The difficulty with social media and worship

microphoneI have led social media workshops in the past for churches and I’ve been commissioned to lead a series of them for my new district in the Fall.

But I have a problem.

One of the requested areas of conversation for one coming up is “social media and worship.” We’ve seen those things before.

These are all interactive ways for people to send messages across the altar rail so that the worship becomes conversational.

Here’s my problem: I’m not convinced that social media works in the worship service. I’m not convinced that when we enter the mountaintop that the social media strings keep pulling us back into the outside world.

In support of my fears, a 2009 study out of Stanford indicates that all is not well when we try to do too much. It shows that people who had other things to focus on did not perform well on their primary task:

The test subjects were shown images of letters and numbers at the same time and instructed what to focus on. When they were told to pay attention to numbers, they had to determine if the digits were even or odd. When told to concentrate on letters, they had to say whether they were vowels or consonants.

Again, the heavy multitaskers underperformed the light multitaskers.

“They couldn’t help thinking about the task they weren’t doing,” Ophir said. “The high multitaskers are always drawing from all the information in front of them. They can’t keep things separate in their minds.”

The researchers are still studying whether chronic media multitaskers are born with an inability to concentrate or are damaging their cognitive control by willingly taking in so much at once. But they’re convinced the minds of multitaskers are not working as well as they could.

My fear should be pretty obvious: if one isn’t concentrating on worship, then what will people get out of worship? A feeling of belonging, at best? Boredom, at worst? Regardless of whether or not we should be focused 100% on God and Jesus during the worship hour, the problem is that we are not focused on anything in a multi-directional environment like a social media-infused worship service.

“When they’re in situations where there are multiple sources of information coming from the external world or emerging out of memory, they’re not able to filter out what’s not relevant to their current goal,” said Wagner, an associate professor of psychology. “That failure to filter means they’re slowed down by that irrelevant information.”

So maybe it’s time to stop e-mailing if you’re following the game on TV, and rethink singing along with the radio if you’re reading the latest news online. By doing less, you might accomplish more.

It may be that our emerging generation may be one of mutants, ones who have learned how to focus and multiplex their way through worship. That would be awesome. But in the meantime, I’m trying to figure out what benefits social media in worship have that outweigh the focus issue.

So I’m asking for help:

  1. How does social media work best in the worship service?
  2. How do you deal with the “focus” issue? Or is it okay that the worship service you poured sweat and tears into only gets 50% of the congregants’ attention–if that?

Thanks for your responses!

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  1. Kevin Rutledge says

    Agreed on most your thoughts, though I think that having a single (volunteer) each week in charge of tweeting to the church’s twitter account might have a benefit.

    I would love to find a way to live broadcast a sermon later in the week and have a social interaction while it is happening that I as the pastor could participate in.

  2. says


    Thank you for raising this issue.

    It’s a very serious one. The Stanford study has since been replicated multiple times in other studies, often showing an even more deleterious effect on memory, learning, discrimination, focus and attention that can persist hours or days.

    An interesting sidelight on the original Stanford work. When the chief investigators started this, they expected to find that, indeed, “this generation” was actually better at media multitasking than previous generations might have been. What they found, of course, was that the more people multi-tasked in this way (essentially requiring the use of the prefrontal cortex, or working memory), the worse they became at multi-tasking, all the while believing they were actually getting better at it.

    Further work has shown the dopamine circuits activated in such situations that are responsible at once for the FEELING that folks are learning more and the fact that they are actually retaining and capable of focusing much, much less. Almost literally, media multi-tasking functions like an opiate for the masses who engage it.

    Now, there is a small subset of people (called “Super Taskers” or similar names) who actually CAN manage media multi-tasking well, or at least less badly than the rest of us– estimated to be a little under 2% of the population. Studies are ongoing to understand what is different about their brains to account for this “multi-tasking superpower.” Right now, not much is known, except that there appears to be nothing the 98% can do to “become” or even approximate what the 2% are capable of. Your mutants analogy might apply to them.

    So, implications for worship?

    The first is we have to be aware that we’re dealing more and more with, in effect, somewhat brain-damaged people in our worship services. Many of those who come to worship with us now are active media multi-taskers. They’re probably doing so right up to and even throughout worship. And they’ll go right back into it with a vengeance right after.

    So here’s the question– does it help or hurt folks to encourage media multi-tasking as an integral part of worship? And what do we have to do to clear at least SOME of the brain fog an increasing number of worshipers come into worship with, even if worship itself is a “multi-tasking free zone?”

