A View from the Pew: Looking at Your Phone During Church

A question that has surfaced in my mind during these strange times is “When is it okay to look at your phone during church?”

Not that long ago it would have been unthinkable to pull out your phone while we are at church. After witnessing fellow church goers suffer the embarrassment of their ringing cell phone disrupting the service, we moved into a phase when we turned our phones off when we got to church.

The progression, or regression, continued to just silencing our phones. This avoided the distracting noise but still permitted stealth phone viewing. We have now arrived at the place where we have church in our pajamas, so looking at our phone during church is the least offensive thing we could do.

Added to this disintegration of church etiquette is our total addiction to our portable screens. A few months of not being able to worship in person now threatens to undermine our sense of decorum completely. Just as we have not been as conscientious about wardrobe and grooming during the pandemic-induced lock down, we have become desensitized about what is appropriate and inappropriate to do with our phones during church, to say nothing of our propensity for doomscrolling through social media for more and more bad news.

To help us get the most out of worship, whether in person or on screen, here is my take on a few common phone temptation scenarios:

The Time. You know the old saying? “A timed sermon never ends.” When you look at your phone to see the time, you are sending the message to others, including the preacher and your family beside you, that you are bored. And even if you are, it’s not polite to announce it.

Sports Scores. No. Obviously. In the past, there weren’t many sports accumulating scores between 11 a.m. and noon on Sundays, but these days, fans of any number of sports might be tempted to sneak a peek. For example, I know people who want to know the scores from soccer games in Europe, or of a tennis match elsewhere in the world. There are also NFL games that take place in London, which start at 9 a.m. Eastern. None of this matters as much as your worship, and you won’t be able to affect the outcome of that score anyway.

Texts Messages. Here I would refer you to any number of “don’t text and drive” campaign slogans: “It can wait,” “When you’re distracted, who’s driving (worshiping)?” and “The road (pew) is no place to socialize.” When I get a text during church, I’m always a little embarrassed that I’ve done such a good job hiding the fact I’m a churchgoer that the person texting me doesn’t automatically know I’m in church. I do offer some leniency for texters from different time zones, but still, there isn’t anything in that text that can’t wait until church gets out, unless you are in a profession that previously required you to wear a pager, back when that was a thing.

Social Media. No, no and no. Don’t peruse your platforms during church. See notes above on “Time” and “Sports Scores.” This can definitely wait. Even if the preacher mentions that Sister Jubers has the epizootic, don’t go looking on Facebook to see if she posted from the bingo hall last night. It is not good for your soul to be scrolling through social media during church. It makes you judgmental or anxious, and you will miss the part in the sermon that God and the preacher put in there just for you.

Livetweet the Sermon. Y’all, it’s not 2009. When I worked as a communicator for a faith-based nonprofit, I was forced to do this, and it’s a total drag. It’s impossible to keep up. You’ll get carpal tunnel syndrome in your thumbs before the invitation. You’ll make typos that could potentially change the meaning of the sermon. And honestly, nobody is reading your livetweet. Just listen. Take notes on actual paper if you want to remember a cogent point. And if you want to tell someone about that point afterward, by all means, tweet away.

Fact Check the Sermon. This can wait until the post-church argument with your family in the car on the way home, or at lunch, like people used to do back in more God-fearing days. Just assume that when the preacher said “Then, Jonah got into the ark,” he simply misspoke. If the point in question is more nuanced, a conversation with your fellow believers afterward is probably the best way to reason out what the pastor might have meant.

Read Scripture on you Bible app. I used to allow myself to do this on Wednesday nights at Bible study, mostly because I was coming from work and sometimes forgot to put my Bible in my car that morning. A Bible app is easy to download and free. But like everything else that started off as simply a great resource, these apps are now loaded with attention stealing ads and pop-ups that can distract you from the Scripture you’re supposed to be reading. It’s also so easy to open your Twitter app and start doomscrolling once your phone is unlocked in your hand.

Contact from the Nursery. If you know there are issues with your child that may cause the nursery workers to send out an S.O.S., it may be okay, in limited circumstances to keep an eye on your phone. The life of your child, and the sanity of the childcare volunteers, may depend on it. But they also know you’re in the sanctuary if there is an emergency.

Find a Restaurant for Lunch. See “fact check sermon” above. In fact, I’m pretty sure it’s part of the order of worship: “Hymn of response. Benediction. Postlude. Find restaurant.” Looking for a place to eat during church will only frustrate you. By the time you get there, all the tables will have been taken by the Methodists anyway.

Look up a Movie/Song Referenced in the Sermon. This is a total rabbit hole. If you don’t get the reference instantly, just know that your preacher isn’t trying to make any other point beyond whatever they actually said in front of you. Wait until after church to read reviews of that movie or the lyrics for that song.

In short, don’t let your phone get in the way of your worship. It can sneak up on you, particularly while we have been having alternative forms of worship during the pandemic, and when no one may see our phone usage but us.

When you go to church, just try to be present and experience what God has for you. It’ll be way better than what’s blinking at you on your phone.

Lance Wallace is a Baptist layperson and member of Parkway Baptist Church in Johns Creek, GA. He earns a living in higher education communications and writes a blog at newsouthessays.com.

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