Sunday, September 18, 2011

Smartphones Come To Church

Several weeks ago we began an experiment in worship at the congregation I am privileged to serve, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church– Unitarian Universalist in Charlottesville, Virginia.  It is an expansion of an idea I first saw discussed on the UU Worship Lab, a FaceBook group dedicated to exploring the art and science of worship.

At the beginning of the service we ask that people silence their cell phones but leave them on.  Near the end of the service, during the Offering/Offertory, we ask everyone to think of a person or people who had had an impact on their lives and who are not in the sanctuary this morning.  Congregants are invited hold these people in their hearts and minds, or to take out their mobile devices and text, tweet, FaceBook, or e-mail those people.  In this way, we've said, we can each make an offering not only of our financial support, but also of our reaching out to others.

After the first service in which we did this one person said to me, “I’ve never been told to text in church before!”  And it is clear that many people have eagerly taken up the invitation.  I’m sure that not everyone is happy about it, though.  I know that there are some people who think of the sanctuary on Sunday mornings as just that – a sanctuary.  And one of the things these people are wanting a peaceful haven from is the incessant bombardment of all things tech.  Why, then, in this of all places, should we be inviting people to engage in such behavior?

Why indeed?  I’ve been thinking about this a lot leading up to actually giving it a try.  Is it just a fad?  An attempt to reach out to younger people?  A novel way of saying, “We’re hip and cool; give us a try”?

Perhaps.  All of these are certainly possible and, I’d be the first to admit, probable at some level.  And yet I think that there’s more to it than this.  And as I looked for what it is, I’ve found myself thinking about Martin Luther.

That sixteenth century German priest sparked a revolution, in part, because of his belief that all baptized Christians constituted a holy priesthood – “the priesthood of all believers” – and his insistence on translating the Bible from Latin into the German vernacular so that it was accessible to more people.  Both of these ideas were scandalous at the time.  I also think that both of these ideas are present in the idea of including a time for tweeting in our service.

For a generation of people, the smart phone (and related devices) are not just tools or gadgets – they are truly an extension of self.  This may not be true for me, or even you, but it is undeniably true for many people in our world today.  They have grown up texting one another even while talking to someone else, and the ability to make immediate comments on and connections with what’s happening around them is taken for granted.

I don’t think that it’s too much of a stretch to say that texting, tweeting, instant messaging, and the like are a part of the vernacular of this generation.  And just as Luther came to realize that insisting on a Latin Mass was keeping his generation of Christians away from a deeper connection with their faith, I can’t help wondering if our “no cell phone” policies are doing the same thing for this generation. 

Think about it for a moment.  For those who do use such devices regularly, anything and everything that’s considered at all relevant is instantly shared with a circle of cyber “friends” who, then, comment in return.  And yet in church, which I believe should be the most relevant of experiences in the week, this behavior is actively discouraged.

As an aside, for those who think that encouraging the use of these handheld devices would be distracting – either to the people doing it or the people near to them – how many of our congregations forbid knitting during the service?  I known of parishioners who bring their mail into worship and pay their bills.  I’ve even heard of a parishioner who brought his copy of the New York Times and would unfold it and read it during the sermon.  Is quietly sending a text any more disturbing to the “sanctity of the hour” than that?

And from the point of view of those for whom this is all second nature, not doing these things is distracting!  Imagine, if you’re a note taker, that you were forbidden to bring a pencil into worship.  Or, if you like to close your eyes to focus on what you’re hearing, you found that the church had instituted an “eyes wide open” policy.  And yet this is exactly what we do when we tell everyone that they must turn off and put away these extensions of self.

At first, we're limiting the use of these electronics to this one place in the service and this one purpose, to reach out to people who aren't with us in the sanctuary.  (Although folks have confessed to me that they've taken advantage of the invitation to text the spouse who was sitting right next to them!)  But who knows?  I recently came across a video advertising the free services of YouVersion Live, a way to seamlessly interact with worship leaders and fellow congregants during worship on your mobile phone.  Some of the things they suggest seem odd to me; some seem amazingly useful.

I hope that there'll be conversation about this idea.  I hope, even more, that others will be encouraged to give it a try so that we can learn from one another's actual experiences (rather than simply sharing all of our own biased and preconceived assumptions).

 In Gassho,

Rev. Wik
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Diane Miller said...

Service last year included posting about it on Facebook, and tweet from the pulpit (from the student minister, not I). Many people pulled out a device and commented real time on Facebook about being in church. During Offering is when our choir does an anthem. I'd rather have a communications minute. You don't have to have a smart phone to text people, BTW. That said, this weekend I bought a new smart phone for a 17 y/o living here, because he wanted a QUERTY keypad, but he discovered that the phone generates texts from voice, so he just speaks into it to send a text message. You could soon end up with a very loud room of people dictating into their phones.

Babsie said...

Erik, you might like this:


RevWik said...

Thanks, Barbara. What a fascinating article.