    My response at this point– For the intellectual integrity and physical and emotional health of our congregations, perhaps we may be called to be a bit ardently counter-cultural not simply in worship, but in the ways we seek to conduct our lives as Christians. Here’s the reality– if we’re media multi-tasking regularly, we are NOT sober! We are literally buzzed on dopamine. Perhaps it is time for us to call our people, again not only in worship, but in daily living, toward disciplined mono-tasking.

  3. says

    Some people see social media or digital media for that matter as a goal rather than a means to achieve something–conversation, community, whatever.

    I use social media for note taking and active listening and in the process, maybe it falls on some people’s feeds and brings a word they need to hear. From a communicator and someone involved in worship planning, you’ve got to put some thought into how it’s enhancing the worship experience.

    If you’re using it as a feedback loop/for interaction/conversation during some sermon time, then carve out a space for that and guide people through it–not to control how they interact, but to prep them so it’s not a distraction.

    And re: multitasking, perhaps it’s getting at a larger issue. What’s making us restless or not connected in worship? Social media is not necessarily the fix. There are other issues that probably need to be addressed if we’d rather check email than center ourselves in worship.

    • says

      And p.s.: who says it only has to only be in the moment/live. Prepping folks before worship/sermon and inviting people to chime in after they’ve had time to digest is just as good a use of social media for extended conversations. That’s where I think there’s more hope. Creating a community who uses these tools to dialogue, process, grow.

      • Evan Duncan says

        Yeah Sophia! We shouldn’t only think of twitter as a tool for “live tweeting.” You do that for events, and church isn’t about an event, but a constant community. It is a great tool beyond just Sunday morning.

      • Debra Tyree says

        During Lent I undertook the challenge to do something with social media for our worship (I am the Min. of Music andWorship.) I decided to surround worship with posts rather than trying to post during the service. Posted in advance on FB and twitter were the scripture, clever memes, & some thoughtful questions. I had my iphone out and took notes on it during the sermon – summarizing it down to two short paragraphs. It was posted to the church FB page during the postlude with a few followup questions. I did another post later in the evening with questions/comments about applying the focus to our daily lives in the week ahead. Honestly, I decided that it was a really good way to live out my call as a Deacon to connect the worship life of the church to the world. I took tons of heat from some folks in the congregation for supposedly texting during worship even though we shared regularly that I was taking notes for posting on social media later – generational divide for sure. I am planning on doing it again this summer so folks who are traveling & miss our worship can still be connected to the community.

  4. Evan Duncan says

    We did one service where you could text/tweet in your doubts and questions about Christianity and had a pastor panel address them. It was incredible to see the honesty and genuine and powerful responses by the leadership. It also led to one couple with questions about their marriage getting in counseling and having a vow renewal service. That said, it should be used SPARINGLY and in designated times. We may revisit this special kind of service every 6 months.

    Nothing is a better compliment than a great encouraging tweet about my message when it comes AFTER service. Tweet about your church yes, just not during worship.

  5. says

    Wow! Did Taylor just call the laity brain-damaged? Or somewhat brain-damaged?

    It might be helpful to ask your responders to designate if they are clergy or lay. I think you’ll find a vast difference in the responses – even more than across ages. Clergy have that huge investment of time, energy, training, emotions into worship planning. I’m lay, completely immersed in the life of the church and just not that into worship. My experiences of worshiping God just don’t happen in a worship service – they happen elsewhere. The corporate worship service is helpful in training me to prepare and respond to those experiences.

    I like using social media during worship – and want a good wifi signal. Maybe I’m brain dead but at least I show up. Lots of people don’t.

    • says

      Not “brain-damaged” in the derogatory sense. And it’s not just laity. Addiction to media multitasking is alive and well for all of us. The question, then, is whether or not worship is a time to disengage with multitasking in order to fully focus on the worship at hand. I like Sophia’s point above that social media is a wonderful tool to “prime the pump” prior to worship and also to gain feedback and continue the conversation after. But just using it as a means “to get people to worship” is a cheap ploy employed by worship planners who obviously have no idea about the deeper implications of a world shaped by social media and technology.

