Pastor Lisa Allen-McLaurin asks a crucial question about the use of social media in worship. In an age when what is “trending” seems to be unquestionably useful, this pastor’s observations provide necessary consideration.
As a pastor who has served churches for decades . . . I have seen many changes in worship. And, with the advent of mobile phones, I have witnessed a rise in the number of persons who seem distracted during worship. Initially, people could only send and receive text messages, which were distracting enough. However, with the addition of Internet capabilities, application downloads, and the proliferation of social media, it’s a wonder anyone is paying attention in worship. More persons’ heads are down now during worship than if they were participating in an all-night prayer vigil. Others attempt to divide their attention between the worship service and the activity on their phones. Some say they are using their phones to help them concentrate on the worship, by videotaping worship, by posting videos taken during worship and status updates related to the service during the actual service, and by commenting on them while worship is occurring. Though some may believe they are concentrating and are actually being helped to engage, I have two concerns over how much true engagement is happening.
First, how are persons who are recording with smart phones participating in the worship event? If one is the videographer, how can he concentrate on the actual worship event well enough to participate? If she is singing while recording, is she listening closely to the lyrics, evaluating their meaning for her life and the life of her community? Is she letting the music speak to her, soothe and calm her weary soul? If someone is posting the recording to social media, isn’t that where his attention is focused? And if he joins in a conversation about the post, while in worship, isn’t he distracted from hearing . . . the scriptures being read?
Second, what about theological reflection? Can someone who is videotaping, posting, and commenting on social media think and meditate clearly enough to discern how God is moving in the worship service? Can that person post and reflect on social media about an act or acts of worship while participating fully . . . ?
. . . I cannot determine what someone is thinking, feeling, discerning, or engaging in just by looking at them. However, I can judge my own abilities and know that when I am posting on social media, it takes all my powers of attention and focus to do that. My mind is completely engrossed in making sure I have written what I want to put out there for everyone to read, and I am anticipating how persons might respond to what I have written. That means my attention continues to be divided, and with every vibration of my phone, I am turning away from what is happening to look at my phone and read the responses.
Posting sermons or other portions of worship services on social media sites may make one believe he or she is paying attention or engaged in worship; I’m just not sure how transformative the experience actually is.
Lisa M. Allen-McLaurin is associate professor of church music and worship at The Interdenominational Theological Center and pastor of West Mitchell Street Christian Methodist Episcopal Church in Atlanta, Georgia.
Lisa M. Allen-McLaurin, “Let Me Post This Praise on Facebook: Questioning the Use of Digital and Social Media in Worship,” Liturgy 30, no. 2 (2015): 45-51.