I’ve attended church with my family for my entire life, but I’ve noticed a stark change in the last few visits to our non-denominational Christian congregation: A startling number of people around me spent the sermons glued to smartphones and tablets.
Even my dad, a classic Midwestern disciplinarian, pulled out his iPhone and put it on his lap for easy access right as I was turning mine off for the first time that week. He and the others that I spotted through some good old-fashioned pew snooping weren’t using their gadgets to scroll through Twitter or play Candy Crush, though — they were following along with the pastor in the pulpit as he read passages in the Bible, which happens often in non-denominational services focused on interpreting and applying scripture to daily life.
Smartphones are inescapable in nearly every facet of modern life, but for me, the church was the final, sacred, screen-free space. I work with tech every day, wear a smartwatch 24/7, and typically sleep with my phone, so I use service as an opportunity to meditate on faith with no chance of being interrupted by push notifications. I admit that I’m worried about succumbing to temptation, too; it would be all too easy to flick through Instagram to check out my friends’ Sunday morning brunch pics instead of concentrating on the message.
Apparently, my tech-free worship policy is becoming uncommon. Faith and technology are far from incompatible — nuns are huge on Snapchat, y’all — but bringing an active link to the internet directly into the inner sanctum on the Sabbath, where the “earthly” world is actively pushed aside for communion with God, was jarring for me.
Unsurprisingly, Bible-centric apps have caught on with Christian audiences. Other faiths have their own apps for their holy books and ceremonies, too — but by far the most popular of them, YouVersion (nearly 300 million installations to date), is designed for Protestant Christians. The free app offers hundreds of digitized translations of the sacred text and more in an experience more akin to a modern lifestyle brand than a stuffy religious tome, replacing leather bound, gilded-paged King James version with the phones congregants already carry with them everywhere they go.
The popularity of the app would be astounding to someone like Martin Luther, who famously translated the text in the 16 century so common (literate) people outside of the clergy could read it. A free app is the ultimate realization of that effort to bring the Word to the masses, even if its potential impact isn’t immediately apparent to those of us who’ve grown accustomed to living with the world’s information at our fingertips.
The Gospels’ message wasn’t meant to be bound to the physical media on which it was transcribed, but the book has become a potent symbol in its own right. Part of my aversion to an app-based scripture experience is the veneration I have for the actual object — receiving a physical copy of the Bible was a rite of passage for kids in our congregation, and I remember memorizing verses to earn my own.
This gadget-filled worship phenomenon points to changing perspectives within communities of faith, which should be heartening to anyone worried by the dropping service attendance levels in the U.S. Modern life increasingly takes place online, and churches are making the jump, too.
In New York City, international megachurch Hillsong has a massive social media presence, and I often see snapshots friends post on Instagram from its locations that look like they came from an arena rock show. Those pics could be even more effective in drawing new congregants and the interest of nonbelievers than old-school evangelizing — the FOMO is real. My own more traditional church back home, Parkside, even streams sermons online, helping me feel like I haven’t left the community even though I live hundreds of miles away.
I finally tried the YouVersion app for pre-bedtime devotions and scripture study, and its convenience and utility has won me over. I can jump from standalone chapters to devotional studies without skipping a beat, making it easier to study my faith at home where other distractions can totally throw me off.
One thing I’ll never do, however, is use the app in the middle of a sermon in church. My congregation’s pastor, Alistair Begg, agrees.
“I am not a fan of using digital devices in place of one’s Bible when listening to preaching,” he told me via email. “There are enough distractions and hindrances without adding the temptation to check emails and text messages and sporting fixtures. Our Bibles, bearing our thumb prints and notes and quotes will be treasured by our grandchildren in a way that will never be true of our iPads.”
Some things just need to stay sacred.