My Hebrew is a little rusty.

Devices in the Pews

As more people make the move from regular cell phones to smart phones and tablets, many want to use the “smart” features during worship services to access the Scriptures, take notes, and even interact with the pastor. This has led to an ongoing, though fairly quiet debate about the proper place of such devices in church.

Some churches have responded by creating fun videos asking people to turn off their phones during the service while others have tried encouraging the use of participatory texting during certian special services. Regarding twitter in church, back in 2009 Josh Harris discouraged it, and the same discussion is still going on today.

Christian tech companies are also driving the discussion by creating new ways to for churches to employ mobile devices during the services. YouVersion, for example, has been pioneering various group-based applications for several years (see YouVersion Live). Logos, known for its Bible software, recently release Proclaim a cloud-based presentation application that lets users with the Logos app on their mobile devices sync up to the Bible passage on screen.

Non-Biblical Smartphone Usage on the Rise?

When I first started seeing phones used at my church, I guessed that even though there were all these great Bible apps, most people would probably be surfing the web or texting. To my surprise, however, these early adopters were almost always reading the Bible.

That was a few years ago. Over time, as such devices have become more common and perhaps even accepted, I’ve started noticing more of the “non-Biblical” (ha!) uses of smart phones that I had initially expected.

As a tech lover, part of me wants to write this off as just the same sort of thing that I did as a kid in the balcony of my church. Sure, phones have games and web browsers, but give my twelve-year-old self a prayer card and a pencil, and I could spend the entire service making a perfect scale model of an F-15 fighter jet.

Personally, I like using my phone as a Bible because it means I have one less thing to bring to church, and I can check multiple versions. And yet, as I’ve watched my fellow churchmates over the past few years, I’ve noticed three things that I think make mobile devices stand out as a new and different kind of distraction.

Three Ways Phones Are Different

1. Distractions from Without

Yes, I made this amazing image myself

As a kid, my distractions came from an unfocused mind and willing friends sitting next to me. But in the age of mobile phones, our distractions come not from the daydreams of our own minds, but from outside sources through the conduits created by AT&T, Verizon, and Sprint.

Most of us have gotten pretty good at setting our phones to vibrate so that a ring doesn’t distract others. And yet, by doing so, we are still saying, “As I worship the God of the universe, I want to allow things outside this building to get my attention.” Even if we’ve made a commitment not to play games or setup that appointment during the service, once we feel a vibration in our pockets, it requires considerable discipline not to at least glance down and see who or what caused it.

Perhaps then we need to repurpose the Airplane mode in church so that Bible apps are still available (at least the ones that work offline), but text message and Twitter alerts (which I get constantly, since I’m so huge there) can’t come through.

2. Alien Light Sources

Desaturated a bit for effect

I’ve often heard people say they find it distracting when someone else uses their phone or tablet during a church services. I used to think this was just that people were annoyed with new things or that they were jealous or judgmental of people who had money to spend on iPads.

But after watching closely, I think the main reason why devices seem so intrusive to many is that light from the screen is unlike everything else around it. As your eye scans about during a church service (or the photo above), you see all kinds of familiar textures and colors: skin, hair, clothing, wood, plastic, metal, and so on. But among those relatively flat and natural objects, a screen stands out like a lightsaber.

The saturation and brightness levels between screens and everything else are so different, your eye can’t help but notice the screen even among the vestments and trappings of the Roman leaders. Screens also casts light upward from themselves onto the hands and face of their users, making them stand out even more than if they had a Jimmy Carter Study Bible. Even when the screen is in “night-mode” (black background with white text), the backlight from the screen still casts light upwards onto its user.

3. Non-Charismatic Hand Motions

Use the Force, Luke.

The human mind is amazingly adept at filtering inputs and figuring out which ones are just background noise and which are so different that we should pay attention to them. Because o this, our minds don’t alert us when someone crosses their legs, takes a sip of coffee, or turns the page of a Bible.

But when someone starts tapping, swiping, and pinching at a device, our just can’t ignore it because they are not yet trained to do so. The entire computer industry knows that touch devices are radically different than anything that has come before and even the most cutting edge companies are still trying to figure out the best way for humans to use them. So it shouldn’t surprise us that these new gestures so readily capture our attention, standing out from all other human activities.

What To Do!?

So can these issues be overcome? Are phone doomed to destroy worship or can we gradually figure out how to use safely incorporate them?

The first issue (outside notifications) can be solved fairly easily. It just requires individual discipline and a community willing to talk through what’s acceptable within its culture. The easy recommendation is that in addition to setting the phone to vibrate, you should also turn off all notifications. It’s just 75 minutes, you can do it!

The second issue (screen lights), however, will likely only be solved by different technology. The early e-ink style Kindle’s were much less distracting since the lack of a backlight made them texturally similar to books, clothing, and other “normal” things. Perhaps one day, there will be fast, color e-ink like displays that don’t require a backlight, but for now their glow will continue to catch our eyes.

The third issue (gestures), will probably work itself out over time. Today, when a cell phone rings church, we certainly notice but its become so common that we are able to filter out it much more quickly than we did ten years ago. Eventually these gestures will probably become so common that we won’t consider them so distracting.

Until then, I have two simple recommendations. First, if you’re a tech lover like me, let’s be as vigilant as possible in self-evaluating our own tech usage especially around others. It’s all too easy for us to dismiss those who question our technology as backward, but we must acknowledge that we live and worship alongside others. Second, if you like me also find yourself suspicious of those who pull out their phones in church, let’s remember to be as gracious as possible. Let’s not immediately assume they are playing Angry Birds, but instead hope for the best and then if we have a relationship with the person, then talk openly about it, asking for mutual encouragement and accountability. Only when we approach one another with grace and truth will we be able to handle the changes that are coming.


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