iPhones in Church – Challenge or Opportunity?

Striking the balance between eliminating distractions in a church service and one embracing technology in a digital age can be very hard, especially as a church leader looking out at up to 80% of the congregation with their eyes fixed on a mobile device. It’s not impossible to believe that members will be taking notes and looking up passages as they are read aloud. But even the most well-meaning Christian can get a little side-tracked by the pop notification from Facebook, and it’s not long before they find themselves checking out other photos on Instagram and before you know it, has missed the last 10 minutes of the sermon!

So what to do? Do you take measures to eliminate distractions by removing them altogether for the sake of those who are easily led away? Or do you release the barriers and make a space for social media and digital technology built-in to your service?

SALT LAKE CITY (RNS) Tyler Woolstenhulme might be loath to admit it, but sometimes he’s not paying attention in church. He will happily confess that he’s not the only one.

The 31-year-old Mormon has more than once sat in the pew of his congregation in Sandy, Utah, and let his mind wander. When that happens, he pulls out his iPhone and sometimes plays his puzzle game, “1to50.” Or maybe he texts his friends across the aisle.

“I take the time in church to catch up with people I haven’t contacted in a while,” he said. “I text friends or family.”

The thing is, he says, about half the congregation also is on phones and tablets during a sermon.

Firing up the iPhone or iPad can be especially tempting for Mormons in search of a break, according to some members, possibly due in part to Sunday services that stretch over three hours.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has no official policy banning the use of mobile devices during services, according to spokeswoman Ruth Todd. In fact, LDS mobile apps containing scriptures, lessons, conference sermons and more can heighten rather than hinder the worship experience.

The devices also can be a godsend for parents wanting to occupy their fidgety children. But sometimes, many can be seen accessing Facebook, checking sports scores, catching up on the news or playing a quick game.

Now that electronic devices have become so ubiquitous in churches, some clergy want to use them to their advantage.

“I’m actually exploring a service where I would encourage people to Twitter me,” said the Rev. Dennis Shaw, pastor at Sandy’s Hilltop United Methodist Church. “So as I’m doing the service and I have my cellphone in my hand and the Twitter (feed) changes, I can follow the dialogue. It’s a way of potentially engaging people.”

The Very Rev. Ray Waldon, dean of Salt Lake City’s Episcopal Cathedral Church of St. Mark, recently attended a seminar in San Diego titled “Digital Jesus” in which church leaders were encouraged to get their members tweeting and posting about the sermons during service. He said the younger people using social media were referred to as “digital natives” while older churchgoers are known as “digital immigrants.”

“Our digital natives are truly paying attention. What they are doing is texting or tweeting the word of God,” he said. “My experience at this cathedral is not that they are not paying attention. It’s quite the opposite — they are so moved they want the word of God to get out.”

The LDS church also has embraced the digital age, producing a dozen official mobile apps for phones and tablets that allow members to search scriptures or prepare Sunday school lessons.

“I see development of technology as the fulfillment of a Judeo-Christian prophecy,” said Tracy Cowdell, a regional LDS leader in Sandy.

“Isaiah, who spoke of our time, said: ‘The Earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.’ Technology is a way for us to connect with more people and more people having more access to spiritual information.”

(Vince Horiuchi writes for The Salt Lake Tribune).

HUFFINGTON POST | By Vince Horiuchi

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