At the beginning of our church service, we always usher a call for people to put their phones away and turn them off or onto silent. Like most churches these days (I imagine), that has a limited success rate. Whilst I appreciate some of the folks in the congregation are using their phone to read the Bible (though we do have paper copies in the various languages required on hand), I know that isn’t what everyone is doing.
I am not one of those anti-tech, your phone is changing you in dangerous ways types. That may well be true, but I see all the advantages they bring. I value my phone, I think it makes me more productive (on the whole) and allows me to do all sorts of things that I wouldn’t otherwise be able to do. I’m not suggesting it is an unalloyed good, but (rightly or wrongly) I do think they are more valuable and helpful than not.
But for the couple of hours or so that we are meeting together as God’s people, we really should be able to put them away. We are not there to check our emails or scroll through twitter. We are there to worship God and to meet with his people. There is nothing more important than that on a Sunday morning and, by and large, I do not think your phone is going to help in either of those things. Unless you are using Google Translate to communicate with the non-English speaker in your midst or something – and, let’s be honest, you are unlikely to need to do that in the middle of the formal part of a church service – just put your phone away.
It discourages the speaker
Each week, somebody has prepared for literally hours so that they can explain and apply God’s Word to you. They have put in a lot of spade work so that God might speak to you. Can you imagine how discouraging it is, then, for that person to see 15-hours of prep roundly ignored by somebody checking their emails or scrolling through Facebook on their phone. At best, that is extremely rude. Even if the preacher is extremely boring – and let’s not pretend that is sometimes the case – the Bible calls us to prefer others needs above our own. While he is preaching, if our posture of clearly not listening is going to discourage him, we are duty bound not to do that. If you care at all about preaching, and at all about serving the person speaking, put your phone away and listen.
It devalues the Word
Worse than discouraging the preacher, it devalues the Word. When we flick through internet pages while somebody is speaking to us, we’re saying that the Word doesn’t really matter. I don’t need to listen because this isn’t all that important. In the Protestant tradition, the God’s Word is the centre-point of the service. Everything is designed around the preaching of the Word. To sit on your phone throughout is to say that the key part of the service is nothing to do with you and is unworthy of your attention. If you value scripture at all, put your phone away and listen.
It dishonours the Lord
At the end of the day, the book from which we preach is God’s Word to us. Most of us recognise ‘red letter Bibles’ are a bit silly because it is all the Word of God (and thus all the words of Jesus). But when we sit on our phones while somebody reads it and preaches from it, we’re basically showing disdain for the Lord’s things. What God has to say to us isn’t worth our attention. And how has the Lord made himself known? Through his Word. Which ultimately means, if we’re sat on our phones throughout, we don’t think the Lord is worthy of our attention. Can you imagine standing before him on the last day, before his judgment seat, and whipping out your phone because you need to check twitter? It is contemptuous towards the Lord. It is no less dishonouring to do that in church when the Lord is speaking to us through his Word.
It is a bad example to others
I have young children (who do not have phones!) We work hard to get them to engage with what is going on in the service. We encourage them to listen and we try to guide them through each section of the service as it happens. Whilst we have a Sunday School that does offer children’s lessons during the sermon, once per month, we hold a family service in which the children remain in the service and listen to the same sermon as the adults. And we expect our children – who are only 5 and 3 – to do their best to listen. By God’s grace, they do a stellar job.
Imagine how hard it is to get them to listen, however, when they’re sat next to somebody who has clearly checked out. They are being asked to listen to while the person next to them plays Angry Birds or whatever. It sets a terrible example to the children. But it similarly sets a bad example to other believers. New converts, who have never set foot in a church before, take their cue from long-standing believers. If they see others on their phones during the sermon, why shouldn’t they do the same? What are we modelling to others by sitting on our phones during the service, especially the preaching of the Word? Clearly nothing good or commendable.
It stops you from growing
There are all sorts of reasons people might pick up their phone during the service. Boredom is an obvious one. Whilst services and preaching shouldn’t aim to be boring, that doesn’t absolve those of us in the congregation of our responsibilities to engage as meaningfully as we might. But I also suspect people reach for their phones when they either disagree with what is said or there are some applications of the text that make us uncomfortable. Rather than engage with what is said – that is challenging either my understanding of the text or the way I do things and will therefore weigh it seriously – we just reach for our phone and essentially block up our ears. That is the fast-track to stunted growth.
You will grow as you are challenged by the Word. You will only understand it properly by listening to it preached. And unless you believe you alone have perfect insight, that may well involve you being challenged in your view of the text. Rather than simply dismissing what you hear because you immediately disagree, it makes more sense to engage with it and hear what the preacher is saying. You might be right, the preacher might be right, but you will only know if you listen. The same is true as the text is applied. If you keep hearing the same applications again and again, rather than dismissing it because you disagree, might it not mean God is trying to say something specific to you? Again, you will only know if you listen and do the hard, and uncomfortable, work of self-examination in light of what is being said.