Phone use in church rises in Brookhaven, country: Although some use phones as their Bible, others get on social media

Published 9:55 am Friday, November 20, 2015

The pervasive nature of technology means cellphones have changed the landscape of certain social situations with regards to etiquette and engagement — one of them being church. Whether it is Facebook or the Bible on a member’s screen, most agree cellphones don’t belong in church, yet it is becoming more and more common.

Earlier this fall, the Pew Research Center published a report “Americans’ Views on Mobile Etiquette” that studied where Americans feel cellphone use is appropriate as well as the how their behavior reflects or contradicts that. Of eight situations ranging from walking down the street to family dinners, the lowest approval of cellphone use was during church or worship service. Only 4 percent of Americans said it was generally acceptable.

However, it happens, and with increasing frequency. Matt Powell, senior pastor at Easthaven Baptist Church in Brookhaven, said he sees cellphone use on Sundays more and more — tablets too.

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“I know for a fact that there are people that use it for their Bible or for taking notes,” Powell said. “I’m sure there are work situations where someone has to handle something, even in church, there are obvious work reasons that one might need to have it available. But people on their phones to read the bible — I don’t mind that at church.”

This is the case with at least some cellphone users, but not everyone is using their Bible app. An increasingly popular issue among churches, spelled out three ways different congregations go about addressing cellphone use. For Powell, if there are a few Facebookers or people texting during a service, it may just be par for the course.

“I don’t notice people texting in church — I know they do — but to me that’s just probably not a hill I want to die on,” Powell said. “I don’t know if I would ever address that, maybe if someone answered their phone in church and spoke over everyone I’d ask them to step outside, but it doesn’t bother me.”

For Powell, like many, the solution is to do nothing — after all, before there were cellphones people could just doodle on programs or do a crossword. Another approach is to ask that all cellphones be silenced and put away during worship. Some churches make quirky memos to play with their slideshows, some have signs or print it on programs. One popular YouTube video shows a preacher who was very straightforward and adamant about his disapproval of cellphones during worship when he broke a phone belonging to a member after it rang during a service.

“Obviously cellphones are a distraction. But they are a part of our lives,” Powell said. Powell said if he was working with someone one-on-one who found that his cellphone was distracting him personally, he would advise them to take steps to prevent distraction, but not as a blanket courtesy asked of every member.

In some larger or more contemporary churches, the solution is to embrace the technology and actually encourage cellphone use during the service as a way to be more engaged. Some youth groups or churches show a running Twitter feed on screens that show members’ tweets about the content of the service or particular Bible verses. Some may form games like polling the audience with questions, or even offering online giving so people can pay tithes and offerings with a mobile device.