually just descriptors or maps, and don’t draw you in with any stories. I thought there must be a better way.”

Chung, who studied graphic design in college, grew up in a Buddhist household but converted to Christianity in college. He met another Christian USC student at Intervarsity, also named Bryan Chung, who was studying animation and digital arts. The duo became friends, and eventually business partners. In 2016, they debuted their company Alabaster, a brand that has redesigned the Bible for the Instagram generation and expects to sell $900,000 worth of Bibles by the end of this year.

Brian Chung and Bryan Chung, the founders of Alabaster.

Alabaster sells Gospels, Romans, and Psalms Bibles that have been artfully laid out next to original photography (the company’s Gospels of Mark and John are sold out). Its hardcover Bibles sell for $78 and paperback softcover books are $38.

These are no ordinary religious books. They have that Kinfolk-inspired, vaguely Scandinavian vibe that has taken over coffee shops, fashion boutiques, and interior design Instagram. Their pages are clean and spacious, and the religious texts are placed next to photos that are solemn yet alluring: forests of trees, mysterious caves, a de-petaled rose, mist above the ocean, a woman holding a candle.

“We want these books to be true and relevant to millennials,” Bryan Chung said during a recent phone interview. “We are all on our iPhones, but we also respond really well to visual imagery, and so it has to really grasp our attention. If it does, it can change the way we think.”

Flipping through Alabaster’s Bibles is soothing, intriguing, even inspiring. The pages are inviting from the introduction; describing Psalms, Alabaster calls the text “raw, honest poems from thousands of years ago” where readers can “learn about mourning, grief, lament, love, joy, forgiveness, and what it means to connect with God in the midst of our complex lives.”

Creating religious texts for the selfie generation might seem like something of a Hail Mary pass, considering this age group’s faith is waning drastically. According to the Pew Research Center’s Religious Landscape Study from 2015, adults born between 1981 and 1996 are much less likely than older Americans to attend religious services or pray. The Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University last year found that 35 percent of Americans consider themselves “nones,” or atheists and agnostics, and almost half of that 35 percent are millennials. This is a stark contrast to 1986, when only 10 percent of young adults said they didn’t affiliate with a religion.

This has been dubbed an “exodus,” and it does not discriminate by religion. A Public Religion Research Institute survey from 2017 found that more than half of young Jews today say they “have no religion.” Young evangelical Christians are dissociating from their churches “at record levels,” while one study found that millennials are abandoning Catholicism at a faster rate than any other religion. Even the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, which traditionally has a steady rate of membership, has seen a small decline from young worshippers.

Alabaster books are laid out on white, minimalist pages, with original photography.

There are a plethora of reasons young people say they are turned off by the religion they were born into, or religion in general. Some cite the conservative views of many faiths, like opinions on politics or same-sex marriage, as well as outdated structures of power. But the co-founders of Alabaster believe these issues shouldn’t be blamed necessarily on religion as much as its existing structures.

“Christian art and design can come off as really cheesy,” says Brian Chung. “But faith, like everything, needs to meet the culture where they are. So we’re creating materials that are approachable, and also represent the intersection of art and faith.”

Alabaster Bibles don’t just stand apart because of the hipster photography and typeset. They also specifically use the New Living Translation, which came out in 1996, as opposed to the King James Bible, which was published in 1611.

“A big part of faith is in the language,” Bryan Chung says. “It felt off to be reading and using words you can barely pronounce or understand. That’s not what will interest people.”

Although the Instagram generation that Alabaster, which first launched on Kickstarter, is designing Bibles for is hooked to tech, Brian points to the indie publication industry, where magazines like Kinfolk, The Gentlewoman, Hypebeast, and Cherry Bombe have built cult followings.

“People love to say that print is dead, but specialty printing is very much alive,” Bryan adds. “Typically, Bibles in people’s homes are placed on a bookshelf and are not the centerpiece of a house. But people tell us Alabaster books are their new coffee table books. They sift through every page, slowly and carefully.”

“People love to say that print is dead, but specialty printing is very much alive,” says Bryan Chung.

