On Technology and Transcendence

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  • So there I was in a worship service at the National Baptist Convention in Kansas City last week. Between messages, during the offering, the woman sitting next to me said to me, “Now you know you should not be playing with your phone during worship.” I explained that I chose to use the Bible on my phone and that I was simply following along with the text during the sermon. She accepted my explanation but added that using the Bible on my phone is a temptation to check emails or do something else in church. All I could say was, “You’re right.”

    The times are changing. Rapidly changing. Ten years ago… five years ago… last year… we would not have dreamed of some of the technological gadgets that we not take for granted. And we can expect the pace of updates to continue in the days to come. Just today I read that my five-month old iPad may become outdated by the possible release of the iPad 2 by the end of 2010. And I love it. I am a gadget geek. And I love all of the user-friendly gadgets that are being released. Except when they come to church.

    Am I old fashioned about worship protocol? I guess it depends on who you ask. I would like to think that I embrace a reverent informality when it comes to corporate worship. There are so many things I cannot believe people get so stuffy about in church. But then I catch myself getting stuffy about the use of gadgets in worship. I guess I am a recovering Pharisee, too.

    For the record, there is nothing wrong with people using the Bible on their phones in worship, in and of itself. What matters are the words of the text, not whether those words are printed on dead trees. But I think that pushy lady who sat next to me in church last week may have been on to something. Because I was using the Bible on my phone, I was tempted to check emails, send a text, or pull up my Facebook page. Things I do not otherwise think about in worship.

    On top of that, my cell phone Bible version was apparently a distraction for the lady sitting next to me. Sure, I could say that it was none of her business what I was doing with my phone. But that is not the spirit of Christ. The very nature of corporate worship and Christian living requires that I be careful not to allow my liberty in Christ to become a stumbling block for a weaker brother or sister.

    Several weeks ago, a friend and colleague visited the midweek service at the church I serve. One of my members leaned over and asked him, “Why are you playing with that thing and not listening to my pastor’s sermon?” My friend was listening and following along and taking notes. On his iPad. But the fact that he was doing so on an iPad became a distraction to the person sitting next to him. And ultimately to him, as well, as he had to stop listening and explain himself while the sermon was going on. Is this right or wrong? I don’t know. But I think it is something to think about.

    We are now at a place where people in church respond to something encouraging or helpful in the sermon by Tweeting it or posting it on their Facebook page. “Touch your neighbor and tell them…” has apparently been replaced by “Text your neighbor and tell them…” Before we just declare this reality to be the way it is, we should carefully think through the implications of how we use technology in worship.

    I believe the most valuable asset we have as humans is our time. And with all the time saving gadgets available to us, most of us still complain that we do not have enough time for the things that are important to us. That includes God! Isn’t ironic that our time saving gadgets are crowding out the one place and time where many people focus on God – in corporate worship on Sunday mornings?

    One of the great indictments against contemporary worship is that we have lost a sense of the transcendence of God. Everything is so immediate and imminent that we do not acknowledge that God is above and beyond us. The Lord is sitting on the pew next to us, not sitting on a throne high and lifted up. While I am grateful for all the ways the technology makes our lives easier, I am concerned about anything that aids our trivialization of the Almighty. And any medium that gets in way of the message. As we integrate our gadgets into our worship lives – or before we do so – we should think long and hard about whether our gadgets dull our sense of the majesty of God in worship or help us to see and sense the supremacy of God more clearly and deeply and joyfully.

    Could it be that using mobile devices in worship can be just as dangerous as texting while driving?


    H.B. Charles Jr.

    Pastor-Teacher at the Shiloh Metropolitan Baptist Church of Jacksonville and Orange Park, Florida.

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