This Palm Sunday morning, I sat in my local church with my family as the congregation relived the passion and crucifixion as it’s chronicled in the gospel. And as a bonus, I got to watch the kids in front of us playing Angry Birds. Meanwhile, a college-age woman nearby stood alternating between reading the text and just texting. Lord, I know you said not to judge, but I confess I’m having a tough time doing otherwise here.
What happened in my little parish on Sunday wasn’t at all unusual. Nearly 20 percent of Americans admit to using their phones and similar devices in church and other places of worship. And with all that game playing and texting and tweeting and furtive, mumbled conversation going on, congregations are figuring out how to deal with the distraction. In some, that kind of behavior is grounds for serious retribution — and maybe the need for a new phone. Others try a more lighthearted approach, whimsically reminding worshipers to turn off their devices or risk “going to hell.” In a story last year, meanwhile, Church Tech Today weighed the merits of instituting a firm device ban or letting it slide, noting that for some pastors, ” You want to pick your battles — and cell phones just do not compare to pushing new believers and the lost that attend your church to read their Bible, serve the poor, and understand that God has something better for them.” And some churches, like St. Andrew’s in Pearland, Texas, figure that if you can’t beat them you might as well join them, and have Bring Your Cell Phone to Church Sunday services. There, members are encouraged to “Take at least one photo of our worship and post it on Twitter and/or Facebook and/or your Pinterest account.” The hope, Rev. Jim Liberatore told Episcopal News Service last year, is to use technology as a means of evangelizing, noting, “We are just trying to find ways where people are comfortable inviting friends, and so we thought this would be a good way of doing it.” Elsewhere, other churches have encouraged using mobile devices as a means of instant fundraising and Q&A participation during their services.
My own church remains mostly neutral on the subject of mixing Mass and devices. I’ve heard the pastor plead for restraint during group events like first communions and confirmations, asking family members to hold off on taking photos and movies during key liturgical moments. But beyond that, it’s a mostly laissez-faire place. And on bigger, more solemn church days – like Palm Sunday – I understand that it might not be appropriate for the pastor to interrupt the service to tell the assembled to cool it.
But I am not a laissez-faire person and I’m the one sitting behind those Angry Birds players, so I’d like to ask now: Cool it. I’m totally in favor of diversion. If you see me on the subway sometime with my 10-year-old daughter, she may well be immersed in a game of Kitten Jump or the creation of a doodle. And God knows I myself am not immune to the seductive power of Tetris or the urgent desire to post a Twitter update. I also know from experience that it’s not always easy to keep kids quiet and well-behaved for the duration of a church service. I also am willing to consider that God works in mysterious ways and that maybe for some, being in the community of a church on a Sunday morning – albeit with an iPad in hand – is the most spiritually beneficial place to be. Times change and church isn’t what it was when my grandmother wouldn’t be caught inside of one without a modest dress and a hat on her head. However, as a member of the same community that you, stealth Facebooker, are, I would like to have the option of not having your screen time competing for my devotional attention. I’d like to think it’s still possible for humans to go one waking hour a week without interacting with a phone or an iPad, and I’d like to think if you believe in something enough to get out of bed on your day off and assert your commitment to it, that you can also not check your email for that brief period of time you’re practicing it.
If we’re attending an all tweeting or Pinteresting service, let’s have at. If you’ve forgotten to turn off your phone and it rings at an inopportune moment, hey, it happens to everybody. If we’re at a ceremony like a wedding or baptism, I assume you’re texting a photo to Uncle Harry. If you as a parent decide you can bring your kids to church but not ask that they pay attention, that is your business. If the idea that part of the reason people go to church is to come together as a community and part of that means not mentally checking out isn’t what you’re in it for, OK. But I’d really appreciate it if you made a go of remembering that your cellphone is not invisible and that your iPad is actually pretty big. I’d like to tell you that a church service is not a sports bar. And the glowing images on your screen are not what my children and I signed up for. So just be thoughtful. Just be respectful of the people around you. Ask yourself, “Am I actually trying to get away with something here? In church?” And if you’re here because you believe Jesus died for you, maybe you could try turning off your iPad for an hour for him.