“As a pastor that enjoys photography, I loved this Gospels set,” one Amazon reviewer wrote. “If you love photography and Jesus, you will enjoy this set.”

“I’ve always wanted to own something like this,” an Alabaster customer wrote on Instagram about the company’s Psalms. “Thank you so much for using your creativity and working hard to make this happen. May your business and creativity keep prospering!”

Alabaster’s founders say their goal is not missionary — not outright, anyway. They do believe new forms of religious texts will help faith-focused millennials connect more deeply.

“Our favorite stories are about people who don’t consider themselves religious picking up our books and enjoying them. We like the idea that it’s opening up a dialogue for people who would otherwise not think about religion that much,” says Bryan Chung. “‘Convert’ is not a word we think about a lot at Alabaster. [But] we think religion asks deep and meaningful questions that people might not always think about on their own. Mixed with art, we think that’s really interesting. If our books contribute to that, we’re happy.”

According to the Barna Group, a research group that studies faith, 47 percent of millennials still use a Bible. And Alabaster has already proven there’s an interest. Last year, the company sold more than 10,000 Bibles and made $300,000-plus in sales; Alabaster believes sales will triple in 2019 with some upcoming wholesale deals.

Much of the hunger for its Bibles has come from abroad; the company’s largest customer demographics are in Singapore, Australia, Canada, and England. Alabaster also has an in with Hillsong, the evangelical megachurch that’s become popular among Christian celebrities. The co-founders of Alabaster became friendly with Hillsong creative director Cassandra Langton through Instagram, and the church agreed to sell the company’s Bibles at its Creative Conference last year.

The books from Alabaster, Elizabeth Angowski, an assistant professor of religion at Earlham College, points out, have extremely Goop-y vibes — in terms of both aesthetic and their Goop-esque markups. Their price tag, she notes, “strikes me as a feature of lifestyle brands aimed at audiences of a certain status.”

Costs aside, Angowski believes religious leadership shouldn’t take issue with Alabaster’s millennial-focused Bibles, although she does see how its rebranding of beliefs could ruffle some feathers.

“I do find it interesting that this company says it aims to give readers ‘a fresh visual experience and heightened level of contemplation’ by adding photos,” she says. “I wonder, in that statement, is it implied that textual sources without images — or even their specially chosen images — are then, by extension, somehow less conducive to higher contemplation? I think that form and content should be considered in tandem when it comes to reading and interpreting any literary work, but here we seem to have an argument that this newly designed form is not just about appealing to a particular subset of folks aesthetically. Alabaster makes it sound like a matter of enhancement of, possibly even a correction to, the reading experience.”

Modernized imagery may or may not help readers access a higher spiritual plane, but the Alabaster co-founders say they intend to remain a Christian company, and don’t envision printing other religious texts like the Quran or the Book of Mormon. Instead, they intend to keep printing books from the Bible. The company will debut Proverbs early this summer, and will likely move on to Genesis next.

Alabaster books, according to one professor of religion, have extremely Goop-y vibes.

In the meantime, buzz around the company is attracting investors like Daniel Fong, an entrepreneur behind the furniture company Million Dollar Baby, who invested $100,000 in Alabaster.

“I think there is a big need for a product like this right now,” says Fong. “It’s beautifully made, and there’s nothing else like it. From my perspective, there’s a hunger for unique ways to access religion, and I can see them becoming really popular, especially in China.”

To Fong, the business opportunity in alternative faith concepts goes beyond printing. A long-term goal for the company, he says, is to establish itself as a religious platform, where it can provide spiritual materials for study groups and workshops. The idea, he says, is to strip away the preexisting structures of faith. This is already happening in niche religious communities, like Orthodox Jewry, for example, where millennial Jews are meeting for Shabbat and High Holiday services on their own or in their own makeshift synagogues.

“The research says that people are looking for a different alternative to the church and its sermons,” he says. “Traditional Christianity is very church-based, but to provide manuals, or magazines, or reading guides for people to create their own environment? That would be very unique. That could change the way people think about faith altogether.”

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