Walk into any public meeting and you will see people engaged with others in the room. At the same time, their faces reflect the light emitted by their smartphone, tablet or both. It is no different on Sunday mornings at church.
Without careful reflection on what is happening, pastors and worship leaders can feel they are fighting for the attention of congregants who could be distracted long before the debut of the iPhone.
The worship service is ripe with opportunities to engage people through their smartphones. In addition to encouraging worshippers to tweet or post their presence, leaders at East Cobb United Methodist Church in Georgia take smartphone engagement to the next level by using the free YouVersion Live feature of the YouVersion app.
YouVersion Live functions as a sort of interactive order of worship. Churches upload the main points of the sermon and the Scripture references prior to the service. As people enter the worship space, they click on the "live" button in the app on their smartphone, and everything pops up preloaded.
YouVersion Live has interactive features such as live polls that worshippers can take during the service and see the results appear in almost real time on a screen in the sanctuary.
While uploading information is simple, it requires using a traditional computer. Start your own experiment with a digital worship service at www.a.youversion.com/live/all.
The Rev. Brian Germano, pastor at East Cobb United Methodist Church in Marietta, Ga., has a different perspective. "We want them to use their phones," he said. "We'll say, 'If you're here with your smartphone, please tweet or post on Facebook that you are in church.'"
Using technology is part of United Methodism's Wesleyan DNA, he said. "Methodists were some of the first to do evening worship services using the new technology of the incandescent gas lamp.
"When used properly, (technology) can enhance our message," he observed. To do so, Germano encourages people to use Bible apps. From free websites to applications that can cost thousands, every level of interest, scholarship and price is addressed.
While every option has its place, the leader in biblical apps is YouVersion. Simply titled "Bible" on your smartphone's home screen, it has been downloaded nearly 164 million times. According to The Christian Post, YouVersion, in combination with its website, reaches 87 percent of Christians worldwide who have Internet access.
YouVersion excels because it doesn't seek to do too much. Focusing on the biblical text, it is easy to read and navigate and to compare translations and paraphrases. Though there are other features, it emphasizes reading the Scripture.
For the reader who is more visual, applications such as Glo Bible provide archaeological information, inspiring videos and beautiful timelines to capture the imagination of those wanting to dive into the Scriptures.
Like many applications, Glo Bible has a free version that comes with two Bible translations and a media sample. Users can then purchase bundles that provide more translations and thousands of media elements.
Offering a more academic approach, Accordance is recruiting scholars to develop software, allowing users to compare translations side-by-side and find words in the original Hebrew or Greek.
You can also invest in digital versions of expensive and extensive Bible commentaries saving thousands of dollars and many feet of bookshelf space. Tap on a cross reference and watch it pop up over the commentary text on your tablet while sitting in your doctor's waiting room, and you will be hooked.
Helping people read and engage with the Bible is the bottom line. For those not sure where to begin, Germano has some simple advice, "Don't be afraid to try new things."
The Rev. Jeremy Steele is Next Generation minister at Christ United Methodist Church, Mobile, Alabama. He is also an author, blogger and frequent contributor to MyCom, an e-newsletter published by United Methodist Communications.