Txt ur pastor: Church embraces text-message conversations during sermons

Thursday, December 4, 2008 | 11:34 a.m. CST; updated 12:46 p.m. CST, Friday, December 5, 2008

O’FALLON  — The spotlight shone on the Rev. Mike Schreiner on a recent Sunday as he preached about who goes to heaven and how earthly relationships will translate in the hereafter.

Off to Schreiner’s right, the steady glow of dozens of cell phones lit up the section where the teens of Morning Star Church sat listening to the sermon, thumbs furiously working little keyboards.

High above the 700-seat sanctuary, Amie Haskins, 27, the director of worship, sat in the church’s control booth receiving their text messages on the church’s cell phone. She screened out some (most were about whether pets would be in heaven — a point she knew Schreiner would be addressing later in the sermon), and she typed others into a computer that was connected to Schreiner’s laptop next to him. During Schreiner’s 30-minute sermon, Haskins received 35 questions.

  • When we are in heaven, will we be able to touch our relatives still on Earth?
  • Will we look the same, or have new bodies?
  • What happens to the baby when a mom has an abortion? Does it go to heaven?
  • Will our friends who have not officially accepted Christ within a church environment still be accepted in heaven if they lived a life pleasing to God?
  • I’m wondering (and this will sound awful) about people I don’t care to bump into in heaven. Will strained relationships here be awkward there, too?
  • When we get to heaven, how will we know what Jesus, or even God, looks like? Could they look just like everyone else?

Schreiner answered just three of them, but the church’s embrace of texting — this was the third week of its experiment — has already improved the dialogue, according to Schreiner, and energized many of Morning Star’s younger members.

“I love it,” said 14-year-old Kailey Elfstrum, who had her text all ready to go even before Schreiner’s sermon began. “You get to ask the pastor anything you want while he’s talking.”

Her friend Maddie Howard, also 14, agreed. “You don’t want to admit your sins to the rest of the church, but this way you can still ask something important,” she said.

For some time now, churches have used text messaging to promote social events, keep their various ministries networked and even remind the absent-minded that they’re late for church. But now pastors, who for years have been asking people to turn off their cell phones during services, are increasingly asking them to do the opposite.

Midsermon texting is a way for pastors to engage their flocks with technology. Many of them — especially those under 30 — are using every day.

“Lots of people say this is cool or edgy, but that’s not what it’s about for us,” Schreiner said. “It’s really about staying true to our mission to meet people where they are.”

Set in a field amongst the St. Charles sprawl, Morning Star Church is part of the United Methodist Church, but it looks and feels more like a hip, contemporary evangelical congregation.

Schreiner, 41, wore his embroidered shirt untucked as he paced the stage with a tiny headset microphone. Up in the production booth, Haskins — dressed in jeans, Tina Fey-style glasses, blue canvas sneakers and pink socks — directed three technicians manning the lights and changing Scripture passages that appeared on large screens above the stage.

Some people watched Schreiner on widescreen plasma monitors from the church’s Java Bar — a coffee shop in the lobby. The church brings in about 1,500 people over three services each weekend.

Morning Star’s music director, Mark Roach, said he saw texting used recently during a worship service at the Church of Rock Creek in Little Rock, Ark. Another staff member, Ryan Redding, said he’d visited Mars Hill Church in Seattle, which was using texting at a youth service. “It was sort of a free-for-all,” Redding said. “We’re trying to use it in a more focused way.”

Windsor Crossing Community Church in Chesterfield tried using congregational texting about six months ago to take a poll during a worship service, said programming assistant Mike Veldman. He said the church hadn’t yet experimented with questions for the pastor, though it might.

The Rev. Richard Wentz, the Church of Rock Creek’s worship pastor, said so far only the church’s senior pastor, the Rev. Mark Evans, feels completely comfortable using the technology in real time. Evans was traveling and unavailable for an interview, but Wentz said the pastor likes to receive text questions in the middle of his sermon and tries to weave them into the message as he talks.

At Morning Star, Schreiner and associate pastor, the Rev. Keith Scarborough, have each answered text questions in the past few weeks. Schreiner prefers the questions remain on his laptop when they come down from the control booth. Scarborough likes them popped on the big screen for all to see.

For more senior members of the congregation whose thumbs are less dexterous, or perhaps arthritic, Morning Star also allows its members to question the pastor the old-fashioned way — with forms placed in the weekly bulletin they can write on and submit in the collection plate.

But it’s not just Morning Star’s young members who are pleased with their church’s experiment. “I think it’s neat,” Bill Sullivan, 60, said. “I hope they keep it up.”

Mike O’Brien, 44, said his 13-year-old daughter and his wife have texted questions to the church’s pastors. “It beats walking out of there with a question burning in your head and not having it answered,” he said.

Schreiner said after just three weeks of taking text-message questions, he can feel a difference in his preaching.

“It gives me a little more of a teaching role,” he said. “It gets back to Jesus Christ and the Sermon on the Mount where I picture Jesus having a conversation with the people. With texting, it becomes much more of a dialogue.”

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