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It's Sunday Morning. Where Should Your Cell Phone Be?

Surveys show wide range of American views.
It's Sunday Morning. Where Should Your Cell Phone Be?
Image: Aaron Favila / AP

When you’re in church, should you leave your cell phone in your pocket or purse? Or can you take it out to look up Bible verses or take notes?

Almost all Americans (96%) believe that using a cell phone in church is generally unacceptable, according to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center. In fact, worship services are the most frowned-upon setting to use a cell phone, followed closely by movie theaters (5%) and meetings (5%).

However, the nearly unanimous negativity might have less to do with how Americans actually use their phones at worship services, and more to do with how the survey on mobile etiquette was framed.

“The problem here is that when Pew asks questions about how people use their cell phones, they’re entering vague territory, because there’s no agreed-upon definition of ‘use,’” wrote religion reporter Michael Schulson. “I’d wager hard cash that if you asked the exact same question about churches after priming people to think of Bible apps, those opinions would be very different. ‘Oh, that kind of ‘use’! That’s generally okay.’”

Indeed, the different phrasing of a recent poll by AT&T found much more favorable reactions. AT&T asked whether people had “ever used a mobile device/internet to connect with faith or inspiration during worship services.” A full quarter of Americans who attend worship services regularly (defined by AT&T as more than once a month) said yes, including nearly one-third of African Americans.

In fact, 11 percent of all regular worshipers and 21 percent of blacks who worship regularly said that mobile devices and internet technology “absolutely” have a place during worship services. Another 3 in 10 Americans at large, and almost 4 in 10 African Americans, said that mobile devices and internet technology may be useful for some activities.

Half of Americans who use their mobile device during worship services find their phones are an easy way to look up scriptures and songs. About 40 percent said using mobile and internet technology can help messages of hope and inspiration reach more people, as well as can make personal faith more accessible to those with disabilities.

Slightly more (46%) said technology can unite people who can’t necessarily make it to a house of worship or inspirational event. And one-third said mobile devices were an easy way for them to take notes, to share their experience, and to encourage others to join them.

Those advantages weren’t enough to sway half of all regular worshipers (49%) and one-third of African Americans who worship regularly (32%) from still feeling that worship services are not the place for phones or tablets.

One potential reason: Mobile devices can be distracting, both to nearby worshipers and the users themselves.

About 15 percent of those who attend worship services regularly have texted a friend during the service. About half that number have posted to social media (8%) or watched a video (7%) during a service, and 4 percent have played a game.

Those in urban worship services are more likely to engage in unrelated online activities (36%) than those in the suburbs (28%) and those in the country (16%).

Race matters, too. Almost half of Asians (47%) who attend worship services have texted a friend or posted to Facebook about something other than the service, compared to 37 percent of blacks, 33 percent of Hispanics, and 21 percent of whites.

Outside of worship services, about 4 in 10 Americans (41%) use mobile devices to support their faith. The number is highest for blacks (57%), followed by Hispanics (46%), Asians (38%), and whites (37%).

This group listens to inspirational music (42%), watches worship services or inspirational speakers (38%), and does faith-based or inspirational research and study online (32%).

Nearly one in three (29%) of those who use technology to connect to faith-based or inspirational sites do so to access electronic holy books or song books (29%).

Some of them may use YouVersion, which recently reported that the number of users that prefer to listen to the Bible instead of read it is up 200 percent from last year, and now composes almost half (48%) of its users.

CT previously noted how many millennials use their cell phones to fact check their pastor’s sermon. A 2014 Pew study found that 34 percent of white evangelicals and 30 percent of black Protestants (two-thirds of whom identify as evangelical) have shared their faith online.

CT’s previous coverage of the internet and technology includes the efficacy of online evangelism and how crowdfunding is becoming a proxy for morality debates. Her.meneutics bloggers have shared lessons from a technology-reduced Lent, how internet outrage hits deep, and Christian vloggers gone viral.

January/February
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