Ecclesiology and Media Practices: Will Gadgets, Twitter and Anti-Tech Attitudes Divide Churches? (@Byers_Andy)

I went from ministering to 20-somethings to 60- and 70-somethings almost overnight. I had spent four years as a student minister, then took a post as a pastor to a small Baptist congregation comprising mostly pensioners. After two years with this precious congregation, I went back into student ministry.

Something had changed.

I began noticing that several of the students were fiddling with their mobiles while I was preaching.

Eventually, a few students came and explained that they were not texting or gaming on their phones, but reading the sermon text and taking notes. I had judged them prematurely, assuming they were so addicted to their fancy communications devices that they could not resist playing with them on the front rows during a sermon.

 The Ecclesiology of Media Practices

In a previous post, I wrote about the spirituality of media practices, how we sometimes correlate our media preferences with spiritual maturity/immaturity. In this post, I am wondering out loud, if you will, about how our media practices threaten to divide (or perhaps even unite) our churches.

We should note that hand-held devices are becoming more and more a part of our experience of “church” today. Scanning the sanctuary, one might notice notepads and Bibles on laps well as iPads and smartphones in palms. Eyebrows are raised from time to time: what are those people really doing with their gadgets? Are they reading a Bible app, checking the stocks, or  playing Angry Birds? 

Another point of contention is the use of Twitter during a worship service.  Some folks are quite passionate that Tweeting meaningful lyrics from a praise chorus or striking lines from the sermon are actually an important new dimension to church-life enabled by recent technology. Others view Tweeting in church as a distraction, as evidence of not being fully present in the actual worship experience.

I am wondering—does all this mean that churches (or even denominations) will need to develop their own social media policies?

As technological devices become increasingly present in worship services, then church leaders may realize the need to put such a policy in place, along with a degree of education about those devices and their potential benefits and detriments. My guess is that clergy are already beginning to hear complaints about so-and-so playing with their iPhone during the sermon. And there may be other complaints coming from YouVersion users who feel judged by the folks sitting next to them in the pews.

It seems entirely reasonable to guess that technologically-savvy Christians might start selecting churches on the basis of a given church’s media culture.

I admit that the following is a bit caricatured, but you know those church marquis signs that have been iconic emblems of traditional American churches? I could imagine one of those signs reading:

Tweeters Welcome!

or, negatively:

It was an Apple that got us into this mess in the first place. No iPads allowed.

Two Guiding Texts for Personal Media Use in Church

Whether church leadership teams will have to craft official social media policies or not, I think a good place to begin for each of us personally have to do with our attitudes to other believers in honor of Christ. Here are two texts:

For the media skeptics: “Judge not, that you be not judged” (Mt 7:1). Let’s be careful about jumping to conclusions about how the neighbor in the pew may be using their smartphone. They could be streaming sermon notes to the un-churched neighbor on their street (they could, of course, wait till after the church service to do this… but the point here is that we should not jump to judgmental conclusions!).

And for the media enthusiasts: “It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother or sister to stumble” (Rom 14:21). (My friend Bryony Taylor (@vahva) has a thoughtful post on this principle: “The Changing Nature of Worship – Phones in Church“).

Though churches will need to think theologically and biblically about media, culture, ecclesiology, etc. when working through media policies during worship events, we should probably all be able to agree that judging others is wrong (Mt 7:1) and that causing others to stumble is also wrong (Rom 14).

But the whole thing is sticky, isn’t it?

What say you, dear readers? Any thoughts or experiences you would like to share about practicing social media in church?

About AndyByers

I serve as the Chaplain for St Mary's College at Durham University while working on a PhD in the Department of Theology. CODEC has also taken me on to work as a theological consultant of sorts for the BigBible blog. My first book is about cynicism toward the church and disillusionment with God—'Faith Without Illusions: Following Jesus as a Cynic-Saint' (IVP Likewise, 2011). My latest is ‘TheoMedia: The Media of God in the Digital Age’ (Cascade Books, 2013).