The Texture of Screens Amidst Communities of Faith: 3 Outstanding Issues with Smartphones in Church

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.


Published by

John Dyer

In my day job, I work at Dallas Theological Seminary, and at night I write Bible software for countries whose leaders could be called "overlords." This one time, I wrote a book about technology and Christian faith. You can find out more about what I'm up to at

27 thoughts on “The Texture of Screens Amidst Communities of Faith: 3 Outstanding Issues with Smartphones in Church”

  1. Repurposing the airplane mode so that Bible’s are available… if a BIble app isn’t usable in an offline context, shouldn’t that be an indicator that to some degree that the folks marketing/developing it don’t have or want to consider that type of usage – that is, non-connected, quiet, and w/o distraction?

    Light source… interesting observation (good one too).

    Gestures… uhmm; considering how folks are looking at “learning” gestures as some kind of new behavior, but also noting (many times) that is is “amazing that a child knows it without any training” might mean that we might want to start the conversation, or jump it in with behavior/interface folks as to why we think that the “fine motor skills” of holding a pen, turning a page, or holding a bound tome of paper is intelligence moreso than implicit manipulation of surfaces by near-direct input. I would argue that we’ve been putting the wrong emphasis on those motor skills as meaning some sense of civilization or intelligence, and therefore this “pecular” gesturing behavior might be seen as a measure of “we’ve finally evolved to being real masters of our visual/touch domain.”

    Always a good read John; thanks for the thinking piece

  2. Oh yea, if phones were so smart, why aren’t they already adapting the sounds and apps to the environmental context?

    Impossible for the iPhone folks to do w/o jailbreaking, but every other mobile platform seems to have a sense of being able to do what’s called Profiles: a set of sounds, and sometimes screen, features that are contextualized for a specific context.

    For example, Nokia’s Symbian devices come with the following profiles: Normal, Outdoors, Meeting, Silent, and Offline. Offline is equivelant to Airplane mode for most other mobiles. Silent mutes all sounds. Meeting doesn’t mute all, but it does render most sounds to a small, high frequency beep. Outdoors is loud as all get out. You can add 3rd party applications to automate these profiles, and also create custom ones. I have an app which looks through my calendar and automatically puts the device on the Meeting profile if there’s an event in that time period and then restores Normal when its done. Same app even does some nifty power saving and call ignore/SMS tricks when I’m in my sleeping time.

    If we are using smart devices, this should be the expectation of those using them. Perhaps the time period in church talking about putting phones on silent would be better served just teaching folks how their mobiles can do this?

  3. I’ve been using my phone for a while to read the Bible, keep notes, sync online, etc at church for the past 6 months or so. I think the first items by setting up a ‘Worship’ profile for notifications is the same thing the movie industry has been asking for years. I do it, not a big deal.

    For the screen issue, I always have used ‘Night-mode’ or dark themes for use in church. Basically it’s a black background with white text. It’s massively less intrusive both for me (keep me from glancing down) and when other people use it I’m rarely drawn to them.

    The gesture thing doesn’t seem like that big of a deal. Maybe it’s because I’m using a phone and not a tablet, but my movements are less intrusive than the turning of a book page.

    Interesting thoughts though.

    1. Trae,
      Sounds like you’re doing some good thinking on this. Last weekend, I was watching someone read the Bible with their iPad, I noticed that he was using night mode and I appreciated his attempt to be discreet. But that’s also what made me notice that it still cast an upward glow. Apparently the backlight is always on, so there is no true black. But you’re right that it’s probably a lot better than the normal mode.

  4. Great thoughts here, John. I think the idea of a “Worship Mode” is one worth pursuing. For me, I prefer to put my phone away because it is too easy to get an email or text and respond because my phone is already out.

    I get super distracted by people around me using their devices because I can’t help but wondering if they are actually looking at their bible and taking notes or just playing Angry Birds. I know I’ve been guilty of that a handful of times and I’m pretty sure no Bible or note taking app out there requires you to energetically swipe your finger across the screen!

    It will be interesting to see how churches respond as more and more people are using their devices in worship services.

    1. Kate, and perhaps this is just one of those questions all should contemplate, why does what someone else do on their personal device, that’s only within your line of vision, cause you to be distracted? Is that not one of those cases of “jumping into their closet” while also having the gesture of “being your brother’s keeper?” Seems like, at this is just me who focuses differently than others, that if we are distracted by what another is doing, and its more than because of the light it emits – we are admitting that we wonder what they are doing – then is the tech the issue at hand, or the fact that our eyes/minds need the kind of redemption we are hoping that others provide by considering our level of focus/discipline?

