Smartphones, Smart Pastors, Smart Church

Next time you see a group of young adults dining together at a restaurant, take a closer look at the table.

Nine times out of ten, you’ll be able to glimpse at least one cell phone resting on the tablecloth or, just as likely, in someone’s hand. In many cases, multiple phones will dot the table as if they were part of the place settings. One might deduce that young people today have a medical condition causing indigestion unless they eat with their phones near at hand. Come to think of it, that’s dangerously close to the truth.

The dining scene hints at the fact that many youth and young adults today have a relationship with technology and social media that is core to their formation. With this access to the Internet and, through it, the world, their worldview is significantly different than that of previous generations.

In his article Preaching 2.0,
David Lose explores how new approaches to preaching might address our changing cultural norms. But why stop at preaching?

Here’s a list of five common phenomena among young people, and how the church might incorporate them into its worship, preaching, and communal life:

1. When young people have a question they ask it — as a Facebook status, on Twitter, on a message board, perhaps in a text message. But, corporate worship is a time in which it is very difficult to ask questions of the people sitting beside you, let alone the leaders up front. What if worship leaders, after each scripture reading, left a time of silence followed by an opportunity for worshippers to share their questions about the passage? What if preachers invited spoken questions (and even text-messaged ones) and incorporated the questions into their sermons?

2. Social media culture invites young people to respond in some way to pretty much everything. For instance, we can “like” Facebook statuses, respond to text messages with a simple “K,” and have the ability to comment on blog posts and news articles until our hearts’ content. We can re-tweet a joke, share a music video, and quote a funny happening on Facebook (all while sitting in class). But then in worship, most churches shut down the sharing. The prevailing norm is to keep cell phones out of sight. What if we opened our worship culture and invited worshippers to respond with social media as well as corporate liturgy? What if, throughout our worship space, we placed art supplies that worshippers could use to respond to the Spirit’s movement?

3. Young people, through the Internet, are accustomed to easily accessing huge swaths of information. Friends of mine, mid-conversation, will pull out a phone to research a curiosity. In later encounters we’ll often find that each of us read further using Wikipedia and Google. But, in most worship services, it would be unusual to do something as natural as pulling up an e-Book Bible, or Googling a commentary on the scripture lesson. What if bulletins included web links and codes scanable with a smartphone (QR codes) to access more information? What if congregations posted videos of sermons on YouTube with links to further resources?   

4. Young people, like us all, yearn for community. In fact, a recent Pew Study found that people who use social networking sites actually have larger social networks and more close friends than those who don’t. Many of us in the church assume that church attendance and worship is a social event — and it is — but then we require people to sit in long narrow pews ideal for looking at the backs of people’s heads. Sitting like this does not make for easy community-building or social interaction. What if we replaced our church pews with movable chairs arranged in a way that encouraged a more communal culture of worship? What if churches became a hub for intergenerational social media education, online prayer practices, and community-building?
5. Finally, young adults have a different way of assigning authority. Whereas in another age, pastors could assume a certain respect by virtue of their connection with the church, nowadays authority is more situational. Through relationships, conversation, and careful listening pastors can share wise and helpful words but, then again, sometimes a quick Facebook post will do more than an entire sermon. What if congregations made efforts to make space in their church for dialogue among the wise voices of their community? What if pastors viewed social media as a medium for pastoral care and prophetic words?  

The next time you view a cell phone in front of a young diner, hopefully you’ll think about its implications for the church’s ministry. There are many ways to answer the questions about young adult culture today, but one thing is certain: we must start asking the right questions. What would change if we did?