Smartphones In Worship Services: A Distraction Or Opportunity?

Sharefaith - Smartphones In Worship Services: A Distraction Or Opportunity?

Arguably, the largest trade show in Anaheim, California is the NAMM–or, the National Association of Music Merchants. I have attended many times over the years as a musical artist, guest of a manufacturer or as a representative buyer for a house of worship. Besides “geeking out” at the latest gear from all over the globe and soaking in performances in small venues of musical giants there is the reconnection with musicians that you don’t often get to hang out with due to distance and schedules. Our group of friends waited a rather long time to be seated in the hotel restaurant, but we finally ordered our food and immediately began chatting and perusing the menu. Before we were too deep into our lunch one of our table mates got our attention as he put his cell phone face down in the center of the table. His buddies quickly followed suit. I grudgingly stacked my phone, last on the deck as I saw the smirking glances in my direction. As an avid social media user I would have to engage in human conversation as unmediated by smartphones. What a shock and a way to go through potentially scary withdrawal symptoms. To add incentive to comply with the rules, the penalty was that whoever reached for their phone first would have to pay the entire bill. There were about seven of us–so, that would be an ouch on the bill. Most of us at the table peered at the stack of phones as one of them would buzz from a text every so often. But, we did not dare grab our phones for fear of a hit to the pocket book.

Smartphones In Worship Services: A Distraction Or Opportunity?

What I experienced at lunch that day was surreal in comparison to the normal occurrence of lunch gatherings.  We often see a group of people supposedly meeting together, only to face their phones the entire time in near silence. We all observe that guy walking down the street while texting as the sunset is glowing in an explosion of color. Besides the danger of traffic, he is oblivious to the fantastic view while scrolling through meaningless memes on Facebook. Of course, I see that same sunset through my Instagram app and, instead of a single short pause for a photo, I spend much time editing the photo to perfection. Then I spend time glancing at the likes as they come in. We are in two places at once. The power of social media is the immediate disappearance of distance, yet the danger is we lack complete focus in the present. We basically are present in more than one place, or with more than one person at a time. Remember that lunch I told you about? I might have forgotten about the meeting had I only taken a photo of my plate of food, instead of speaking with friends, both new and old.

From a spiritual perspective, is it harmful to dissipate our attention using a smartphone like we all do today? This is an important question, as what we do in worship will flow into our daily lives. For many of us, it is a necessity to check texts and emails as part of our jobs. Beyond our work, staying connected to family and friends center more today on social media apps than with an old fashioned phone call. Do we embrace the cultural change, reject it, or create higher levels of opportunity with our use of smartphones? I believe, like with any advancement in technology, there are likely as many positives as there are negatives. With this in mind, we can choose to spend our energy vilifying technological advancements or find ways to lead in how they should be utilized? After all, the Apostle Paul embraced the technology of ships and maritime routes to spread the gospel. He also applied the technology of penning and distributing his letters to pastor churches he would never have the chance to visit in person. From ancient times, Christians have been adept at using whatever extension of humanity available to them for the advancement of the gospel. The good news of Jesus can travel on both paper-bound books, as well as glowing digital screens. Perhaps, smartphones and the social media apps that drive their use are incredible opportunities for us today—even within our very worship services.

Gathering And Sending: Sharing That People Are Welcome And That We Are Sent On A Mission Are Powerfully Shared On Social Media.

At my church, I love that our pastor from time to time asks church members to take out their smartphones and make a social media post sharing their attendance at church. In our area of Orange County, California people on a Sunday morning might be sharing their experiences from surfing, biking, or hanging out with friends. This simple gesture strategically shows that some people in our community choose to worship on the weekend, while perhaps participating in all the other activities people partake in. If we cannot get our people to talk about what they do as far as attending church, then it becomes the proverbial tree falling in the forest. Just like my recommendation to come experience the great coffee at my favorite coffee shop, am I challenged to see my spiritual life as part of public discourse? What do people do in that church building I drive by each day? We might be surprised at the impact of simply sharing what we do in worship services on our community. We are here! And, you are welcome!

To enhance this further, at every baptism, Easter service, or start of a new season, ask members to also share their photos, tagging them as being present at the church or to the church’s Facebook page or Instagram feed. The best social media is not the glossy, filtered images that are meant to cause envy. The best ones show life as it really is and invite people to share in the best of humanity. Social media can do this, too! Imagine if our social media feeds have a baptism captured in photos rather than political rants of “fake” news? What we talk about can change the tenor of the conversation not only for those closest to you. We can change the culture a bit by every positive, real-to-life meaningful post on our feed. The power of this should not be underestimated. Worship services are a public event, meant to be open to anyone who desires to seek to come. Jesus ate with everyone. Do we see our services as Jesus saw his meals with all elements of society? The table in our worship can be an invitation if we choose to make it so. If people don’t see this in action, they may not believe it to be true.

