Thumb wars

Posted Jun 28, 2011 | New Media Project


By Jason Byassee

I’d never had this happen before, but I’m sure more of it is coming.

I was teaching Sunday School. I’d prepared the night before, used material from years of research, spiffed it up, and was giving it my best. I was even exposing more of myself than I generally do when I teach, talking about how the topic—prison ministry—had affected my own family and life.

I was not 5 minutes in before I noticed the man directly in front of me had his phone out and was clicking away with his thumbs.

At first I figured I’d win him over. Be more profound, funny, Jesus-y, entertaining. It didn’t work. Next came resentment: “Who’s he got to email on a Sunday morning?” By the end, I tried to let it go, but I couldn’t help thinking, “What if we were in a different pastoral situation? What if he or someone he loved was in the hospital and I was the pastor called to offer care, and what if then I pulled out my phone and started thumb-clicking? He wouldn’t care for it, would he?”

Checking one’s smartphone during conversations or intimate gatherings seems to me to be more commonplace these days. And it’s not just texting: A friend tells me of a wedding in which a groomsman’s cellphone rang. This is common enough, if not still embarrassing. What happened next though was truly epic: The man answered the phone, the congregation heard the caller ask, “What’s up?”, and he answered so that everyone could hear, “Nuthin’.”

As a preacher and professor, it seems that I’m going to have to get used to competing with the increasingly brazen use of personal devices. States wouldn’t have to pass laws against texting while driving if people didn’t do it and then crash. As one who cares about teaching and small group gatherings, I wonder how we can overaccept this development as theologian and priest Sam Wells suggests, borrowing from the language of improvisational acting (Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics, Brazos Press, 2004).  We cannot simply block the use of devices, insisting no one touch them in our presence. Nor can we simply accept thumb wars during weddings and church. How can we overaccept the devices, instead?  How can we draw them into our life by including them in a larger story where they have a role for good?

A friend gave me a suggestion: A university dean he knows asks his entire staff to come to all two hours of his staff meetings. He tells them to bring their laptops and work on their own stuff when he’s engaging others. He doesn’t want to waste their time, and truly not everyone is needed for the whole meeting. Yet working in the same room, when other conversations are going on, can be helpful.  When we hear with half an ear something we care about, we tune back in, and when it’s time for key people to talk they close their devices. The dean finds his staff feels less resentful of potentially time-wasting meetings, more alert when the agenda turns to their work, and more likely to weigh in on their colleagues’ concerns.

How would this play in the church? I have no idea. Until we decide Sunday School or a wedding are as important as a staff meeting, I doubt we’ll come up with innovative solutions. But perhaps with a little creativity we can find a way the devices can be used for good and not for ill, even when the first reason folks un-holster them may not be to listen to us better.

Jason Byassee, a research fellow for the New Media Project, is a research fellow in theology and leadership at Leadership Education at Duke Divinity School.

The New Media Project is a research project helping religious leaders become theologically savvy about technology. To request permission to repost this content, please contact


  1. 1 Jim Rice 31 Jan
    The most "brazen" example I've ever witnessed: While in the middle of the sermon, a pastor (who will remain unnamed) pulled out his smartphone and started answering a text ... while he was preaching! I guess that's multitasking for you ...
  2. 2 Antoine 31 Jan
    Indeed, the social behaviors aspect of mobile tech is unsettling, especially within those groups where we hold that giving or having undivided attention is key to learning. I'd say though that the response to this is a sword with twi edges (don't all swords have two edges is the next realization):

    - what about the presenter/teacher is not engaging enough to keep people off their mobile devices? Could it be the lesson, the location, the repetition of the behavior, etc.? If those can be modified, even if once per month, what does that do to reengage that attention span?

    - what about the lessons towards spiritual development and concentrated disciplines need to be better emphasized (Joshua 1:8 kind of lessons)? How do you teach discipline towards hearing, meditating/contemplation, and study? Is the Sunday school/sermon even teaching such behaviors, or assuming that cultural learning ("you learn quietly because we've always learned this way") will override the behaviors of digitally-enabled cultures?

    I don't disagree that its distracting, nor that its a problem for many. I do think that addressing the solution requires that we actually think about the causes of the symptoms, rather than the manifested behaviors.
  3. 3 David Mays 31 Jan
    Maybe, just maybe, he was sending the text to someone who could not attend. Maybe, he was so excited about what you were saying he just had to tell someone. Maybe, we need to learn to offer the Good News, the Kingdom of God is Near, and let them decide what, if anything, they will do about it.
  4. 4 Laura 31 Jan
    Just saying...



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