The smartphone is infiltrating every part of daily life, from restaurants to the classroom. Is it time for it to enter the sanctuary, too?
Allowing worshippers to message with others during the service might give people the ability to share their prayers beyond the church walls, ask questions and clarify their understanding.
Be that as it may, 62 percent of survey respondents would prefer that mobile devices stay switched off throughout the service. “It closes you up at a time when it’s important to be open to the Spirit,” says survey respondent Sandra Price, 72, of Skidegate United on Haida Gwaii, B.C. “If I’m sitting next to you in service and you’re typing away on your phone, you’re far away. I want community; that’s part of why I go to church. I don’t think the kind of connections that we’re looking to achieve during worship can be filtered through a screen.”
Other worship innovations suggested by the survey were better received: most respondents are open to offering worship on days other than Sunday, for example, or providing more opportunities to experience God’s presence. And a majority are at least somewhat willing to try out less formal orders of service, as Knox-Metropolitan United in Edmonton did over the five Sundays of Lent last spring. At youth minister Camille Kamphuis’s suggestion, the traditional service temporarily gave way to a dramatic telling of a scriptural story. The congregation was then divided into intergenerational “learning circles,” where worshippers could either study Christian history, watch and discuss a film, take part in some gentle yoga, make a craft or discuss food issues while cooking a tasty dish. Each morning wrapped up with everyone coming together again for announcements, prayer and lunch.
“What took me by surprise was the energy and willingness of the congregation to try the idea,” says Kamphuis. A post-Easter evaluation revealed that 90 percent of the church people would happily repeat the experience.
Everyone has their specific preferences — the blend of music, prayer, activities and ritual that moves or inspires them — but overall, survey respondents envision the worship service of 2025 as a mix of old and new (with a minority 32 percent hoping for a completely new type of experience). Many would also like worship to blend explicitly religious content with other types of material — instrumental compositions, say, or wisdom from great novels. At the same time, two-thirds want to preserve the current level of emphasis on the basics, namely the Bible, the sacraments and the symbols of Christianity.
Given that most respondents consider worship a very important part of congregational life, a surprising number are open to the possibility of replacing it with outreach activities. One quarter are “somewhat comfortable” with the idea; another quarter, “very comfortable.”
Some congregations have already switched their emphasis. A few years ago, Knox-St. Paul’s United in Cornwall, Ont., was going through a rough time, having lost its building due to unstable ground. The shrinking congregation felt compelled to deliberate over its mission, starting with the question “What’s the purpose of us, anyway?”
“Our vision is a city where no one journeys alone,” says the resulting statement. “It’s a big vision. We can’t do it. But we know God finds a way where there is no way. So we dream big!” So far, the congregation has partnered with the Canadian Mental Health Association, the Cornwall Interfaith Partnership, and Bereaved Families of Cornwall to help bring companionship to people in need. The minister, Rev. Don Wachenschwanz, says the congregation’s primary orientation is now outward, into the community. “Worship is still there, but it’s there to inspire, strengthen and motivate us so that we can continue with our mission.”
And this mission doesn’t include recruiting new Sunday worshippers. “What it means to belong to Knox-St. Paul’s United is becoming a question,” he says. “Because we don’t just want to minister to people, but minister with them. So if you’re involved in the ministry but not in worship, are you a member?” An insightful question for the future church.
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