Many Church Services Are Now a Sea of iPhones. And Clergy Members Think That’s Great.

A worshipper stares at their phone while sitting in a church pew.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock.

The rousing sermon by Episcopal Bishop Michael Curry delivered at the royal wedding a few weeks ago drew notice around the world for its energy, its very American style, and its subtly radical message of liberating love. But there was something else about Curry’s sermon that stuck out to some viewers: He read it from the podium on what appeared to be an iPad.

It felt somewhat jarring to see a cool slab of 21st-century technology in a 14th-century Gothic chapel. But it shouldn’t have. Cellphones and other devices are increasingly common sights in Sunday-morning worship services, both in the pews and on the podium. It’s not just that churches are relying on technology in the same way that other large organizations do—snazzy websites, donations via app, and so on. The bigger change is that personal devices are increasingly part of services themselves, in ways both planned and unplanned.

Until recently, many churches were that rare 21st -century phenomenon: the organically analog space. In the early years of the iPhone age, they remained tucked away in purses and pockets, and it was vaguely taboo to peek at them during the worship service. But walk into most churches on Sunday morning now, and you’ll quickly see how much that has changed.

Some people snap pictures, especially if their children are involved in the service somehow. They tweet or Instagram or Facebook snippets of the service. Some pastors use text-based polls that let people respond anonymously on sermon topics. Others, like Curry, read aloud from their devices at the pulpit. When I asked around on Twitter—on a Wednesday afternoon, for the record—several people told me they had used their phones in the past to quickly fact-check pastors or other speakers from the pulpit. One Tennessee church member was skeptical of a speaker’s account of growing up with parents in a cult, so he quickly Googled and found out that the group’s leader had indeed been indicted on charges that included 14 killings. “Learning more detail helped me understand his life more,” he said.

The most significant shift is the rise of the Scripture app, which for many Christians has replaced hardback or leather-bound Bibles that often approach 1,000 pages. YouVersion, a free non-commercial app that has more than 1,000 languages and translations, was one of the first free apps available when Apple’s app store launched. The app has now been downloaded more than 323 million times. (Other scriptures have their own apps: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Gospel Library app includes Mormon teachings.) YouVersion founder Bobby Gruenewald says he developed YouVersion because he wanted an easy way to read the Bible during the course of the day. But it soon became obvious than many people were using it during worship services. Usage more than doubles on Sunday mornings, Gruenewald says, and new installations of the app spike then, too. “Initially there was a bit of tension,” he recalled, when pastors were prickly about seeing people using their phones in the pews. But in recent years, he said, the complaints have mostly stopped.

Gruenewald himself uses the app as his primary Bible, and has used it daily for nine straight months—a number he keeps track of thanks for the “streaks” feature that tallies how many days in a row a user opens the app. At his church, leaders post sermon outlines and Scripture excerpts to a private group within the app, so worshipers can follow along on their phones during the service instead of flipping through a paper Bible. The church also encourages people to post quotes from the service online in real time. Some pastors now casually instruct worshippers to “open up your Bible or your app” to follow along with a Scripture passage. (After Gruenewald told me this, I Googled around and found several other examples of similar statements in sermon transcripts online.)

Some clergy members now actively encourage phone usage. “I feel like if the church isn’t using technology, we’re telling Gutenberg, ‘We don’t want your printing press,’ ” said Jim Keat, the associate minister of digital strategy and online engagement at the Riverside Church in Manhattan. He spends Sunday morning live-tweeting events at the church, including snippets from the sermon and prayers. Keat dismissed the idea that phones are problematically distracting to churchgoers. He pointed out that people have been tuning out in churches long before phones existed. And technology, unlike idle daydreaming, can be a vehicle for tuning in, too. People who have stayed home for any reason—illness, shyness, fear, pain—can use social media to peek inside the church doors and be reminded of what’s happening there.

As for me, I’m still holding out. I drop my phone into my bag when I enter the front doors of my church on Sunday morning, and I leave it there until the service is over. My phone carries a whiff of the profane; it’s a portal to distraction and vice, to work and restlessness and resentment. Of course, it’s also a vehicle for connection and information and harmless pleasure. But in 2018, I find that the invitation to ignore it completely is a pretty good definition of a “day of rest.”