One thing to ponder is that our norms are changing rapidly. Once, smartphone use during church was considered worse than a movie theater. Now, that is bad! The Pew Research Center reported in January of this year that 77% of adults use smartphones. That is a dramatically swift move from just 35% in 2011. With 78% of adults also on a computer and 51% owning tablets, social media is pervading our society as a dominant use. Last year, the same group reported in their research a 79% rate of the public on Facebook. While the other social media platforms are well behind, the numbers that adopt them and the particular segments of people that use them should not be ignored. Most people use these sites on a daily basis. The question becomes clear for us in ministry. Why would we not be in this new town square if so many of our parishioners are engaged there? Why would we shun its use as an extension of our faith practices when it may be the only place a neighbor next door might be reached? Imagine the opportunity. While there are challenges to being connected to our soul, it would be a head-in-sand approach to insist on methods remaining in the last century.

The Word Does Not Return Void As We Share It–Whether On Papyrus Or Digital Code. The Power To Engage With Sermons And Bible Readings Is At The Hands Of All.

Why not make the weekend scripture available to share online. The church can facilitate this with making a graphic or meme to share. For those who attend worship, being able to find the main points of the sermon or the actual text of the scripture taught can reinforce personal devotion. One way to do this is to find a Bible app that your church might use during services. As an option to reading from the pew Bible, screens, or personal Bible, having it on a smartphone ties the activity of Bible reading to an individual’s pocket. No matter where you are, having a moment to reflect during a busy day at work might become a personal devotion and reflection on God’s word. If we see this modeled in a worship service, the practice might actually be seen as a valid option for those who attend. Another way to reinforce the preaching time is to encourage members to take notes–even on a platform like Twitter. Tweeting out important points by our church people helps them remember them. And, it connects the main themes to those who could not be there in person, perking their interest and whetting their appetite to come to the next available service. As with any social media, the use of it is not a replacement or interaction, but an enhancement. In that regard, we can enhance connection to our teaching of God’s word using smartphone technology.

There are still those who claim reading from a paper book is superior and even espouse the use of certain traditional translations. I indeed love the idea of standing while the Gospel is read in worship services. This reverence for the Word of God is a good thing, but some may take this idea too far. Reading from a piece of paper is not magical, is it? Is God’s word meant to stay on a page anyway? Or, is “the Word made flesh” a model of us as we incarnate God’s truths into real life acts? As we apply the Word of God, we can demonstrate that our living it out is the goal. Our use of smartphones to read or experience the Bible is not about worshipping the Bible, as much as it is being changed by the Bible to be a better worshipper of Christ. If we see reverence to a method as our goal, we miss the point of God’s Word entirely. And, I fear an overly zealous sense of reverence unintentionally inhibits people from being open to bringing God’s Word every place they live–even, online! If putting positive posts in our feeds can change culture a bit, living out God’s Word online might take that even further. Are we open to see such a transformation?

Worship Should Have Results That Inspire Our Spiritual Growth And Participation. How Do We “Spur” One Another On Towards Love And Good Deeds?

Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. – Hebrews 10:23-25 (ESV)

One of my favorite discussions about worship is in the New Testament book of Hebrews. While we are reminded of the promises of God each week in worship, we are asked to discern how to “spur” or stir up each other to love and acts of good works. The worship gathering must also have a sending component. Your use of social media and the smartphone just might be a tool to aid the engagement of your congregation in ministry. How can the purposes of making disciples be part of sending your people out? First, the idea of attending church should be replaced with the idea of gathering with others who desire to follow Jesus. Action comes not out of motivating people to simply check a box. The invitation is a process that connects people to the promise of God’s presence in worship. If God is present with us, we then should long to bring God’s presence with us to the stone cold office coffee on Monday mornings. How then do we “stir” each other?

One of the best ways to do this is to encourage the sharing of stories. The idea of the liturgical element, Prayers of the People, is to engage the church in seeking God for each other’s very human and present needs. Imagine using a Facebook group to post such prayers within your congregation and then inviting someone to read them aloud to all? Most will keep silent as public speaking of any kind is apparently akin to the fear of death. This simple way of posting prayers and reading is just an example of how people in their daily lives on Facebook might engage with their local church people more deeply. What other ideas can you come up with?

The point of this is to make spiritual practices present where people are present. Apps that engage not only Bible reading, but charitable work, or financial generosity can be powerful connectors to people practicing their faith. However, we may deride it in the media, “Slacktivism” might actually be a stepping stone to greater activism. How about making serving an “envious” image on our pages? If you are singing at a retirement home to shut-ins, why not share photos and stories about the encounter? People model what they see and too often there is the opposite broadcast. We all love to share that fancy plate of food, new outfit, or expensive vacation. There is nothing wrong with celebrating life, but do we include in that life the acts of service we partake in, as well? The joy we get from giving should not be a private affair in an age that needs every bit of goodwill we can muster to be exposed to our social media feeds. For every fake news post, if we see people loving others, the world surely would be a better place.

Part Of The Package Of Seeing Smartphones In Worship Is Also To Guide Each Other To Use Them In A Healthy Manner.

Teach and model the discipline of moderation and disconnection in the use of smartphones. There are certainly times we must disconnect from social media and our smartphones. As we publicly employ smartphone use in worship, the opportunity to encourage better use of them overall is significant. Remember that lunch where we piled our phones on the table? Encouraging restraint and wisdom will go a long way. People who do not think before posting will learn the benefits of listening and responding with kindness. Or, that is the hope. How do we learn to unplug from our devices?