  5. I leave my phone in the car. The Missalette has always served its purpose just fine for me. I don’t want my kids (especially busy 2 and 4 yo kids) to think they can play with my phone during Mass. Maybe I’m stubborn or missing out on some amazing uses of Bible apps, but I don’t think my phone can contribute enough to my Mass experience to make it worth taking it in. I fight enough distractions without the phone added in.

  6. I don’t find it distracting when people use non-back lit Kindles. But I find ipads distracting because they emit light that catches your eye every once in a while. Its certainly not as bad as shining a flashlight around the auditorium. But it’s the same effect to a much lower degree.

    Similarly, I’ve found that when preachers speak from ipads, unless the platforms lights are exceptionally bright, you see that strange blue glow on their faces from time to time. Perhaps this is something I just need to get used to. But at this point, it reminds me of the light cast on a face that is too close to a TV screen.

  7. My thought: get over it.

    What I would pay money for is some (unobtrusive!) technology that will filter out fragrances. The headache generated from proximity to perfumes is WAY more distracting.

    Which reminds me of an observation that has been made before, paraphrased here: one man’s distraction is another man’s tool for concentration.

    1. Barbara,
      The tenor of this post is designed to acknowledge that the presence of phones in church will only increase and at the same time address some of the issues we’ll face going forward.

      I don’t think it’s helpful for anti-technology people to say, “Just don’t use them,” but neither do I find the “Get over it” approach particularly helpful. Both seek to autocratically define what a community should or shouldn’t do without engaging in the hard work of helping both young and old, tech-savvy and tech-fearful, confront what’s happening.

  8. Thank you for addressing this issue. I have a Kindle Fire and often have felt like a “techy” in church but I have very poor eyesight and it is so much easier to read. Here is another thought on the issue… If I am leading someone to Christ at the church altar with my pad, is it going to be so distracting to them?? I say for now, yes. Whats your thoughts?

  9. Interesting thoughts!

    Whether some like it or not digital devices are here to stay and are on the increase.

    I think churches have to figure out how to utilise them to help people go further in their discipleship. Rather than hope that they will go away.

    Totally agree about the light interference issue!

  10. Tap me on the shoulder if you catch me playing games, but I use You Version in night mode on my Nook, because the lighting is dimmed when the teaching occurs, as I can barely follow along in my print Bible. The trade-off for me is that I can no longer write notes in the margins, but at least I can read the text.

    1. Turning auditoriums into black boxes is a definite problem. Not only does it cause issues with reading the Scriptures, as pointed out here, it makes the people spectators rather than participants with one another.

  11. Some particular tools and technologies help redeem and heal people while others only assist to distract and corrupt. All tools and technologies have structural biases, it’s our job to be cognitive of them and reduce the harmful influences of some and elevate the ones that help (even if it’s at the most infinitesimal level).

    If someone could make a Bible app for smartphones that when launched opens up the Bible translation you prefer and automatically shuts down voice and text notifications to help reduce distractions during worship. This app would help move the needle ever so slightly towards helping and redeeming.

  12. I have brought my iPod Touch in once and used my Bible app (Logos) on it to follow along with the Scripture reading, figuring I’d need to explain to those sitting around me, and hoping they might find it cool after I showed it to them. But there wasn’t much discussion, and I haven’t brought it back again since. It was actually pretty pointless using it since the Scripture is printed in our bulletin anyway, and what with navigating and all, I wasn’t able to do anything *but* follow along.

    I’ve never seen anyone else whip out a digital device during the service. Nor have I ever heard a cell phone go off. On the other hand, a fellow photographer in the congregation and I have on several occasions done some shooting during the service, for our website and other purposes. People are pretty accepting of that by now, though at first we had to ask permission and apologize in advance for the disruption.

  13. I started in the early 2000s using the wonderful Laridian Bible software on Palms and Sony Cliés, later iPhones with YouVersion, all during services and Bible studies. I hope I’ve come across as only doing so out of seriousness of learning what’s being taught.

    Thanks for reminding me that I need to stay aware that I not be a distraction to others. I do need that reminder!

  14. Great issues to raise, John. We’re still in a liminal period where gadgets in the pew are a bit of novelty, but that is changing, and we are wise to proactively think about how to shape the way this transition develops. As increased usage is likely, I believe the best thing we can do is to find as many creative ways to employ these gadgets for redemptive purposes in the pew and to further engage people. I quickly learned in college that I learned far better by taking notes in class instead of just listening to a lecture – and better still from dialoguing about something I heard. As an almost 50-year old adult, I often need to think hard about what a sermon was about earlier that day if I simply sat listening to it. However, if I tweet key points or reflections while listening, I find my retention is much better, and I’ve opened a door for dialogue.

    This issue really touches on many other shifts taking place in how live, learn, communicate,…. The Church needs to be a good student of these shifts and grappling with how to think about them theologically, how to adapt, etc.

    Thanks for keeping us thinking!

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