One would be hard-pressed to go an entire day without bumping into someone (sometimes literally) with their phone out and their thumbs punching buttons. It used to be limited to teenagers at the mall, but now text messaging is commonplace, as is its sister technology, Twitter. And for many churches, this is great news because these technologies provide opportunities to foster community—even during worship.
One of the first churches to incorporate text messaging into a worship service was Mars Hill Church in Seattle.
"When our church plant was small, our young and unchurched crowd would routinely interrupt my sermons to ask questions," says Mark Driscoll, preaching pastor at Mars Hill. "But as the church continued to expand, it became impossible to continue serving people by answering their questions."
So Mars Hill began encouraging people to submit questions via text messaging during the service. The questions were screened, and at the end of the sermon, Driscoll answered the most relevant questions.
"The first week we tried this, the sermon was about sex," he says, "and a woman who was pregnant as a result of rape asked if she could have an abortion. I answered her anonymous question, we stopped to pray as a church, and we followed up with her for pastoral care. As a result, she did not have the abortion she was planning and a life was spared."
Schweitzer United Methodist Church in Springfield, Missouri, has started incorporating text messaging into its college-age service.
"This fall we hosted a panel discussion with students about how faith impacts their daily life, and we let students text their questions," says Matt Kerner, Schweitzer's pastor of creative arts and college ministry. "In the past, we had them ask questions at the mic, but then people could see who was asking. Now, with the anonymity, we have deeper questions."
Mike Jones, creative arts director at The Orchard, a church in Aurora, Illinois, has also seen the benefits of texting questions.
"It really gives you a pulse on your community," he says. "People will ask questions through text that they would never ask live."
As Mars Hill learned, that feeling of anonymity can prompt some difficult questions. The Orchard has received questions about abortion, homosexuality, and drug use, to name a few.
"We also get a lot of questions about finances," Jones says, "people who lost their job asking, 'Will God still love me if I can't tithe?' and, 'If I strongly believe in God and pray every night, why does it feel like he's not there?'"
The Orchard's feedback about texting during worship has been positive. The only complaints have come from people who don't know how to text or aren't able to text on their phones.
"We haven't had any pushback from people being uncomfortable with it in the worship service," Jones says.
But how does a church get the text messages onto a screen? Schweitzer United Methodist partnered with Jarbyco, a company that has provided technological solutions for churches, nonprofits, and conferences. The service includes a phone number to which each text message is sent, making it possible to follow up on any unanswered questions after the service. Jarbyco's service, which costs about $150 for the basic package, can be tailored to the needs of different churches.