  • Set clear boundaries. At our family dinner, we put our cell phones down. We may check them as the plates are being passed out and when we watch TV later, we are a two-screen crew. Some TV programs are actually better if you don’t pay attention to 100% the show. I need to read a bit to calm my brain, but I just decided that there needs to be a cut-off point, otherwise I might stay up all night in bed with the blue light of my phone burning into my eyes. Talk about what is important to you and your family and friends as far as engaging each other. With our busy schedules, it would be a crime to waste our attention on a screen when real faces are in front of us.

 

  • Make a plan for positive posts. Who are you going to encourage today? Pick a couple of people and send them a post or text. Sometimes simply asking, “How are you today?”, will open up your friends to chat about what is important to them. In all the frivolity that is enjoyable on the internet and social media, to be able to keep your connections with the people you care about will go a long way. So, maybe you pick a person to engage once a day. Or, you can set a schedule for the week. Regardless, how are you going to post something that encourages someone else today? Make a plan and do it.

 

  • Keep each other accountable. Every so often, we “accidentally” throw off restraint and end up commenting on a political post. The thread gets heavy, and people begin responding by posting questionable websites to prove their point and to have fun trolling you and others. Fight the trolls! It is easy to delete a comment and move on. Help and rescue your friend when you see them stuck in one of these vicious social media loops!

 

Practical Social Media Tips For Churches And Worship Services

Here are some practical tips on how to best employ the use of smartphones and the social media platforms and apps available to us today.

 

  • The power of the #hashtag. If you have a sermon, special social justice campaign or large event happening, the use of the hashtag will help you gather and share what your people are sharing. The hashtag now works on Facebook, as well as most social media platforms. So if you hashtag something, you will be able to find it! That is powerful.

 

  • Make your “branding” as simple as possible. If you have a Twitter account, try to make all the other accounts match. So @YourName is as universal as possible. This holds true with using the same recognizable avatar across all your accounts. There are reasons for breaking this rule, however, it is a great place to start.

 

  • Start a church blog. Does your church have a blog feed? Look into getting an RSS-friendly blog started on your church website, with a service like Sharefaith Church Websites, for instance. Many church websites are designed with a blog format available. If you have an event to post about the church, you can use that blog post as an anchor to share through all the social media out there. This also allows church members to do the same.

 

  • Use an aggregate app like Buffer or Hootsuite. If you have multiple accounts to manage, one of these platforms will aid you in posting, as well as responding, to the comments on these platforms. If you have one picture, it means you post it once, and it can simultaneously end up on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and even Pinterest or Google+ platforms.

 

  • Use Facebook Ads. While this might be a bit more advanced, you might be surprised that no one sees your church posts on Facebook. Facebook will gladly open their spigot with a few dollars. A modest budget might be able to effectively get the word out and help you be seen in the feeds of your parishioners and community.

Some Pros And Cons Of Social Media Platforms.

Here is a rating of the most popular social media apps. I also included two location or recommendation apps. Yelp and Swarm cannot be ignored by a church! You want people to find you, right?

 

Facebook:

Pros: Most of your people are on this platform, and it’s the one that people use to reconnect with classmates and businesses when they move.
Cons: For your posts to end up in feeds, you might have to pay occasionally.

 

 

Twitter:

Pros: It is open sourced, which means your Twitter feed can easily be present on your website.
Cons: Unlike Facebook, it is not filtered. You might have to deal with bots and profane items, occasionally.

 

 

Instagram:

Pros: Most accounts are real, and those who use it are avid about it. Photo posts shine on this like no other platform.
Cons: It is not good for detailed information or posts with links and text.

 

 

Snapchat:

Pros: Teens love this app, as their grandma doesn’t get it. Its “stories” component allows a story to be told with photos and videos.
Cons: Its wonderful story feature is copied now on Facebook and Instagram. It has a small user base.

 

 

Yelp:

Pros: Connected to Apple products like Siri and Apple Maps. It is the most popular rating app for businesses and churches can also be on this.
Cons: If you are a Google user, it may not be as accessible to you.

 

 

Swarm/Foursquare:

Pros: Connects to Instagram, so if you use Instagram a lot, this is for you. A powerful recommendation/location app.
Cons: When Foursquare split their apps into two, it made it a bit more complicated to use.

 

 

Technology, If Used Strategically, Is An Opportunity.

This year, we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. The 95 Thesis statement that Martin Luther nailed to the church door arguably led us to the technology like the printing press. The average person could not own a Bible, or even a book, as they were so expensive. Today, books are taken for granted and information is available in an instant. The Google age might not have come to be if it were not for Luther. All this is to state how our faith has had to address the human heart in all ages and has survived. We can fear adopting a new form, and perhaps we should show caution. After all, just because you can do something does not mean you should or that it will even work. But we might miss a huge opportunity to bridge our humanity–the better part, hopefully–through a smartphone.


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Rich is a writer, blogger, speaker, musician, father and husband to his best friend. You can check out his latest book, The Six Hats of the Worship Leader, on his website, RKblog.com