Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Digital Church

This past Sunday, the Greensboro News and Record featured a lead story on the use of technology, social media, and electronic gadgets in church. I was literally bombarded with questions about the article on Sunday morning before and after our worship service. I probably tip my hand on this issue a bit when I admit that I do not read the newspaper, but rely on Twitter to bring me news of interest. The fact is, I love technology, gadgets, and social media, and I use them often for (and even at) church! I was an "early adopter" to harnessing the power of technology for ministry, dating back to my first attempt to create a free webpage for my church in 1998 posting sermons online way back when using RealAudio streaming, and "beaming" sermon and lecture notes from one Palm Pilot to another. So, I actually welcome and celebrate the new attitude that is emerging about the use of tablets and smartphones.

It is undeniable that we now live in a digital world. In a recent Supreme Court case regarding privacy and the routine search of mobile phones, Chief Justice John Roberts acknowledged that smartphones have become “such a pervasive and insistent part of daily life that the proverbial visitor from Mars might conclude they were an important feature of human anatomy” (source). In the old days (which were just a few years ago), a church could simply ask congregants to power off their devices as they prepared for worship. Today, this would be, to extend Chief Justice Roberts' metaphor, akin to asking someone to sever an appendage.

There is legitimate concern that the use of phones and tablets during worship could be a distraction. Indeed, it can be one both for the user and those seated in his or her proximity. However, let us be honest -- distractions in worship are not a 21st century innovation. In Acts 20, we read of Eutychus who fell asleep and fell out of a window while Paul was preaching. In the intervening centuries, people have come up with all sorts of ways to prevent such defenestrations: coloring in the open spaces of letters on the bulletin, drawing pictures and passing notes on the backs of visitor cards and offering envelopes, daydreaming, etc. So, while we do not want to encourage people to play Angry Birds during worship services, if they do, it is merely a recent twist on an old issue. The only prevention of this is to have a safeguarded heart that is disciplined to stay "plugged in" to the act of worship that is taking place. Out of love for one's neighbor and a desire to not be a stumbling block, one should beware of such distractions. If one must engage in technological diversions during worship, he or she should at least have the decency to be discreet about it! It is one thing if you miss out on worship because you need to clear a level of Candy Crush. It is another for your Candy-Crushing to occupy the attention of those around you.

There are other distractions that need to be guarded against as well, on both sides. On the part of the user, one should be careful to keep their devices held so that others are not tempted to look at them, and one should be mindful of lights and reflections. In a darkened sanctuary (which many churches now woefully employ) the shining light of one's smartphone or tablet screen will inevitably draw attention from others and could be considered disruptive. Consider the atmosphere before powering up. Additionally (I regret that this even needs to be said), one needs to guard one's heart against pride. Far be it for me to make blanket accusations, but in a small percentage of cases (hopefully, it is just a small percentage), the person using the device may be intending to send out the signal to those nearby, "Hey, check me out! I have a nifty gadget! Are you not envious of how technologically savvy I am?" This is sinful, and needs repentance. Such repentance may necessitate a "fast" from technology in worship until the heart is remedied and purged of such an obnoxious attitude.

Then there is this: I have personally experienced the painful distraction of sitting behind someone who is using their phone or tablet in a perfectly legitimate way, but the glassy screen shines a terrible reflection of glare right into my eyes. In some cases, I have moved, while in others I have asked the person to adjust the angle of their device or situated myself so that the glare was blocked. And then, on the part of the "bystander," I would advise the simple advice of minding one's own business. It is tempting to look onto a nearby screen, but one needs to be more focused on his or her own Bible, hymnal, notebook, or personal meditation than on that of the neighbor in the pew.

There are actually many good, beneficial uses of technology and portable devices in worship. These are what excite me and why I welcome and celebrate these innovations:

1) Bible Apps - From YouVersion to the Logos Bible App to a host of others, many church-goers are relying on their smartphones and tablets as their primary Bible. Why begrudge this? This person has his or her Bible at-hand 24 hours a day. Few others could make such a claim. So prevalent is this phenomenon, that in one recent conference I attended, the speaker made the humorous quip, "Everyone please turn on your Bibles and scroll with me to the book of Isaiah." Searching by word, subject, chapter and verse is fast and easy on these Apps, and I am all for people finding more facility with their Bibles.

2) Note Apps - From the native "Notes" app on iOS devices to apps like Evernote and Google Drive, a person is able to take notes during worship and have those notes accessible at all times and retrievable by search or index. How many others carry their sermon notes with them everywhere they go?

3) Referencing - Sometimes during a sermon or even in the singing of a hymn, one will encounter a word or phrase that is unfamiliar or intriguing. How many of us have said, "I need to look that up when I get home," only to forget about it somewhere over lunch. The gadget-user has the ability to look it up on the spot. Rather than being a distraction, this can become an enhancement to their experience in worship. I have never met anyone who carries a Bible Dictionary and Commentary with them into worship, but the smartphone and tablet provides users with these and a host of references at the fingertips as needed.

4) Social Media - Several years ago, someone came to me with a concern about some of our young people who were "texting" during worship. I said, "Oh, that is a shame. I am sorry you were distracted by that. I will have a word with them." But then, after the service, I pulled up my Twitter and Facebook feeds and found that these young people had actually been tweeting quotes from my sermon and lines from the hymns we were singing. They were, in effect, becoming "broadcasters" of what was taking place in our worship service to an audience larger than our sanctuary would accommodate. I decided that I would not have that word with them after all. Instead, I had a word with the one who brought the concern to my attention. I asked, "How many people have you shared the message from last Sunday with?" The answer was none. I rest my case.

