When they launched their first Roman Catholic mobile phone application early this year, the founders of the Indiana-based startup Little i Apps had hoped their product would reach a small, niche market of fellow Catholics.
They never dreamed their Confession app, which provides a step-by-step guide to giving confessions, would turn out to be such a hit, breaking into the iPhone App Store's top 25 most popular apps shortly after its late January release.
"We kind of thought, you know, there would be a parish or youth group that was interested in it," developer and company co-founder Patrick Leinen says. Instead, to his surprise, he says, "We were beating things like Plants vs Zombies and Sims."
In a market dominated by games, like Angry Birds and Fruit Ninja, the astounding success of the Confession app was unheard of for any lifestyle app, let alone a religious one. Nearly 12 months later, it's still recording decent sales. The app (for around $1.90) has been installed between 1,000 and 5,000 times over the past 30 days on the virtual store Android Market.
Unusual though it may be, its popularity hints at the market potential for a growing segment of religious and spirituality-oriented apps. These days, it's possible to find apps for all kinds of spiritual practices, from the Qibla Compass, which points the devout in the direction of the sacred Islamic site of Kaaba in Mecca, and JustSikh, which provides daily audio hukamnama, or letters of command, to the mindfulness bell, which rings periodically throughout the day to encourage users to reflect on their current state of mind.
Consider it spiritual connectivity via smartphone.
"We call them mobile phones, but they're not phones per se any more.... It's almost like an extension of yourself," Mr. Leinen says, explaining why he believes spirituality and smartphone apps are a natural fit.
"People are more willing to share on those kinds of devices," he adds, noting that people divulge their entire lives on social network sites like Facebook and Twitter. "It's not so strange that they'd also be willing to use [the technology] say, for something personal like a confession."
The Confession app he helped develop was not intended to be a virtual replacement for confessions. Rather, it was designed to prepare people for giving confessions, and to be used while in the confessional. Mr. Leinen says Little i Apps is planning to launch an updated version in the new year.
But some are skeptical of whether apps can aid spiritual development in any profound and meaningful way.
Douglas Henry, associate professor of philosophy at Baylor University in Texas, says he occasionally uses a BibleReader app, basically a Bible in electronic form, and a Universalis app, which offers texts for prayers throughout the day, on his iPhone or iPad.
The medium is convenient, especially when he's travelling, he admits. But, he says, "It's not clear to me that the development of spirituality of any deep and abiding sort has in any religious tradition...been a function of convenience."
As devices designed to allow users to communicate and access information instantly, smartphones by their very nature cultivate inattentiveness, rather than quiet contemplation, Dr. Henry says. "With every ding, buzz and ring, they interrupt the attention that our hearts might otherwise give to God."
While apps may be able to remind people of their spiritual convictions, he says people shouldn't put too much faith in them. "What is required, I think, is a great deal of discretion and vigilance and prudence" when using them, he says. "It's easy, even with the best of intentions, to find yourself distracted."
Yet clearing one's mind of distractions is precisely the function of Scotland-based entrepreneur Rohan Gunatillake's buddhify app, released in November. Buddhify allows users to customize guided audio meditation practices while on the go, whether they are at home, commuting, at the gym or walking around town.
Mr. Gunatillake says the notion that app technology and spirituality clash is simply a "generational hangover."
The most successful and effective apps are those built around how people actually use their devices, rather than repackaging existing materials and delivering them through a phone, he says.
He explains his own app gives users a simple, low-risk introduction to meditation, and those interested in delving deeper can seek out more traditional modes of practice.
Mr. Gunatillake says he recognizes that most people use apps for practical functions and entertainment. "So why can't spiritual apps just take advantage of that and convert that attention into something more useful than playing Angry Birds and instead turn attention into happiness?"