How to Get People to STOP Playing With Their Phones at Church

Pastor, does it bug you when you see people on their cell phones when you’re preaching?

“Pastor, does it bug you when you see people on their cell phones when you’re preaching? Does it make you wonder if they’re on Facebook or playing a game?”

A church member asked me that question last week.

My answer? No. It doesn’t bother me at all. Honestly.

As I told her, people on phones in church could be using their Bible app, taking notes or tweeting my last point to their friends (I know that happens, I’ve seen the time-stamp).

Sure, some of them are playing Words With Friends when they get bored. Years ago, people doodled on the back of the bulletins when they got bored. They still do. Different technology, same problem.

Cell phones in church don’t bother me because I’ve discovered an ancient secret that keeps people from getting bored in church.

Do church better!

The answer to people being bored in church isn’t to get upset at them for being bored, it’s to give them a less boring church experience.

No, not by entertaining them. They have much higher quality entertainment on their phone than I can ever hope to provide. My job is to keep their attention by helping God’s Word come alive to their hearts, minds and lives.

But how do we do that without falling into the “let me entertain you” trap? There’s only one sure-fire solution that I know of.

Conduct the church service as one vital link in an overall discipleship process.

It’s not the pastor’s calling to entertain people. It’s also not our primary task to fill them with Bible knowledge or theology. Or to get them to cry, laugh, dance, jump, raise hands, sit in silent awe … or any one of 100 other acts of corporate worship.

Ephesians 4:11-12” href=”http://www.biblestudytools.com/ephesians/passage.aspx?q=ephesians+4:11-12″ target=”_blank”>Our calling is to equip the saints. If anything in the previous paragraph helps that process, great. If not, we should do something else. 

Discipleship Beats Entertainment

When the church service is a stand-alone event, disconnected from the rest of people’s real lives, it has no chance to compete with their smart phones. Not to mention everything else that’s vying for their attention, from the stress of their work lives, family trauma, marriage struggles, weight-loss battle, alcohol addiction, pornography habit, mounting debt … and on it goes.

But when the church service is one of the ways we’re teaching them to be more like Jesus, things change. People who are growing in their faith, learning to apply scripture, doing their secular employment as unto the Lord and reaching out to meet needs in Jesus’ name won’t be bored in a healthy church.

People who are being discipled come to church ready to worship, learn and grow. They’ve been emptying themselves out and are longing to be refilled. They come prepared to receive more tools and skills, so they can leave church better prepared to continue their discipleship journey.

For instance, I’m not worried that the church member who asked me that question will be bored, doodling or crushing candies on her phone during church. Why? Because she asked me that question as we were driving back from conducting a Bible study at our local Teen Challenge center. She goes with me because she’s interested in volunteering there when her busy life as a single mom allows her to.

Active disciples don’t get bored in a healthy church.

And a healthy church is always producing active disciples.

It Begins With Us, Pastors

At a recent ministers’ conference, I overheard a conversation between a couple of pastors who were debating whether or not they should ban people using cell phones in church. They’re tired of the constant distraction. If that’s the case in our churches, we have to ask this serious question …

Pastors, what if the problem isn’t them, but us?

If we find ourselves wondering how to get people off their cell phones in church, we have to take a seriously hard look at ourselves first.

People don’t get bored when they’re in healthy, disciple-making churches. And if they do get bored, they don’t stay bored for long.

In case anyone’s thinking that I’m offering up myself or my church up as some sort of ideal place where everyone is actively engaged in discipleship and no one is ever bored in church, I’m not. After all, I know that the question from my church member about cell phones in church didn’t come from nowhere. She’s obviously seen it happen.

The difference isn’t whether or not anybody ever checks their Instagram account in church. It’s how we, as church leaders, choose to respond.

We can complain about it and try to shut them down. Or we can choose to do something about it by offering them something better to occupy their time, their hearts and their passion.

Don’t criticize, equip.

Don’t entertain, equip.

Don’t ban the phones, equip the saints.

Karl Vaters
Karl Vaters is the author of The Grasshopper Myth: Big Churches, Small Churches and the Small Thinking That Divides Us. He’s been in pastoral ministry for over 30 years and has been the lead pastor of Cornerstone Christian Fellowship in Fountain Valley, California for over 20 years. He’s also the founder of NewSmallChurch.com, a blog that encourages, connects and equips innovative Small Church pastors.