Don Follis: There is no stopping digital devices from going to church
A few months back I sat around a table with three 20-something young men. With iPhones in hand, we four looked up and discussed several Bible verses. These digital natives and I found our Bible references using the digital app called YouVersion (a popular free Bible phone app). None of us carried a Bible in traditional book form.
In Jan. 17-23, 2013, interviews with 1078 adults 18 or older, the Barna research group found that the Millennials (born after 1980) are in a class of their own when it comes to faith experience and practice in this digital age.
While the church historically has used practices of prayer, Scripture reading and gathering on Sunday to worship, the advent of the Internet, and more recently social media, have solidly shaped the faith habits of Millennials.
The Oct. 15 Barna report on how technology is changing Millennial faith is clear. The first and last thing people do every day is check their smartphones. When they want to know an answer to a question, they "Google it." Scrolling through Facebook, Instagram and Twitter feeds has become a solid fixture in their lives.
Most of you are reading this while holding a newspaper. A few of you are reading this online. If you're under 30 years old, you most likely only read a newspaper online, if at all.
The Barna research shows that the faith practices of Christian Millennials are tied almost exclusively to their digital practices. "Seven out of 10 practicing Christian Millennials (70 percent) read Scripture only on a screen. One-third of all Millennials say they read sacred Scripture on a phone ... demonstrating how broadly the digital trends are shaping this generation."
There now are nearly as many YouVersion downloads of the Bible as there are Instagram downloads, according to the Barna research. And BibleGateway.com, a resource I turn to every day for my reading and reflection, has become one of the top Christian websites.
Truthfully, I rarely read a Bible anymore printed on paper. At a seminar for pastoral care that I attended last week, a Catholic priest leading one of the sessions had all his notes on his iPhone 5s, which he navigated effortlessly.
It's not just the online Bible the Millennials use. They are heavy users of online videos pertaining to faith, with 54 percent of practicing Christian Millennials saying that they regularly turn to Christian videos, especially music videos.
And how, you ask, do Millennials find churches or synagogues? Well, 55 percent of practicing religious Millennials use an online search to scope out a house of worship. One Millennial told me, "I would not attend a church without first checking it out online."
The old so-called one-way communication from pulpit to pew is not how Millennials experience faith. By its very nature, digital connectedness is interactive. Thus, nearly all Millennials bring their devices — mostly smart phones but also tablets — to church with them.
In a Sunday sermon the pastor might say, "If you brought your Bible with you today, please turn to this passage." What do you mean if I brought my Bible with me, ask Millennials? It's with them — including multiple translations — 24/7 on their smartphones.
Pastors, if Millennials think the facts in your sermon confuse them, well guess what? They can fact-check you right at their fingertips. And they do. A striking 40 percent of Millennials in Barna's research group who say they are Christians regularly fact check what the pastor says, if they have any questions or confusion.
That fact checking may also include texting a friend with a question, tweeting or putting on Facebook something you say they happen to like or even playing a video game — all while you are still preaching!
One person said to me, "Staring at your phone during church looks so rude." But is it? Be careful Mister-take-the-log-out-of-your-own-eye. Those people may be tracking step-for-step with the preacher by following the text on their smartphones.
Indeed, this could be the week to suggest to your pastor to download "Documents To Go" (Google that) so the preaching henceforth can be done while holding a smartphone or a digital tablet. Crazy? Well, only if you are older than 30. Several pastors I know of actually encourage congregants to text their questions to a given number during the preaching. The pastor then takes the last five minutes of the sermon time to address those questions.
Last Sunday when the offering bags were passed, I wondered about the Millennials. Would they ever use the offering envelopes in the back of the pews? They don't write checks. They don't carry cash. They have but two constant companions — their smartphones and their debit cards.
Indeed, the Barna research shows that Christian Millennials are giving their money to the church, but for the most part, the giving is paperless. Forty percent of Christian Millennials who say they are active givers donate their funds online. Technology powers their charitable engagement.
David Kinnaman, president of the Barna Group, talked about the implications of this research: "Millennials live in an era of radical transparency, powered by social and digital tools. Any leader or organization who wants to engage Millennials must learn this."
Because their conversation about faith already is happening online, Kinnaman says, "the digital world simply makes this kind of interaction and transparency a non-negotiable among the youngest generations."
For those Millennials still in the church, it is a positive trend that they want faith that is holistically integrated into all areas of life — foremost being their technology.
Could the bottom line be any clearer? How the church acknowledges and engages the digital domain among young adults 18-30 — young people who absolutely will make many decisions that affect baby boomers like me — will determine much about its long-term effectiveness among the digital natives.
Don Follis has pastored in Champaign-Urbana for 35 years. He directs retreats and coaches leaders via blog.pastortopastorinitiatives.com. Contact him at email@example.com, and you can follow him on Twitter @donfollis.