Smartphones in Utah churches: Are they a heavenly help or a devilish distraction?

Christian clergy may be irretrievably divided on doctrine, but whether priest, pastor, bishop or apostle, they agree on this: Smartphones can be a pain in the pulpit.

There’s nothing like the sudden blaring of an AC/DC “Highway to Hell” ring tone to throw off the rhythmic meter of an Orthodox liturgical chant, make Catholics grimace as they file toward Holy Communion, turn an evangelical pastor’s altar call for salvation into thoughts of perdition, or cause Mormons to drop a word or two of that sacramental hymn.

Yes, cellphones can be an ecumenical annoyance, disrupting sacred services, distracting worshippers from the Word and plunging the ponderings of even the most fervent followers from the heavenly to the worldly.

Even Pope Francis, perhaps one of the most affable, patient and forgiving “vicars of Christ” in memory, bemoaned the sight of Catholics — in St. Peter’s Basilica, of all places — snapping photos and shooting videos with their phones during services.

“The priest who celebrates Mass says, ‘Lift up your hearts,’” the pontiff chastised. “He doesn’t say, ‘Lift up your cellphones to take a photo.’ This is a bad thing.”

Those words from Rome echoed in the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City, too. But how to implement them? There’s the rub for a parish priest or any 21st-century spiritual shepherd.

“We do not ask people to silence their phones. I follow the principle that those who need the warning are the ones who do not heed the warning,” says the Rev. Martin Diaz of downtown’s Cathedral of the Madeleine, adding that he usually chooses to “ignore [a ring tone] and not react.”

Still, there are limits. A long ring tone during a homily, for example, might prompt a soft reprimand from Diaz like, “Let God know you’re busy right now,” or “It must be God calling.”

‘Still, small voice,’ not cellphone alerts

However, at Salt Lake City’s Greek Orthodox Holy Trinity Cathedral, the Rev. George Nikas says phone use in the nave is anathema.

“We don’t allow it and people should know that, anyway,” he says. “In many Orthodox churches [not his, yet] they even put up signs [banning phone use] where people come in.”

Rare exceptions are made for taking a photo or video of a wedding or baptism, but otherwise, Nikas says, church is a time for prayer, preaching and worship, not texting, checking social media, news updates or sports scores.

“You need to remember that you are walking into a holy space,” he adds, “not a football stadium or arena.”

Mormon apostle M. Russell Ballard has expressed similar concerns, warning his fellow Latter-day Saints that smartphones “need to be our servants, not our masters, [distracting] us from hearing the ‘still small voice’” of God.

“I also worry that some of you check your email, Facebook, Twitter or Instagram accounts or send text messages during . . . our sacred sacrament meeting,” Ballard stated during a recent Church Educational System devotional.

“You cannot connect to the spirit during the presentation of the sacrament,” he said, “while looking at or sending a message on your smartphone or tablet.”

Ballard praised phone apps that provide quick access to scriptures and other Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints documents online. But even those should be off-limits during presentation of the communion, he said.

Indeed, Ballard urged Mormons to put their devices in “airplane mode” — thus suspending all incoming voice, text, telephone and network notifications — for Sunday’s entire three-hour block of LDS services.

‘Only accept calls from God’

However, the less liturgical or patriarchal the church setting, the more varied the attitudes, ranging from barely restrained digital disdain to reluctant or enthusiastic acceptance of smartphones.

“Worship is a participatory activity between you and your God, anything distracting from this is damnable,” declares the Rev. Hank Malone, pastor of Salt Lake City’s St. John’s Lutheran Church.

Still, Malone allows that if reverence is the standard, smart digital devices can benefit spiritual development.

“Googling to determine if a doctrine being taught is orthodox would meet these criteria,” the pastor suggests. “Following the reading of scripture would also qualify. Taking pictures of that hot lady next to your wife is out.”

Above all, Malone wryly asks his flock: “Keep the ringer off and only accept calls from God.”

For those who don’t, St. John’s Lutheran has “ushers to promote good order and discipline. They are also known to teach smartphones to fly short distances,” Malone jokes.

Sometimes, though, the divine, not the devil, is in the device.

The Rev. Terry Long, pastor of Murray’s Calvary Chapel, says with the advent of scripture apps, more smartphones than Bibles come out during his sermons. Some congregants even check online to confirm his interpretation of an occasional Greek or Hebrew reference.

“I have also been teaching and trying to remember a movie title or a book I have read [and] people will Google it and yell it out for me,” Long says. “This has been comical and useful at times.”

But those ring tones? Yes, the pastor says, they go off rather regularly as people forget reminders to mute their phones. But Long acknowledges he, too, was recently humbled when his own ring tone went off while he was speaking.

“I quickly pulled my phone out of my pocket and used that [incident] to show how rude it was to have your phone go off during the service,” he recalls. “Then I told my mom I would call her back.”

Long’s congregants chuckled, but the pastor had made his point — to them and to himself.

Pros, cons and connections

The Rev. Tom Goldsmith, senior minister of Salt Lake City’s First Unitarian Church, remembers one particular smartphone ring that threatened to undermine his sermon’s theme.

“I was expounding upon the wondrous gifts of life that bless us beyond our own making [when] a gut-wrenching blues ring tone blasted forth,” he says. “The juxtaposition of ‘good life-tough life’ posed a momentary dilemma.

“I said, ‘OK, I plan on getting to the hard stuff as well.’ After all, Unitarians are never comfortable with good news alone.”

Humor is the key to matters of phone etiquette, Goldsmith says, along with taking the pros and cons of technology in stride.

“Worship services are now competing with entertainment and sports easily accessible by phone, and the petitioner typically waits less time for an NFL connection than it takes God to answer a prayer,” Goldsmith quips.

The Rev. Jim Ayers of West Valley City’s Life Church also has tried to take the lighthearted approach. At one point, he tried putting up a request on the preservice display monitors that read, “Please silence your cellphones . . . and children.”

It got some laughs, but otherwise didn’t really work and eventually was abandoned.

“Most people aren’t trained by parents to respect public places or if they were trained, they’ve ignored it,” Ayers opines. “I think in some situations it’s just better to go with the flow unless it gets too out of line. It reduces ulcers.”

However, Ayers acknowledges there are times he can’t resist at least a mild, loving retort.

“Probably one of the worst cellphone rings actually happened last Sunday,” he says. “It was very loud. ... I just joked, ‘I think that’s God. He’s calling to say I’m right.’

“Unfortunately, probably just two minutes later her phone when off again. I just ignored it.”

The Rev. Troy Champ, pastor of Salt Lake City’s Capital Church, likewise laments the occasional ring tone going off on a Sunday. But, he adds, “In this day and age, I think it’s a reality we have to learn to manage with grace.”

Champ is an enthusiastic fan of Bible apps and encourages their use — in and out of church. Such apps as “YouVersion,” he notes, not only provide a readily accessible and searchable Bible, but also study plans through the year.

As for photos being taken during his services, that doesn’t bother Champ either. He says Capital Church’s website serves as an interactive tool for worshippers, offering graphics, prayers and “homework” related to the message of the week.

“The pros of smartphones outweigh the cons,” he says, “and I’m thankful that disciples of Jesus are finding creative ways of using technology to grow closer to God and each other.”