About 10 years ago, I was sitting in church on a Sunday morning, using the Bible app on my phone to follow the preacher, when I heard a voice beside me say: “why did you bring your phone to church?”. I turned and saw an older man, old enough to be my father, so I politely told him that using a phone was more convenient, that I could flip between Bible versions and even read commentaries on the verse as the service was going on. He replied, “Your phone will distract you, don’t bring it to church”. I smiled and mumbled something inaudible, and the conversation ended.
However, after that conversation, I started to notice Sunday after Sunday that my neighbor had been right, that I did get distracted when I had a phone in church. A notification would pop up and I would click on it and 5 minutes would be gone before I came down from the clouds and continued listening to the sermon. I then started to peek and look out for what people were doing on their phones during service and more often than not, they were not reading their Bible, they were doing things that had nothing to do with the service they were supposedly attending. The truth is Bible apps were primarily designed for personal Bible study, not for Sunday morning services. These apps are created to produce a deep absorption experience, drawing you into the app with beautiful graphics and study guides. However, in church, your focus is meant to be on the speaker in front of you.
So, I decided to listen to my wise neighbor and stop taking my phone to church. It has now been 10 years since I have been doing this and I want to explain to you dear reader, why this has probably been the most profitable spiritual decision I have made in the last 10 years. Spiritual decision you say? Let me give you the three reasons why I can make this claim.
1. It allows our undivided attention to the word of God
We Protestants rightfully regard the Sunday service as the spiritual highlight of the week. It is when we all come together as a church family to worship God together in song, word, and deed. It is such an important occasion that typically the speaker would have spent the whole week preparing a message that would take only about 40 mins to deliver.
One of my favorite hymns is Isaac Watt’s interpretation of Psalm 122 – a Psalm of Ascent – where the 1st stanza speaks of the joy of the Christian to come to the presence of God on Sunday morning:
How pleased and blest was I
To hear the people cry,
‘Come, let us seek our God today!’
Yes, with a cheerful zeal
We haste to Zion’s hill,
And there our vows and homage pay.
As pilgrims seeking God, we should come to church with undivided attention and avoid anything that would distract us from paying full attention to the gospel being heralded to us.
It is true that I may be able to access a free Bible on my phone, but it is also true that, for most of us, we can afford to buy a normal paper Bible. For every benefit of reading the bible on the phone, there are ten temptations alongside. Yes, we have Christian freedom to decide whether to bring our phone to church, but as Paul reminds us in 1 Cor 10:23: “All things are lawful,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up.
2. It allows us to focus on quality fellowship with other believers
As an introvert, I know my default posture after church service is to avoid interactions with other Christians and instead pretend to be busy looking at something on my phone. Not having this crutch to lean on means I have to engage with other Christians and not have distractions getting in the way of quality conversations and finding out how others are faring in their lives.
Even if you are not the type of person that avoids conversations, having a phone can be distracting. You may come out of the service and see you have 25 notifications on your phone. While you are checking your phone, a first-timer walks by you and that door of ministry is missed.
There are so many opportunities for Christian fellowship on Sundays after service and we really want to be not only physically present but also mentally and spiritually alert to every opportunity to be a blessing to those around us.
3. It shows others how much Sunday morning means to us
Even for those of us Christians who are not Sabbatarians, we should still regard Sunday morning as a day that should be focused on rest and worship to God. This must mean that it should be clear to the people that we interact regularly with that we would be unavailable on our phones on Sunday mornings.
Perhaps the most common question I get from people when I tell them that I never bring my phone to church is “what if there is an emergency?”. What I can say is that in 10 years, there have been less than 5 genuine emergencies that have come up on a Sunday morning. Even in those times, these issues have never been anything that could not be fixed afterward. If you are a doctor or an emergency worker, you may need to keep your phone close, but if we are honest, for most of us, most of our messages can wait until we get home.
Recently I did take my phone to church. I had come to church from an early morning errand via taxi. I quietly asked someone to allow me to keep my phone in their backpack until after the service. A teenager nearby remarked, “I thought you didn’t own a phone!”. I had never had a conversation with him about this topic, but this young man had noticed that he had never seen me with a phone prior to that day. We are teaching the coming generation what is normal by how we behave. Are we teaching them the importance of bringing our full attention to church on Sunday morning?
Ultimately, there is no verse of the Bible that says “Thou Shalt Not Use Thy Cell Phone During Church”. However, a sign of Christian maturity is a deepening desire to remove every impediment to our worship of God. For too many of us, our phone has become that impediment.
Earlier, I said the decision not to take a phone to church was perhaps the most profitable spiritual decision I ever made in the last decade. My point is not that the action itself was spiritual, but rather that this decision has freed me to focus on God and my neighbors on Sundays like no other decision I have taken since then. And as Jesus taught us, that is the whole point of our faith (Matthew 22:36-40).