  6. Jamie Michaels says

    I recently took my students on a retreat to San Francisco, and while at Glide Memorial UMC, I tweeted what we were experiencing. I found that I remembered the sermon and service elements much better afterward than I would have otherwise, AND those of our group who couldn’t come on the trip (as well as our board members and facebook/twitter followers) were able to vicariously be a part of what we were experiencing. One particularly exciting thing for me was to be able to look back later at my instagram photos – they really told the story of what we were experiencing and learning while we were on retreat! It was cool. I don’t necessarily recommend it for a contemplative service – it has it’s place and time – but for this moment, social media was a neat tool for us.

    • Patrick says

      ^ laity

      I agree with Jamie. If you are using social media in an *outbound* “producing” manner, then it’s not distracting. If you are both producing and consuming social media, it’s a hindrance.

      I will often try to tweet/post salient points when I’m in worship, often with images or check-ins. I view these as (very light) outreach and/or marketing for the service that I’m in, and like Jamie said, it gives me the opportunity to return to them later – almost bookmarking the moment – and remember what happened in the service.

      Sophia’s right – using it as a feedback loop is pretty confusing and hazardous.

    • brad says

      Pedagogically, restating a concept (whether that be retweeting, writing notes, recounting to someone else verbally, etc) helps recall and understanding, so Jaime’s experience makes sense.

      At the same time, what you do during an event reflect decisions about what you value about the event. Think of taking photos of an event: by your decisions, you’re making a choice to be somewhere on a continuum between *recording* an event and *being fully present* at an event. You may want to record the event, for example for others that aren’t there, or you may want to focus on what is happening in that moment–or maybe you need to work on your to do list! :)

  7. says

    We recently tried having a live stream of tweets going on during worship in our university chapel, and I have to say that it was pretty much a mess! We started out a few weeks before we went “live” by encouraging people to tweet during worship, if they wanted to, using a specific hash tag. Then, after a few weeks’ practice, we put it all up on the screen during worship. What we found was that it was a huge distraction–people who were trying to be funny and get recognized ended up causing a major disruption during inappropriate times–prayer, message, reflection time. So, we took it down. Now, we are using the twitter feed during our opening fellowship time, and at the end of worship, with people still being able to tweet during worship, without those tweets being displayed in the front of the chapel. So far, so good. Twitter is helping us to unite our sometimes disparate religious life community, and it has helped some students reach out to non-Chapel friends by tweeting their thoughts about worship to the “outside” world. It’s a mixed bag, but that’s what ministry with emerging adults seems to be about most of the time, and I love it!

  8. says

    Full disclosure: I’ve been an advocate for utilizing social media in worship for a while, so I am quite biased about this.

    I believe this issue has more to do with what our expectation of worship is. Is worship a space where the “learned people” share teaching with those who don’t have the education? Is it a performance where the gathered body soaks up the offerings of a select few? Is it an occasion where we expect to “get” something?

    In my mind, none of these are worship. To me, worship is something that is offered to God in an individual or collective manner. It is the work of the people to reaffirm their covenant with the Holy One. If a person can contribute to that in an active way, why should we restrict them? If a person calls out an “Amen,” or “Well?” do we say that they are overfunctioning? If a person decides they want to dance, do we tell them to sit down because they aren’t paying attention? Do we take away pencils to discourage doodling on offering envelopes?

    If worship is the work of the Holy Spirit inspiring us, why do we limit the media by which the expression of that inspiration can happen? The argument that our mind can’t work effectively when too much is happening reeks of intellectualism. Worship is supposed to be a spiritual endeavor, too … maybe even more so. While our minds may be busy, that doesn’t mean that the Spirit can’t speak to our hearts and inspire us with a question, image or story that would edify the work of the people. To me, that is liturgy.

    But again, I’m biased.

  9. Wes Stanton says

    I haven’t participated in services with tweeting used interactively by preacher or leaders, and I’m doubtful that I would find that useful. But in Annual Conference settings (where I’m ‘setting’ and not leading the service) I’ve participated in twitter side-chatter, that reminded me of nothing more than the old days of sitting with my family in the pew, jotting notes on my bulletin & passing it to a parent or sibling. It was a way of engaging with the content of the service, and in the ethos of church and family in that day & age, it was appropriate. The experience at Conference was that of sitting in the pew with a few friends, engaging with the content of the service as a community, rather than as an isolated individual.

  10. Nancy says

    Concerns about the way our brains function aside, I believe that using social media during worship highlights and confirms the “worst” of how many people see worship: as an aggregate of individuals and their subjective experience s rather than the re-creation of the body of Christ in which individuals are called to self-denial for the sake of the body.

