texting at church

I was sitting in church a few years ago when the pastor started his sermon with a series of questions, inviting the people in the pews to raise their hand if their answer was “yes.” Do you bring your cell phone to church? Nearly everyone’s hand went up. Do you leave your phone on during church? About the same amount of hands were raised. Do you ever use your phone to text? Quite a few hands went up, mostly the younger people in the crowd. (Remember, this was a few years ago when texting was not as common). The last question… Have you sent or received a text since the service started tonight? A scattering of hands went up throughout the sanctuary, although not as straight-armed as before, followed by some embarrassed yet honest laughter (the kind of laughter you have after being exposed for something that isn’t all that bad, but you still didn’t want everyone to know about it…especially not everyone at church). Although I can’t actually remember what the pastor went on to talk about – come to think of it, I’m not really sure if I went to church that night or if a friend told me about it later – but I’m sure the point he was hoping to make as an introduction to his sermon was made.

Text messaging is a fascinating thing to me, not so much that it exists or that people use it as a form of communication, but that there is such disparity between who does it and how often. I have spent several hours of my life “teaching” my mom how to use different kinds of technology, including how to text. I put the word teaching in quotes because teaching usually implies a person learns something and then has the ability to use the skills and/or information that has been learned. While my mom has “learned” how to read and sent texts, her understanding is quite limited and it has an incredible way of disappearing without warning; meaning that I will inevitably be asked to re-teach her, so the teaching and learning moves in cycles. I find myself getting frustrated by this, but I realize it’s just a glaring example of a generation gap. When it comes to technology, I speak a different language than my mom, and as a result, I see things in a different way than she does. My mom’s phone bill probably includes about 5 text messages per month. In comparison, my plan includes 400 texts per month. I had dinner with some friends last week and they shared that their teenage daughter sent and received a total of 3,500 texts last month (thankfully, she has unlimited texting). [Note: I verified this total with my friend and it turns out that his daughter’s highest monthly text total is actually 5,300…wow!]

In today’s digital world, it has often been said that people are either natives or immigrants*, of course, we all know who the natives are (the young people) and we can distinguish them quite easily from the immigrants (the not so young people). While many of today’s church and business leaders are natural born immigrants, some are attempting to learn a new language (become natives). For instance, Leith Anderson, pastor of mega-church Wooddale in Eden Prairie, Minnesota – and known for his national radio ministry Faith Matters – was recently interviewed by Leadership Journal (the article is titled “Is Powerpoint Fading?”). As a veteran pastor, Anderson offers an experienced perspective on preaching and the ways he believes technology can both help and hurt the communication of the message. Borrowing from Aristotle’s classical teaching that there are three necessary elements of effective communication – word/truth (logos), passion (pathos) and character (ethos) – Anderson clearly states that “The best communicating is done by a person of good character, well spoken, telling the truth.” The relationship between media and the church is an interesting and tricky one, and this article sheds light on just a few of the issues that pastors and church leaders will be forced to face for a long time. If you’d like to read the full interview with Leith Anderson—including an innovative example from Wooddale about inviting congregants to text message their questions following a sermon and then putting their questions on the screens—click here.

* There is some controversy over who first used and/or popularized the terms “native” and “immigrant” in reference to individuals in our modern digital world, but from my limited research, it seems Marc Prensky is at least one of the front-runners. For an interesting analysis on the origin of these terms, read this post from Prensky’s blog.

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