5) Photos and Videos - Rarely, if ever, do I see people bringing in cameras to a typical Sunday morning service. But, there have been several times when I have received via email or social media a photo of a significant moment in the service or a video of someone's baptism or a special music offering from a soloist or ensemble. One of my most cherished photos is from a service several years ago in which two of my predecessors at Immanuel joined me in the serving of the Lord's Supper. Had someone not had their smartphone or tablet with them and in use in worship, I would not have that moment captured. I would urge one caution here. I have noticed of late that the contemporary worship posture is often that of having both hands raised in the air, with the iPhone grasped between them recording the whole thing. I have no objections to recording things, but I doubt there is a need to record everything (unless in the case of #9 below). And, I can't help thinking that sometimes "capturing the moment" hinders us from "experiencing the moment." Better to be engaged in worship here and now, than to be preoccupied with preserving it for later.

6) "Check-In" Services - Whether it is Foursquare or the Facebook check-in feature, it is always a joy for me to see as I scroll through Sunday's timeline how many of my friends were gathered for corporate worship in a local church. I also marvel at the testimony that this can be to unchurched friends and loved ones. They are having brunch on their veranda in their bedroom slippers and they turn on Facebook and find that a dozen of their friends were in worship. I actually use an app called "Checkmate" that automatically checks me in on Foursquare whenever I walk in the door of the church.

7) Giving - Long gone are the days when people carry around a pocket full of cash or a checkbook. And, lets face it, churches are always asking for money for something. In addition to the giving of one's regular tithes and offerings, a financial tool like Paypal, a bank's mobile banking app, or similar app, enables someone to contribute "on-the-spot." The next time you see someone fiddling around with their smartphone, they may actually be making an offering to advance the spread of the Gospel around the world!

8) Messaging - Be it text messaging, iMessaging, or even email (do people still do that?), some people use their gadgets to send messages during worship. Isn't that a bad thing? Well it could be, but it is not inherently worse than passing a note down the aisle. But, often, during Sunday services, I feel my phone vibrate in my pocket, and when I check it after the service, someone in the congregation has sent me a message with a question about the sermon, a prayer request or asking for information about a ministry or project in the church. I have done this myself. If the Lord lays someone on my mind that I have been praying for, or if I learn of a need, I will quickly jot out a message to them.

9) "Skype" and similar video conferencing apps - Let's suppose you have a friend at church who is out of the town or out of the country on business, on a mission trip, or on a military assignment. Or, perhaps your friend is sick and cannot attend church today. Wouldn't it be great if you could let them know everything that happened, sing for them every song that was sung, repeat the sermon verbatim to them, and even fill them in on the announcements and prayer concerns? Well, you can. Using Skype or Google Hangouts, Tango, or a host of other Apps, that person can be sitting at home, in the hospital, in a lean-to on a remote island, or anywhere else in the world, and catch the entire service -- even if your church doesn't do online live streaming of the services. As their very good friend, you merely pop up the app on your device, and connect them into the service. If you are going to do this, make sure your battery is charged, and you might want to sit somewhere where you can set your device up on a pew edge or a windowsill or something, and try to not be a distraction to others. But by all means, do it!

Maybe I have left something out ... if so, you can let me know in the comments. How do you use your smartphone or tablet in worship?

And, by all means, the next time you are tempted to condemn someone who does use these things during worship, keep in mind that they may be reading their Bible; they may be taking notes on the sermon, sharing a quote from the Scripture, the songs, or the sermon with more friends than you will this week; they may be capturing a significant moment with their camera; they may be making a contribution. But if they are playing Free Fall, ask them how to clear level 87, because I just can't beat that level!

Fire away in the comments! I'd love to get a rousing discussion going here on this subject!  


Miranda Propst said...

Very thorough and thoughtful engagement of this issue, Russ! I never noticed that passage in Acts until now. I guess falling asleep in church is nothing new... :)

Good point about technology being one of many potential distractions. I definitely agree that technology can be a very helpful tool when used with discernment. I occasionally use my phone as a Bible when I forget to bring my physical Bible to church (I personally prefer having the physical text for reading during a service). Also, for us students at UNCG, we have often used text during a service to discreetly communicate with someone we have invited to church to follow up if they have not arrived to make sure they know where to go and have a ride to get here.

As far as personal use, I sometimes like to use the free Blue Letter Bible app for more in depth study. When I use it, I will usually read the Matthew Henry Commentary and look at some of the Greek words to get a more full meaning for particular words.

I also LOVELOVELOVE the Fighter Verse app from Desiring God/Bethlehem Baptist. This is probably the most used app on my phone. It's only a one time purchase of a few dollars, and you are able to memorize scripture in a consistent way that is also fun! They have verses that Bethlehem Baptist is doing each week, options with pictures for kids, and you can also choose your own scripture to memorize and save in the app. There are also many ways to memorize the verses. You can play fill in the blank games and listen to a recording of the verse or passage. You can even SING the verses that the church is doing since they record a song for the verse each week! It has been such a help to my walk with God and bringing scripture to mind during the day.

Since I travel a lot for work I often use the Scripture memory app in the car in between appointments. On long drives I will also sometimes listen to sermons that I have downloaded. Technology is definitely something of great benefit, provided it is used well and with the ultimate goal of loving God and serving those around us.

Becky said...

I use a Matthew Henry Commentary app, and the Fighter Verse app too. Recommend both. I like to use the Sermon Audio app for catching up on what I miss. I love using the free ESV app from Crossway because it makes it easy to check cross references and do text searches. I can share from the Bible directly to social media or email.

I'd love it if we had an electronic payment option for tithes and offerings.