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Handheld devices in church?

Use of mobile.biblegateway.com on an average Sunday morning, according to Bible Gateway

When I saw this chart (which I found via my TC colleague David Ker at futurebible) I could hear the alarmists worrying out loud: Using cell phones and blackberries in church! Is nothing—or no place—sacred anymore? It reminded me of this article on how Mars Hill Church in Seattle encourages worshipers to Twitter about the service as they worship, and the uneasy feeling I had while reading it.

But even though using handheld devices in church can be problematic—and would never fly at my church—I think there are ways and reasons to redeem them for worship. Here are five reasons I thought I SHOULD want to ban handhelds from church but, upon reflection, do NOT.

1. Church should be a sacred time and place to disconnect from our technology-laden lives.
Yes, but too late for that. Just about every worship space in our hemisphere is wired from floor to ceiling, at least for lights and amplification, and often with a projector and screen and other gadgets. Almost every worship space has a clock, and every worshiper has a watch, which is an abominable intrusion of industrial culture into the sacred space of worship. Books, hymnals, and paper bulletins are a form of handheld technology of their own, though with fewer bytes. Technology-free worship is a great idea; I've just never seen it done.
2. Handheld devices distract you from worship.
Yes, and we shouldn't take that lightly, especially when it's as easy and tempting to click over to ESPN.com as BibleGateway. But for me at least, the core problem is in my head, not in my hands: my own trains of thought are the biggest threat to my attentiveness in worship. I thought this was just a modern, television-era problem, but then I came across a book called A Remedy for Wandering Thoughts in the Worship of God. It was first published in the year 1673.
There's also a chance that a handheld device can enhance attentiveness, keeping a worshiper focused on the passage or, via BibleGateway or a Bible iPhone app (a few of which I plan to review in a future post), delving deeper into it with cross-references, Hebrew or Greek roots, or other study tools. And Twittering is just another way—potentially a more dynamic and communal way—to take notes.
Finally, I shouldn't say this, but we've all heard some sermons so incoherent or unimaginative that no one would naturally be attentive to them. Funny how during a really good sermon (like one by Mary Hulst or Neal Plantinga; find examples here), my mind doesn't wander at all.
3. Reading the Bible on a small screen rather than in a book leads you to pick verses out of their context.
Yes, but again, too late. Too many preachers, and too many listeners, are too proficient in the art of sound-biting the Bible and ignoring the context of a chapter, book, or genre, for me to blame it on technology. And many churches sound-bite the Bible already by printing the verse that is being preached on in the bulletin or projecting it on the screen. Many Bible iPhone apps at least require you to scroll through an entire chapter to find a verse.
4. Being glued to your screen during church makes you focused on yourself and forget those you're worshiping with.
Yes, but so can singing out of a hymnal (unless you share it with someone), singing with your eyes closed, praying with your eyes closed, hearing a sermon as addressed to only you personally and not the church collectively, sitting next to or near people without knowing their names, and even simply sitting in the front row where you can't see anyone else. I actually think Twittering could help me feel more connected to people to whom I'd otherwise be oblivious during worship, though again, it won't happen at my church anytime soon.
5. You shouldn't take your idols to church.
Yes, and I confess that few things in my life are as much of an idolatrous object of my desire as is my iPod Touch. But as I note in my book, in the Old Testament the Israelites would take pagan plunder from a city they conquered and put it in the temple, to rededicate it to God. Why not do the same with our idols?
Extra credit question: Would it be good or bad if ThinkChristian traffic surged on Sunday mornings?

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