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Q & A
Q&A: Pastor welcomes cellphones in worship Mary Jacobs, Mar 6, 2012
Amy L. Gearhart
The Rev. Amy L. Gearhart is senior pastor of Missouri United Methodist Church in Columbia, Mo., a historic church which offers traditional worship services. But that doesn’t keep her from embracing new technology—like allowing folks in the pews to text questions to her during the worship service. It’s creating buzz in the congregation, and she thinks it’s changing the landscape of worship—in a good way.
Ms. Gearhart spoke recently with staff writer Mary Jacobs.
How did you get started with this? I did a sermon series called “Mythbusters,” which lent itself to a conversation with the congregation about myths of our Christian faith. So, for instance, one of the myths was about reading the Bible literally. As we busted the myth about how we read the Bible . . . I invited people to text at the close of the service with questions that they had.
What kind of questions do you get? It ranges from “Why aren’t there dinosaurs in the Bible?” to what I call “question and answer sermons” where congregants can text questions about anything they want to talk about related to the church or Christianity. I did this early on when I was a new pastor here, so that people could ask questions of me. Sometimes the questions will be as simple as, “What do you do in your off time?” to profound questions like, “How do you explain the existence of evil?” or about the Christian’s relationship with persons of other faiths.
Any tips you can offer from your experience thus far? Don’t put your own personal number on the screen! Get a payphone you use just for that purpose.
At my former church, I would put a phone number up on a screen, and all of the questions would go to the operator of the screen, who would vet the questions, then put the relevant ones up on the screen. Most recently, I’ve put a phone number on the screen and invited people to text directly to the phone I’m holding. I like having the phone in my hand and being able to scroll through the questions, and then read the questions aloud.
Some pastors allow the congregation to send texts directly to the screen. I don’t do that, because you don’t have any control over what’s going on the screen, if somebody is inappropriate, or not being appreciative of this being a worshipful setting, or just wanted to horse around.
When you started this innovation, did anyone in the congregation object? I get more positive response from these sermons than I do many others. I don’t recall somebody saying I don’t like that in church. If they have that opinion, they haven’t told me!
I think it’s more because of the dialogue component of this. People are suspicious of monologue, because it doesn’t appear to be tested or challenged. There’s such skepticism about the voice of an authority, as in, “Who makes you the authority? Who’s given you the credentials to be the authority?” That’s regretful, but I think because of that, I think we’re looking at more of a first-century Jesus dialogue, where he taught through relationship. He taught sitting at the edge of a well, at a dinner table, or on a mountaintop. And each of those encounters were conversations and dialogues rather than monologues, and I think that’s what people are longing for today.
I found all generations reacted pretty positively. Even if an older adult doesn’t have a phone or doesn’t know how to text, there’s some question that somebody’s asking they’ve had before. So they’re as eager to hear the answer as the young person or the adult who’s texting. Another way that I try, with our “Q&A” services, is to preface it a couple of weeks out, saying, if you want to write down your question, we will be inviting texts but we will also be receiving written questions (in the offering plate). So there’s a point of access for someone who doesn’t text.
Have you shared “best practices” with other UM pastors as you develop this worship format? I got the idea originally from Mike Schreiner at Morning Star Church. (Editor’s note: Morning Star is a United Methodist church in Dardenne Prairie, Mo.) He was one of the first people in our conference to do it. He does it much more often than I do. For me, it’s still a special thing I do occasionally.
Even if I’m not using texting, I try to incorporate some kind of a talkback [in the worship service]. I may ask [worshippers] to call out something that’s on their minds about an issue, or turn to a neighbor and share where you spent Christmas, something like that. Just a way to break what appears to be a barrier between preacher and congregation in a monologue-type exchange.
Ever get stumped by one of the questions posed by your “live audience”? How did you handle? I try to use humor. If I recognize that a question could be a sermon in itself, I’ll just name that. I’ll say, “You’ll be hearing more about this in the next sermon series” or “I’ll write more about this in the church newsletter next week.” So that people feel like their question has been honored and heard, but they also understand that, in the context of the 15 or 20 minutes, we can’t unpack all of that.
In your experience, has worship been enhanced or deepened by the addition of texting? We know that worship is of the people and by the people towards God. But … the furniture, the design of the sanctuary and the way we set up the preacher as proclaimer, all of that can create barriers that make people think that this altar and this word is accessible only by this paid practitioner of the proclamation. Any way we can try to engage this highly interactive culture through an interactive media is a way of helping people understand that this is the word of God for the people, not just the word of God from the pastor.