When was the last time you left your cellphone behind when you left the house? If you are like most people, you probably cannot remember, or you remember finding yourself in an absolute panic when you got to the grocery store and realized that your beloved smartphone was either sitting on the counter at home or charging next to your bed. People have left work in order to go home and retrieve their cellphones. They have also turned around when they are only one or two stoplights away from the store in order to go home, get their cellphone, turn around, go back to the store and do their shopping rather than simply picking up a gallon of milk and box of cereal without their phone.
The obsession with cellphones in the modern world means that phones are omnipresent. People do not go anywhere without their phones, at least not deliberately. Even in professional settings when the last thing anyone should be doing is texting, making a phone call or scrolling through Facebook, people still sit with their phones face up on the table so that they can see any call, text, message or alert that their phone gives off.
People are not always wrong to panic when they lose track of their phones these days. Many people keep sensitive information on their phones. They have apps to enable them to do online banking. They store passwords in their notes. They have credit card numbers saved in shopping apps. No one bothers to remember or write down phone numbers or email addresses anymore, so the contact information for almost everyone they have ever met is stored on their phone and only on their phone. They use their phones to access their work email, read lab results from doctors, keep track of their investments and as a calendar where they schedule meetings with clients. In short, people keep their entire lives in devices about the size and weight of the average person’s hand.
Given that it would require a crowbar and several Olympic strongmen to pry most people away from their cellphones for any significant portion of time, it is no surprise that churches have begun debating what they should do about smartphones in church. Should they attempt to put out a moratorium on cellphone use during service? Some have tried that, only to find that enforcing the ban is all but impossible. Most people swear up and down that they would never use their phone during church. That would be so rude! Church, after all, is time meant to be spent with God! All that righteous energy, however, rushes out like the air from a punctured balloon the first time their phone buzzes with an incoming alert during the sermon. Parishioners also often use their phones to keep their children entertained. No one likes it when they cannot hear the Gospel because someone’s two year old is having an explosive temper tantrum in the back pew, and the parents are unwilling to leave the service to calm the child down. So, many parents will surrender their phones to chubby fingers as soon as a child starts getting whiny about wanting to go outside instead of listening to the pastor.
Phones have found their way into churches regardless of what some people may wish. The question, however, is whether or not phones belong in church. Should pastors simply surrender to the tide of incoming notifications and alerts, or should church leaders be insisting that church is for God not group texts?
Cellphones have their place, but phones can easily start creeping into areas where they do not belong. Using social media or group texts in order to recruit volunteers for the Easter potluck or carpool assignments for a Sunday school field trip makes perfect sense. The same is true of a pastor reading his sermon off a tablet or phone rather than a piece of paper or index cards. They are serving the same purpose. Church goers, however, need to be careful that cellphones do not start encroaching on the other services church offers. Church is meant to be at least somewhat social. That community building and sense of fellowship, however, does not exist when everyone who arrives at church before the service starts plants their butt in a pew and bends over their phone. Similarly, Bible studies should involve people talking to each other and discussing Scripture. Phones should be turned off and put aside in favor of opening Bibles and talking to Christian brothers and sisters.
Technology can be a wonderfully useful tool, but it can become a little too useful at times. It is far easier to simply hand a child a cellphone than it is to take them outside the church and soothe them. The duty of a parent, however, is to put their child first, not their own convenience. It is far more comfortable to giggle at funny memes than it is to greet a stranger and make conversation with someone you do not know. People tend not to join churches, however, where they feel unwelcome.
Cellphones are going to find their way into churches. Their overwhelming presence in people’s daily lives is always going to have phones sneaking into churches. The rise of Bible apps and online sermons only makes it seem more acceptable for Christians to glance at their phones during church. That does not mean, however, that phones belong in every sphere of the church. In some places, they might be useful. In others, they will only get in the way. There may be no putting the cellphone genie back into the bottle, but that does not mean that churches have to welcome phones with open arms. Christianity, after all, has withstood more fearsome forces than a few squares made of plastic and metal.