Is It OK To Use a Cellphone in Church? Pew Surveys the New Etiquette

The Pew Research Center has pubished a new report on cellphone etiquette. If you’ve ever wondered whether your fellow Americans are judging you for talking on your phone in public, or checking baseball scores during a party, or texting in a movie theater, then this report has the answers you crave.

Pew surveyed more than 3,000 adults about their cellphone behavior (stuff like “How often do you carry your cellphone with you?”), and about their feelings toward the behavior of their fellow citizens (for example, “How often do you encounter people using their cellphone in a loud or annoying manner in public?”).

For those of us who enjoy thinking about religion, custom, technology, and culture, the report offers two insights–one about religious services, and one about the difficulties of studying etiquette through surveys.

It’s “Generally Not OK,” But…

One part of the Pew study asked respondents to gauge the appropriateness of using cellphones in various places, including whether it is “generally okay or not okay for people to use their cellphones…at church or [a] worship service.” A full 96% of those surveyed chose “generally not okay,” which was slightly higher than those who condemn mobile use in movie theaters.

This finding indicates not only that the secular chambers of the cinema still don’t command quite the respect of Good Old Fashioned Faith—but also that the Pew methodology may be a bit out of whack.

I make that latter point based on my recent experiences in church—which are myriad, because while I may be a Jew, I am also a religion reporter. If you haven’t seen it yourself, trust me: people in the pews are constantly whipping out their phones in order to look up Bible passages, take notes during sermons, and, perhaps, do other things. Bible apps like YouVersion, which claims close to 200 million downloads, are now a common way to find, say, Matthew 7:5 quickly, instead of having to rifle through a pulp-and-glue book.

It’s possible that some people are hypocrites about phone use in church (cf. Matthew 7:5). But it’s also possible that the question was just confusing.

The problem here is that when Pew asks questions about how people use their cellphones, they’re entering vague territory, because there’s no agreed-upon definition of “use.” I’d wager hard cash that if you asked the exact same question about churches after priming people to think of Bible apps, those opinions would be very different. “Oh, that kind of ‘use’! That’s generally okay.”

From Etiquette to Ethics

This brings us to our second insight, which is that it’s very hard to measure etiquette through a survey.

Our judgments of proper etiquette tend to be subtle, unstated, often subconscious, and context-dependent. Pew researchers built in some wiggle room by affixing the word “generally” to everything—but that doesn’t overcome the basic issue, which is that broad-brush, quantifiable questions can only capture a slice of what’s going on.

Pew is right to consider etiquette something worthy of study, of course. Etiquette is entangled with ethics—basic social norms and judgments pervade our daily interactions with fellow human beings. We pay attention to laws, and to the doctrines and practices of religious groups, but we tend to overlook the role that etiquette plays in our lives.

That’s especially true with digital technology, which has handed us a fast-changing culture to which we’ve responded with a lot of of commenting, speculating, and damn, those kids are all doing x, y, and z on their cellphones, and it’s an outrage! 

Pew’s study of cellphone etiquette gives us one way to begin digging into a much larger set of questions: which norms do we, and should we, place around the use of digital tools? When are these opinions just personal preferences, and when do they take on a more explicit ethical dimension? When should we enforce them?

Part of the problem is that while there’s a lot of cultural criticism about internet and cellphone use, and also reams of hard data, there’s not as much ethnographic work. There’s not that much in-depth, person-to-person reporting, either. Survey questions are good to have. But sometimes you have to dig deeper.

10 Comments

  • bw40ny@gmail.com' Bee Wald says:

    I believe that generally it is not okay to use a cell phone at a worship place unless it is an absolute emergency. People should go to church to develop their religious aspect of their life. If people take out time on Sunday morning to go to church, people should 100% be engaged into that without using their cellular devices because we use our cellular devices for hours everyday.

  • whiskyjack1@gmail.com' Whiskyjack says:

    As the author suggests, I seriously doubt that polling methodology can accurately reflect this kind of thing. There are serious differences, for example, between church attendance as people report it to pollsters versus actual church attendance defined by bums in the pews. The same holds true for cell phone usage.

  • retrorita@mail.com' RetroRita says:

    My phone stays at home unless I’m on some long distance trip.

  • fishmanlm@guilford.edu' AriaKittan08 says:

    I personally find it super rude when I see people on their cell phones at temple. However it be a lie to say I have never done it. Although I find this surgery question relevant and interesting I do agree it’s a difficult question to ask. I feel like whipping your phone out at church is not an act many would openly admit to or its an act that is almost like second nature and you don’t know you’re doing it.

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    Some people might have better things to do there than develop their religious aspect. With modern electronics there is competition for what is the best thing to do in church, and the marketplace can sort it out.

  • jazminburr@gmail.com' Jasmine says:

    I went to church with my mom a while back and an elderly fellow answered his phone and started having a loud conversation in the middle of a prayer! The guy was like, “No I’m not doing much. Just sitting here in church. What are you up to? The pastor stopped talking and there was this awkward silence by everyone except the guy just yakking on the phone with his friend. You could just feel the tension in the congregation. I was trying so hard not to laugh. Afterwards I told the pastor he should have asked if he could talk to the guy on the phone and then asked him why he wasn’t in church.

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    He might have been pressured to attend by other family members.

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    Having a phone always with you is actually better than having a phone only at home. I think young people understand this nowdays.

  • rita.cimino@mail.com' CWG38 says:

    Both the young and old abuse the convenience of carrying a phone.

  • riley.caruana@aol.com' Meg Griffin says:

    Every situation is different. I know several people at my church that use a bible app on their cell phone during the service. However, I also see several people using their phones for other things during the service, like texting. I believe if you’re going to sit through church for two hours, you need to be engaged and active in the service. If not, why are you there? If you want to text during a service then you can do it from home while listening to a service through a podcast. It’s not fair to other members of the audience to constantly be on your phone, it’s distracting.

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