Divine devices or digital distractions?
Want to Tweet that particularly provocative quote from Sunday's sermon? Go ahead, say pastors who increasingly are encouraging digital devices in worship services, which they say expands their congregation's community.
By Jeff Brumley
Alan Rudnick never was a fan of bringing phones into church sanctuaries and never did so himself — until about a year ago.
That’s when he discovered bona fide uses for electronic devices during worship services at First Baptist Church of Ballston Spa, N.Y., where he is the pastor:
• Capture and upload to the Internet video of visiting missionaries.
• Allow a worshipper to post a quotation from a sermon that struck home.
• Multiply the number of people able to fellowship with the community, albeit electronically.
So, at the Ballston Spa church, as in thousands of others nationwide, the use of electronic devices not only is allowed, but also encouraged. Rudnick believes it’s about time.
“I’m a modern person with a cell phone, and I get the whole tech thing,” the American Baptist minister said. “I figured out there were enough people in our congregation who are going to connect with what I am doing and be able to interact.”
It’s in the numbers
Mobile phone statistics indicate their use in cars, planes and houses of worship is all but inevitable. The numbers and the way phones are being used spell that out.
“Fully 91 percent of American adults own a cell phone, and many use the devices for much more than phone calls,” according to a September 2013 study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project.
Other uses include text messaging (81 percent), Internet access (60 percent), sending and receiving e-mail (52 percent) and downloading apps (50 percent), the survey found.
More research from the Pew project found a generational factor to be considered in any policies around cell phones and smartphones.
A previous study showed 49 percent of Americans ages 18 to 24 own smartphones, and it increases to 58 percent for Americans ages 25 to 34.
‘It’s going to happen’
People bothered by the existence of cell phones in the pews must realize there’s really no going back, said South Carolina-based church consultant, blogger and author George Bullard. Churches with no-cell-phone policies “have their head in the sand,” he said.
Churches make a mistake when they deny worshipers access to the gadgets they have come to live with and use for daily communication, said Bullard, president of the Columbia Partnership. “Those who are trying to reach the younger generations, they realize it’s going to happen,” he said.
It’s not about being techy for the sake of being techy, Bullard insisted. Some people use their phones or tablets to give an offering online and will do so during the normal collection time.
“It allows them to actively participate in the offering, even though they are not going to put anything in the offering plate,” he said.
Bible apps, posting attendance
Many worshippers use mobile phones and tablets to access Bible apps to follow along with Scripture readings. Some use the devices to take notes on the sermon.
Churches have discovered other practical uses. Church nurseries no longer need to issue pagers to parents but simply text them on their cell phones when issues arise.
Increasingly, preachers urge members to post their whereabouts and meaningful sermon passages to social media, Bullard said.
“I have suggested there ought to be a 17-year-old-kid in the control booth texting the pastor’s sermon,” Bullard added. “And I would say, ‘Everybody get out your phone and check in that you’re here in worship.’”
‘We have to be cognizant’
Churches’ resistance to the use of smartphones is declining. Consider Westminster Presbyterian Church in Burbank, Calif., which posted a video in 2011 prohibiting electronic devices in services.The light-hearted video threatens fines if the devices ring during worship — and damnation if a cell phone causes a disturbance during the sermon.
“We always try to do things a little twisted,” Pastor Paul Clairville said about the tongue-in-cheek video.
Clairville said the 1-minute video is meant as a friendly reminder to prevent ringers from interrupting the flow of services — not dissuade them from using devices to interact with worship.
“The cell phone has become absolutely ubiquitous,” he said. “It’s one of those things we have to be cognizant of.”
People often post to the church Facebook page during worship, and younger people, especially, are capable of using the devices and following readings and sermons simultaneously.
“With cell phones, we are extending the community — assuming it’s not just surfing the Net,” Clairville said.
‘I want my friends to know’
As the owner and publisher of a website and magazine for families, Colleen Pierre relies heavily on her gadgets and social media to connect with community leaders, readers, contributors and others to keep her business going. She’s glad her church and pastor take the same approach in reaching out to members and potential members.
So for Pierre, 32, sitting in the pew at First Baptist Church of Ballston Spa, means taking pictures or video now and then or posting updates on social media.
She’s even been known to whip the phone out while singing in the choir.
“I want my friends to know what the church means to me and that it’s a strong part of my value system,” said the mother of two, who runs the Saratoga Mama online and print publication.
Rudnick hasn’t received many complaints since his church crossed the digital divide by embracing smartphones and other devices in worship.
Nor is he concerned about the possibility that some people in the pews may be playing games, texting friends or sending e-mails about nonchurch topics.
Christians long have used pencil and paper to jot down grocery lists and doodle during sermons, he said. Churchgoers also have been known to sleep through services — long before there were smartphones to distract them.
Either way, the benefits outweigh any negatives, Rudnick said.
“We have to remember that, as long as we don’t make it a gimmick, it’s just another form of communicating the gospel and interacting with the gospel,” he said.
© 2014 Associated Baptist Press, Inc.