My goal here isn't to persuade you that phones have done lots of bad things in society. I think Jonathan Haidt, Jean Twenge, and others can give you the data evidence for that. (Or you could just spend some time with Neil Postman and Ivan Illich to get the theory.)
Rather, I want to think about what it would look like practically for churches to not simply turn off our online streams, but actually purge phones from public worship.
The necessary caveats up front: I don't support any kind of plan where churches have ecclesial bouncers at the door confiscating phones. The reality of our world is that many of our neighbors live on their phones, many are addicted, and confiscating phones from strangers will create some significant and unnecessary barriers to people visiting our churches—and I think right now we should be doing all we can to make it easier for people to use our buildings (if your church owns one), not harder.
That said: What happens if we frame the issue like this?
Our leadership has been spending time praying and thinking about the place of smartphones in our life together as a community of Christians who are dedicated to following Jesus. For a variety of reasons, we have come to the conclusion that smartphones are often a hindrance to the development of thick community and even ordinary conversation.
This is a major cause of concern for us for two reasons.
First, we live in a world that is lonely, anxious, and deeply uncertain about what things are worth living for. Given the unhappiness and frequent suffering of our neighbors, we want our church to be a place where they can go to find respite, encouragement, and life through the preaching of the Gospel and the sacramental life of the church.
Second, we live in a world where Christian discipleship is very hard. The things pulling us away from community are everywhere. It is quite easy to become enslaved to the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the boastful pride of life. So we need each other to live the Christian life well. But we won't have each other if we are too busy for regularly being together and too distracted for ordinary human encounters to take place.
Because of these reasons, our church is taking a few steps to try and remove distraction and busyness from our gatherings. So beginning next week, we will have a set of lockers at the welcome center where you come in. If you wish to, you can check your phone in to a locker and receive a key that you can use to pick it up before you go. Our goal is that the majority of members of this community would adopt this practice as part of their worship with us on Sunday mornings.
Obviously there are some tricky cases where this may not be possible. If, for example, you work as a doctor and are on-call on weekends, we understand this. Some of you will not be able to participate in this. No one is going to judge or shame you for keeping your phone with you. The point of this is not to create false guilt for anyone or to ask people who have unique reasons for needing constant access to their phones to do something unwise or foolish. The goal is simply to make it easier for all of us together to participate fully in public worship as the people of God. Since it is not actually necessary for most of us to have our phones with us during church and since our phones can be a distraction to us, we are asking that those who are able consider leaving their phones at the information desk when they arrive.
If you have questions, feel free to reach out to the elders, who will be happy to discuss this more with you.
What about families with children in the nursery or Sunday school?
Churches had models for handling this before the digital revolution. The church I grew up in had two small displays on the back wall of the building either side of the stage that could light up and display a three digit number. Families with kids in the nursery received a small button with a number on it when they dropped the child off. If there was an issue, nursery workers would signal the person who handled sound to display that child's number on those two small screens. The family would then know to go to the nursery to see what was going on. I don't see why we couldn't try something similar today.
How would the phones be stored?
Haidt's article linked above gives a good summary of the various storage options we have available. It doesn't need to be something super expensive or complicated. Probably this is something each church would have to figure out for themselves based on their size and congregation. In a place like Lincoln, I expect something super informal and trust-based would work fine. If you're at a church in DC with a ton of military and government employees, you might need something more secure for people to feel comfortable checking their phone in. The point is that there are options here and it's a problem we can solve.
What about interactive elements of the service that might require phones?
Sometimes churches will hold Q&A times after the service that are designed especially for spiritual seekers to ask questions about things that came up in the service or about the Christian life more generally. Often questions for these times are gathered via text message with the church using a code they display on screen to collect questions that are then sent to the pastor.
The simplest alternative, of course, is again the pre-digital solution: Just as churches used to keep a pad or small cards in each pew for people to sign their name indicating their attendance, it would not be at all difficult for churches to include small cards in each pew or under each seat that people could use to write down their questions. Then they simply could put their question into the offering bags when they pass or into a small box kept outside the sanctuary. The relative difficulty for the congregant is still quite minimal. It requires a little more on-the-ground organization from the church on Sunday, of course. But it also requires less tech competence to set up and maintain.
Anyway: This is mostly a thought experiment at the moment. My home congregation is still streaming, in fact, as are most other churches I know of in the area. So where I'm at on these matters relative to many churches is a bit like dropping Wendell Berry into the room at the next Apple WWDC event. But given the apparent harm that phones are causing, it seems to me that these are questions and ideas we need to consider.
Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).