  11. Heather says

    As a pastor of two, small rural churches (one of them doesn’t even have WiFi-imagine that!), very little of this phenom is relevant to where we are NOW. I wonder if the Twitter/liveblog approach is the price we will have to pay to reach a younger generation with worship that is relevant. Or perhaps I should say, the approach we will need to use rather than the “price we have to pay.” At 45, I find myself to be very ambivalent about social media, while recognizing it does have benefits and is the preferred mode of communication and discussion amongst my daughters’ generation. Just cause I’m not overly fond of it down’t mean I’d be averse to trying to utilize it if it were effective in preaching the Good News. But from the various articles I’ve read and from what I’ve observed (anecdata, I know), the effectiveness is somewhat dubious. Perhaps I simply need to get a Smartphone and give Twitter a shot.

  12. says

    I take notes to help retain what I hear at church. I just do it on twitter. This has the added benifit that it impacts others. In fact, despite taking a lot of time to send out helpful links during the week, the tweets from my church’s Saturday service are the ones with the most likes and retweets, so while I’m learning, I’m also spreading the Word. It’s a win/win.

    I think there’s something else at play here. You don’t (or shouldn’t) go to church for yourself, to be fed. You go to help others, to serve, to be a part of the community, too. If you’re going just to learn and absorb, don’t use social media. If you’re going to reach out and replicate the Message to the world, then by all means, share what you get.


  13. Bob Dean says

    Dear Jeremy and Friends,
    This is my first response, and I got to this blog via Taylor Watson Burton-Edwards’ post in the UMC Worship FB group. (And some of this is what I shared on that page, but wanted to give you the resource referenced below, as you weigh how to present in your workshops.)
    On the one hand, I think we should always use caution about adopting a “technique” (be it social media or Gregorian Chant) simply because it is either new or different. Worship must be God-centered and contextual.
    But, I also think we have to be careful of vilifying multi-taking (despite what some research is showing). I’m not negative about research – my father taught sociology, and my undergrad major was psychology. However, both my father and my experience taught me that you always question how much the research methodology might affect results. In this study, I have to wonder if using a task that is totally contrived (and sounds incredibly boring) would be one that those who routinely multitask would naturally do poorly on. In a simliar vein, I wonder if persons who are more “right-brain” would do poorly, too.
    While I don’t think Taylor means to imply that those who multi-task are “brain-damaged”, it is true that the brains before us are changing as we speak/blog. That is one of the points made in the summary of the paper I quote (and give a link for) below.
    Before quoting about brain change, I think we need to be careful that we don’t see brain change, or differing abilities, as “better” or “worse”. As a pastor I have worked with a variety of ministry associates (pastors and other staff members). It’s been clear to me that the most creative of my associates over the years were not gifted in the areas of organization or linear thinking. In our UM system, that’s almost always labeled as “BAD”. And, while I have gifts in organization and administration, I will readily confess that creativity, artistic sensibilities, and outside-the-box thinking to not come naturally to me. THerefore, I work well in a system that rewards achieving methodical tasks. Methodists seem very ill-equipped to accept the gifts and graces fo the un-methodical, despite the riches they bring to our worship and discipleship.
    But, enough commentary: here’s the main point I want to lift up. Research (see below) suggests that human brains adapt, not only over generations, but within lifetimes. I find youth much more able to listen to something they’re interested in even while doing other things – texting, talking, drawing on the white board (I’m thinking of Confirmation). They often appear unengaged, only to suddenly look right at me and bring up the most profound questions about the topic at hand.
    I think we are seeing what Dr. Ulla Foehr discussed in her paper (link below):
    “…research ultimately suggests that brain capacity is finite and attention to one task diminishes as another is introduced (just,et al, 2001). But what is the broader implication of media multitasking?
    “Experts certainly believethat if young people media multitask and do so from an early age, genes will adapt (seligman, 2006).
    But research suggests that changes will happen not just over time, through natural selection, but in one’s own lifetime. “Contrary to early brain research, neurological work over the last few decades has shown that the brain changes based on use… Research has shown that animals, as well as people, inhabiting “enriched environments,” those providing more stimulating experiences than control environments, experience more brain growth (Mohammed et al., 2002). The neurological literature allows informed speculation about the impact of excessive media multitasking. It is clear that the brain adapts based on use…
    “It is possible, however, that with all the multitasking practice our brains will adapt and be able to balance both multitasking and extended concentration. Comments such as “my son can process alltheinformation on screen at once, but I can only focus on one thing” are illustrative of neurological adaptation forces at work. Many young people’s brains are well practiced at managing multiple kinds of information in virtual simultaneity.”

