Sacred Cell Phones: How to Deal With Device Etiquette in Church

Sacred Cell Phones: How to Deal With Device Etiquette in Church

June 17, 2019 by

Martin Cooper, a Motorola employee, made the first mobile phone call more than 40 years ago—on April 3, 1973. Nearly 20 years later, Neil Papworth sent the first SMS (“Merry Christmas”). Apple introduced the first iPhone in 2007, the same year Facebook went mobile. In 2008, the App Store launched with 500 apps (there are now more than 2 million), and in 2012, Candy Crush became the preferred way to avoid talking to strangers while in line at Target.

These days, we adults spend an average of 3 hours, 43 minutes on mobile devices every day.  And if the grouchiness of church leaders is any indication, churchgoers have conspired to make Sunday mornings at 9:15 one of those hours.

“It Looks Bad”

The year was 2010. The first iPad had just been released, and I’d managed to justify getting one. I was sitting in the back row of the church where I worked, tucked under the media booth, minding my own business. And by “minding my own  business” I mean “taking notes on the sermon on my fancy new toy tool.”

During that week’s worship design meeting, I was chided for being  “on my device” during the sermon.

“But I was taking notes!”

“Doesn’t matter.”

“What do you mean it doesn’t matter?”

“It doesn’t matter what you were doing. It looks bad.”

“Looks bad to whom?”

“To the congregation. You’re on staff, Kelley.  We can’t have our church family thinking you’re messing around on your iPad during the sermon.”


Come As You Are, But Not Plugged In

Device shaming. It’s a real thing, friends. Now, maybe your church is all-in on tech. Maybe you have your own app and you encourage people to follow along in YouVersion. Maybe you do text questions, polls, and ask people to check in on Facebook and live-tweet the sermon. That’s fabulous.

But there are a whole bunch of churches out there—maybe even yours—that whole-heartedly believe tech is the devil and has no business in church. At the very least, they think pulling out your cell phone in church is “rude” and people ought to sit up, keep their eyes forward, and “OH MY GOSH ARE YOU CHEWING GUM RIGHT NOW? Don’t you know you’re in GOD’S HOUSE?”

Here’s my take on all of that: We can’t tell folks, “Come as you are” and with the next breath wag our finger at them over something as ubiquitous as answering a text message. Now, don’t come at me with arguments about “giving in to culture” and “just because the world does it, doesn’t mean the church should” and “we’re called to be different.” I’m with you when it comes to things like generosity and compassion, but I just don’t buy the idea that it’s wrong or bad to use mobile technology in the sanctuary.

Y’all, I’m pretty sure Jesus would’ve taken text questions during the Sermon on the Mount. Don’t you roll your eyes at me. I’m serious. Jesus strikes me as the by-any-means-necessary type, and if he thought for one minute that answering a text message would connect someone to his love, he’d have done it. He put on human clothes for three decades, for crying out loud. These days, cell phone use would be the least of  his concerns.

But I digress.

Church-Centered Perspective

The crux of the problem is that most of the device-related complaints I’ve heard are church-centered, rather than congregation-centered, and they sound something like, “People should be paying attention in church, not messing around with their phones.” To me that smacks of arrogance. We, the church, are going to tell you, the churchgoer (believer, seeker, skeptic), the “right” way to be in our space. We, the church, know what’s best for you, and it’s absolutely not making lunch plans with your friend during the Lord’s prayer.

But what if that friend is struggling? And what if our “rude” device-using congregation member texts, “Hey, I’m at church but I can meet you after?” and then her friend responds, “What church do you go to? I’ve been looking for one?”

Or what if the pastor quotes a scripture passage, and it reminds me of another one so I go looking for that, and what if I have a moment right there with the Holy Spirit, but it has nothing whatsoever to do with what the pastor’s saying right now? You’re telling me that’s “rude”? No way. It’s like churches think their church staff is solely responsible for any “God moments” that might happen in their auditoriums, and they get all bent out of shape if people aren’t paying attention to all their hard work.

Here’s another thing. Every one of our churches is trying to grow. We should probably stop acting like ruler-wielding nuns, primed to smack the knuckles of everyone who forgets to silence their phone, and start acting like people who don’t just say we’ll meet you where you are but actually mean it.

Am I ranting? I’m ranting. Forgive me. Let me flip this around.

Discipleship Via Device

What if, instead of shaming people for using their devices, we leverage it for discipleship? Even during the Sunday morning gathering. Sure, someone might miss a mic-drop point from the platform, but they may gain something else.

Practically speaking:

  1. Use YouVersion and invite your congregation to do the same. It’s not only a mobile Bible; it’s also a place to post sermon notes, share valuable content, and build community through reading plans. And it’s free. (Get some stellar ideas with the Courageous Storytellers resource, “How YouVersion Can Boost Engagement During Services”; not a member? Join now.)
  2. Encourage generosity through text-to-give programs or, at the very least, a mobile giving option. You already invite the ushers to come forward for your offering. Add a quick sentence like, “For you tech-savvy folks, you’re welcome to pull out your phone and give through our app.”
  3. Run a text poll before or during worship to boost engagement. Your question doesn’t have to be overly theological or profound—like, “What’s the most confusing thing about God?” It could be a fun, pre-service poll about favorite lunch spots. People love to feel like they’re a part of something—even something as seemingly inconsequential as a poll.

And whatever you do, don’t jump to conclusions about someone’s cell phone use:

  • They could be using it because they’re bored—or they could be processing strong emotions after an intense worship song.
  • They could be messing around on Instagram—or they could be sharing one of those mic-drop insights with their followers.
  • They could be browsing Amazon or Pinterest—or they could be finally researching treatment centers (maybe even because of something your host said from the platform.)
  • They could be engrossed in Candy Crush—and they could be listening to the sermon at the same time.

Listen, I know our sanctuaries are supposed to be sacred spaces. But our devices aren’t necessarily not sacred. As with most things, it’s not an either/or. It’s not sacred or cell phone. It can absolutely be both.


Our Courageous Storytellers membership site is focused on resources for the mobile web this month. Take a look at what’s available and consider joining.

Post By:

Kelley Hartnett

Kelley Hartnett spent more than a decade working in established churches and helping to launch new ones. She recently launched Tall Tree Collective, which helps nonprofits craft messages that inspire people to get behind their cause. Kelley formerly served as the membership director for our Courageous Storytellers Membership Site and is the author of You've Got This: A Pep Talk for Church Communicators.
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