App-aggedon – Should mobiles do God?

December 28, 2011

“I don’t connect to the wifi in Church so I can’t jump between the Bible, Twitter and Angry Birds……just so you know!”

If you’re religious, resisting temptation is important. Dustin Stout is a bearded Youth Pastor who looks more like Coldplay’s Chris Martin than a Sunday-school teacher. When his students file into his class before Church he tells them to get their Bibles out – then he pulls his smartphone out of his pocket and starts teaching.

“You might believe that by resorting to a smartphone instead of a physical Bible that I am in some way cheapening the lesson in an attempt to be cutting edge and hip. You’d be wrong,” he says.

Religion has never been afraid of making the most of modern technology. The printing press drove popular readings of the Bible and spread the Protestant Reformation across Europe, and, more recently, the US has become the home of TV evangelists. So it makes sense that the next stage of ‘spreading the word’ would happen on mobile phones.

Bible apps and guides are some of the most popular reference downloads from the Nokia Store, and Nokia’s team in Pakistan have run a successful campaign to tell people about a host of Ramadan apps. The new Nokia font, Nokia Pure, was specifically designed to accommodate both the Torah and the Koran.

Mobile technology is a useful tool for anyone wanting to connect with a large congregation, and it can create a powerful sense of a global community – but are mobiles changing the nature of religion?

Armageddon?

According to James Clement van Pelt, a ‘Spiritual Anthropologist’ working on the link between religion and technology at Yale Divinity School, the answer is a big Yes.

“Mobile technology is changing the nature of mass participation,” he says. “In many ways it has been a great tool for religion, but in other ways it makes the distance between God and technology even greater.”

The more we know, or think we know, and the more technology allows us to do – the further we are from believing in an all powerful higher being. And to van Pelt, that brings the end of the world one step closer.
Even if we avoid Armageddon, mobile technology has transformed religion and what we expect from it.

The spread of social media means that young people expect connection and two-way conversation. Preacher’s son Ty Buckingham caused controversy earlier this year when he wrote this post on churchmarketingsucks.com:

“We (teens) are a group who want to belong. When we step into a church, the first thing that should happen is feeling targeted and having a genuine experience… Events are good, relationships are better.”

Although critics called him spoiled and cossetted (he also said he wanted a bouncy castle and a free pizza) religions have been responding.

Social Media…

Ilya Welfeld of @JewishTweets says more people are offering feedback through Facebook and Twitter. “They are participating. It’s more like a conversation. We actually pay a lot of attention to the way someone reacts and what they say.”

@JewishTweets launched the #shabbatshalom hashtag to send Sabbath greetings. Often people tweet during live webcasts of services.
Some Christian megachurches in the US have facilities to screen text comments on the pastor’s sermon while he’s still delivering it.

It doesn’t matter where you are….

Mobile technology has made religion more accessible to people wherever they live in the world.

Muslims can hear the digital call to prayer, download prayer schedules, find out the direction of Mecca – and listen to a podcast from Medina.

Michaela Hackner of Forum One reported: “With the exponential diffusion of mobile in the Middle East, technology played a much larger role in this year’s annual festivities. Muslims used mobile technology to share greetings with friends, make plans, and experience a “virtual Ramadan.”

There is now a profusion of services and communities for all religions that cut across national and regional borders. Christians can look up Bible passages, as well as commentary. Jews can learn Hebrew in 140-character lessons at a time with ‘Twebrew School’.

From your tweets to God’s ears?

Now every Priest, Rabbi and Imam are interested in how many page views, Twitter followers and Facebook friends they have. More churches are hiring technology experts, and developing social media strategies.

But does this really reflect faith? Not according to Brad Abare, who founded the nonprofit Center for Church Communications and Church Marketing Sucks

“The reason we love the web is because we can track things like eyeballs and page views,” said Abare, “But it has cluttered our ability to decipher what we should be tracking.”

The downside of combining mobile technology and religion is that it spreads all information, true or false, says Abare – as well as allowing conspiracy theorists and extremists a voice.

James Clement van Pelt questions whether mobile technology encourages ‘chatter’ rather than quiet contemplation and prayer.
Older parishioners have been aghast by people using their mobiles to disrupt services, even if they are looking up religious references and not playing Angry Birds. One wrote:

“Imagine being the pastor of a church where everyone is staring at their laps because they are watching him on the live feed rather than watching on stage. All the while Tweeting to their friend in the pew across the aisle “Amen, the pastor is #onfire today!”

Religious leaders who have tried to integrate new technology into their services report that it creates a different experience – with people less engaged and less focused. “Even the people who think they are great multi-taskers aren’t paying as much attention as they think they are,” said Darleen Pryds from the Franciscan School of Theology in California.

But with mobile phones now penetrating deep into the developing world, and smartphone sales soaring, it is inevitable that more people will be accessing religious experiences on a mobile platform. According to James Clement van Pelt, it’s more than a superficial link:

“The bottom line is if you look at technology and say ‘how does this change people going to church?’ you miss the point, because religion is a much deeper thing. Technology changes how people relate to each other, and that’s what religion is concerned with.”

This article was written for Conversations by Nokia and Republic Publishing

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