  14. Kris says

    Hey Jer –
    Great points. At Relevance Lead, Dan Wunderlich started the conversation for us about this. (He might be a great person to chat with about it actually!) He said social media is a great tool, but we get to decide how we use it. Social media draws whoever reads what we post into whatever we’re doing and wherever we are – which means that people tweeting during/after a worship service or posting photos of what they see and experience could be a great evangelism tool to draw people who wouldn’t normally seek a church experience into some brush with the community and some exposure to the faith/thought processes of the poster. It’s passive evangelism. At the same time, how easy is it to slip from posting to perusing, and be drawn in the same way away from whatever we’re doing? I think we’ve got to give people the benefit of the doubt in some of this, and say “If this helps you engage better, by all means, post away! Share what’s going on!” It helps in our community (which is multi-site) connect worshipping congregations who don’t interact in many other ways keep up with what’s going on with one another. At the same time “If you find this distracting, you have our permission to turn off your phone and tune in exclusively to what’s happening in this room with this community for the next hour and a half.” or whatever. I think in some ways, it’s very optimistic to think we have exclusive hold on people’s attention in church anyway (avg. adult attention span is 12 minutes and most sermons are 20, most worship services an hour or more, so people are essentially tuning in and out anyway). For some, posting might be a way of thinking, condensing expressing and remembering their thoughts concretely or engaging questions they are processing in a larger community; for others, it diffuses and derails. We can give people permission to do either. It’s one of your both/ands :) (All that said, I don’t give youth the option. I take away the phones during youth group because I know they are way more synced than the adults 24/7, and they need the time away from it!!!)

  15. says

    One of the challenges we all face is listening to sermon for someone else and not for ourselves (“so-and-so really should hear this!”) Do we tweet or post or share for the same reasons? Or, do we listen for what we need to hear and use social platforms to continue our engagement with the worship service throughout the week and in our circles?

    LIke Sophia and Paul, I use technology to take notes and make observations to revisit later. I used to write in the margins of my Bible or service folder. If I do post something during the service, it is rare. And, I do not consume social media during worship. I do check in to my place of worship at the beginning.

    Regarding the multi-tasking references – there are some minds that are quieted and focus better when another part of their brain is occupied. If you are one that used to study in front of the television or while listening to music, you are probably one of those that manage multiple streams better. For me, having music in the background allows me to concentrate on more analytic tasks than complete silence does. But, having to switch between 2 analytical tasks is more difficult. Be aware of different learning styles and how individuals prioritize tasks. I have plenty of examples of how this is not what we seem to see in others.

    Ultimately, I don’t think a church body or organization should make the determination. However, one can bring light to ramifications of having the media serve us, or us serving the media.


  16. says

    I’m a visual-kinesthetic learner whose ability to listen and hear is directly tied to being able to do something visual and kinesthetic. Years ago I’d doodle or write notes during worship to stay focused. Now I’m more likely to tweet or text. I like to think I engage in this activity as unobtrusively as possible. I’ve also been known to take pictures of text from the worship bulletin and post that to Twitter with a comment about how the words have meaning in the context of worship.

    Turns out that using digital tools to help me focus and share thoughts, feelings, insights with others is far more interactive and community-oriented that scribbling in the margins of the worship bulletin. Quite frankly I’ve grown weary of these screeds against using social media during worship services. Just the other day on Twitter I suggested that a deeper focus on one’s own worship experience might be more spiritual fruitful than assume the worst about what others are doing with their hearts, minds, and smartphones.

    I explore these issues and more in my new book, The Social Media Gospel: Sharing the Good News in New Ways, forthcoming from Liturgical Press this July.

  17. Julie A. Arms says

    laity & 52
    While I generally check in at my church on Facebook & update my status to reflect I am going to worship, I tend to use pen & paper (worship folder) to take notes during worship rather than via social media. I think if I were clergy, it would make me a little crazy to be expected to pay attention to tweets during a sermon – and it might make the congregation equally distracted.

    I like Sophia’s means to reflect afterwards. I also like Jamie’s use of social media to allow others to participate vicariously when they cannot be present. Personally, I feel weird about using a camera in worship which is really odd because anyone who knows me knows I always have a camera in hand at any other event. I guess I just feel I’m a distraction to others (whether true or not).


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