Church Culture and Cellphones

Thanks to Paul Lawrence, professor at Minnesota North College/Mesabi Range Campus in Virginia, MN, for sharing Education Next’s article Take Away Their Cell Phones: So We Can Rewire Schools for Belonging and Achievement; and to Springtide Research Institute for their related article, Comparisons: How Social Media Impacts Gen Z Mental Health, which together sparked this Great Idea.

Research from all over the place is agreeing, time and time again, that the ever-present cell phone and its constant access to social media, is playing havoc with the mental, social, physical, and spiritual well-being of our young people (and all of us!).

How might spiritual communities interrupt this narrative, restoring younger generations (especially, but not exclusively!) to greater all-around health?

Start with an informed and on-board adult group: mentors, teachers, pastors, youth leaders – everyone needs to agree that this is important and that they will participate in the effort. See Take Away Their Cell Phones for excellent data to support your efforts and the trouble with the ‘cool teacher’: without full buy-in from adults, efforts to undermine the cultural shift will likely prevail.

Subvert those efforts amongst your teens and tweens by encouraging them to buy in of their own volition: Explore the Springtide article and/or read the recent NYT article, ‘Luddite’ Teens Don’t Want Your Likes, which shares stories of teens owning and encouraging cell-phone-free and social-media-savvy attitudes amongst themselves – and creating their own off-line cultures and norms.

[Avoid perceptions of being completely anti-tech by exploring positive tech use from our curated list, here.]

Once folx are on-board, see Take Away Their Cellphones for a variety of ways to encourage relinquishment of cell phones in church settings. Adaptations for church settings are simple and plentiful.

For example: Rev. Kara Root shared her Liturgy of the Cell Phones – for releasing and retrieving phones in worship, gatherings, and events, at our ConNext Summit this past fall. (Find Kara’s litany here and in Receiving This Life: Practicing the Deepest Belonging; Fortress Press, 2023.) You might also create your own litanies for different settings, allowing members to put their intentions and goals into their own words as part of creating the phone-free culture.

Another essential component in creating a counter-cultural environment is Spinning a Web of Relationships. Much of the allure of social media is the pull toward virtual relationships – very few of which are as nourishing, supportive, or empowering as they purport to be. Churches are multi-generational communities: build on this blessing by creating opportunities for intergenerational relationships to thrive. Every event and gathering – from worship to youth gatherings to confirmation/Sunday school and women’s/men’s/non-binary events can be shaped with a lens at creating and reinforcing intergenerational relationships. Decrease everyone’s dependence on ‘likes’ and virtual reality with real-world interactions and relationships.

Another essential and related role the church has in countering negative outcomes of virtual reality and social media is as a place of ‘belonging’. This is, of course, rooted in relationships, but from those relationships we learn that we are valued, wanted, important, and, to quote The Velveteen Rabbit: real. Calling out spiritual and more tangible gifts (including some tech-savvy ones you might discover while exploring positive uses for tech) and utilizing them to enhance the community, to support ministries of care and compassion for others, to grow as a body – these are beautiful ways to affirm individuals and increase their sense of belonging. Find different gifts inventories here – but mostly, as folx get to know one another, call out those gifts that are discovered, affirm them, and encourage their exploration and use in positive settings and toward life-enhancing goals.