When they walk in the doors of the sprawling, red-brick Hope Community Church in Raleigh, no one takes a bulletin. Instead, they whip out their smartphones, tap the silver “Get Hope” app and open the sermon notes.
Amid words of caution, some church leaders, churchgoers and houses of worship are getting aboard the social media train.
Pastors tweet. Phones become Bibles. Baptisms lead to Facebook updates.
And Hope Community Church in Raleigh, which can seat 1,500, recently discarded its paper bulletins for an app.
“We never really knew if anybody was reading them,” said Joe Woolworth, the church’s media director. “People would often just recycle them when they were done. With the app, it was cheaper, and we were able to go green.”
Thousands of people have downloaded the app since it was created two years ago. Once inside, they can sign up for a community group and find one of the church’s 13 Facebook pages, nine Twitter accounts and three Instagram pages. They can donate. They can sign up to volunteer.
Woolworth said the app fits snugly into the church’s mission: “To love people where they are and encourage them in their relationship with Jesus. A lot of people use apps every day, so we wanted to participate in the way they are consuming information.”
Bible on the phone
Even if a church doesn’t have its own app, other religious apps abound. Android boasts hundreds of apps for the Bible as well as the Quran. Apple shows thousands on its iTunes store.
“That is the biggest sort of rise I have seen in churches is for people to bring their phones and read their Bibles,” said Lee Sartain, a pastor at East Raleigh Fellowship.
Sartain uses the popular Bible Gateway app to study outside church and to follow along during a service. “It’s got a lot of different versions. It can read to you. You can take notes as you’re going along through the message. It’s got a highlighter function.”
In addition to reading the Bible, churchgoers are sometimes encouraged to tweet during a service.
The Rev. Lisa Yebuah recently preached a sermon at Edenton Street United Methodist Church called “Press Pause and Give Thanks.” She encouraged those attending the church’s contemporary services to tweet their messages of thanks, using the hashtag “#estreetthanks.” A Twitter feed on a video screen showed messages as they came in.
“Great family and friends and a day filled with God’s love #estreetthanks,” tweeted Chris McClure.
Back in March, the Twitter hashtag “#AshTag” became soaringly popular as teens, adults, nuns and priests posted pictures of themselves with ash on their foreheads. It was to honor Ash Wednesday, a Christian tradition that kicks off the 40-day Lenten season of repentance, fasting and remembrance of Jesus’ death.
Even as smartphones become integrated into church services, some find social media to be a double-edged sword: While it can supplant piles of bulletins and thick Bibles, it can also distract.
Michael Burbidge, bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Raleigh, often uses an app on his phone to ease the requirement of the “Liturgy of the Hours,” a set of prayers, Bible readings and Psalms for morning, afternoon and evening of each day.
Formerly, it was a big book. “That’s reduced to one little app. I find that a little bit easier,” Burbidge said.
He tweets from “@BishopBurbidge,” but, he said, “Not in church.”
“We always ask respectfully that they refrain from using their phone during liturgy hours,” he said.
Danger lies, Burbidge said, in letting the ease and fun of social media distract from the real point of worship: “We have such little time for sacred space. That’s the time we try to give to the Lord, one hour a week when we step away from the business of the world.”
At Christ the King Presbyterian Church in downtown Raleigh, people often take smartphone photos during baptisms and membership vows. Picture snapping doesn’t bother pastor Geoff Bradford.
“I don’t notice much,” Bradford said. “I don’t notice kids crying. I can handle homeless people walking through the service.”
But he does have concern for focus among his congregation.
“I want people to be present,” Bradford said. “We put a lot of energy into Sundays, not because that’s all church is, but because we believe that Christ shows up, spiritually. And it’s making room for silence. We all have busy hearts, unquiet hearts, naturally. I want more of that in our worship.”
Instead of sending tweets and updating a Facebook page, he recommends friends go out to lunch to talk after church.
“To me that’s a different level of engagement.”