It’s Sabbath morning and Charisse Hernandez is ready. Sabbath dress, purse, and shoes on, she grabs her keys from the table and does a quick double check for her iPhone before climbing into her car and driving to church.
Hernandez, an Adventist baby boomer, lives in Puerto Rico to be close to her ailing mother. For her, having the smartphone is necessary, and not only for emergency calls. “I have my Bibles, Spanish and English, on my phone and I do use it to read a verse or passage in English to compare it with the Spanish version,” she says. “I also have different versions and sometimes I compare texts, this helps me to understand some things better.”
According to research conducted by network experts Ericsson, 6.1 billion smartphones will be in use by 2020, an enormous jump from the 2.6 billion smartphone users recorded in 2014. The 6.1 billion phones represent 70 percent of the global population; Ericsson also estimates 90 percent of the populated world will have high-speed mobile data coverage by 2020.1
It isn’t unusual to see Adventists walk into church clutching their phones, or worshiping heads down, eyes focused on the small screens as the service proceeds.
“I am usually looking up Scriptures or letting my kids hold my phone to use the Bible apps,” says Chip Dizárd, a multi-talented tech blogger from Baltimore, Maryland. “I also may respond to texts when they come in, as I am in the media department for my church.”
Useful tools, smartphones do make convenient “Bibles,” and can also help keep young children engaged in church-appropriate activities via apps, the age’s new “Sabbath bags” of coloring books, Bible puzzles, and stories.
Unfortunately, smartphone usability doesn’t stop there. Constantly connected to the world, users can check sports team scores, the latest CNN headlines, or see delicious looking food dishes made in about 30 seconds à la time lapse. Between Kardashian Instagram pictures, constant election-year Tweets, BuzzFeed quizzes, and thousands of games, tempting distractions are literally a finger swipe away.
We get distracted from God just by living: money, hobbies, relationships, media. Sometimes, writes Fritz Chery, “we’re consumed with our technology all day, and we only acknowledge God right before we go to sleep with a quick 20-second prayer.”2
We always need balance and time with God. But Sabbath is special. Exodus 20:8-11 is clear: six days for work; one day for Sabbath rest with God. It saves us from the fate of seed sown among thorns where the things of “this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful (Mark 4:19).
We need Sabbath time to refresh—to both unplug and recharge—in order to “live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord” (1 Cor. 7:35). We also need distance from the smartphone’s potentially unending demands to achieve renewal and discernment from God (see Rom. 12:2).
And while our use of handheld devices is the most obvious offender, humanity has been dealing with media distractions since the first story was written on papyrus.
Imagine the distraction when newspapers first printed daily news and people became connected with their world at, for many, an affordable cost. Or when radio shows kept listeners pinned to their living room seats. Or when the 1950s brought TVs into those living rooms, and the late 70s offered computers that would, 20 years later, easily be connected to a World Wide Web of streaming information. The argument can be made that Sabbath then, too, was under siege.
But at no other time in recorded history has media access been so pervasive and obtrusive, threatening to drown us in a vast and shoreless sea of news and entertainment.
Thankfully, yesterday’s practical ways of spiritual survival still work today, if we undertake them seriously and with much prayer. And, as The Message paraphrases: “Keep your eyes straight ahead; ignore all sideshow distractions” (Prov. 4:25).
In 2003, a small group of Jewish artists, writers, filmmakers, and media professionals developed The Sabbath Manifesto, a “creative project designed to encourage people to take a weekly day of rest from their technology.”3 They were hoping it would help them slow down in an increasingly hectic world. For some deliverance may require quitting “cold turkey,” while others may be able to manage a reduced-tech Sabbath, maybe restricting church service involvement to use of a Bible or commentary app, and ignoring e-mail, checks, texting, or tweeting.
If the kids watch Bible videos or nature programs on Sabbath, find a way to bring it back to Jesus and practical Christianity. Watch a video on the good Samaritan? Afterward, devise a plan to help those in need nearby. Play a Noah’s ark game app? Discuss its parallels to Christ’s second coming, or humanity’s role in protecting God’s creatures. Read a story about the Last Supper? Talk about why the Lord’s Supper is one of our Fundamental Beliefs. With a little planning and thought, media can be used to bring us all closer to God.
Yes, there are ways to embrace media and enhance Sabbath keeping: read Ellen G. White, send out “Happy Sabbath” greetings. Hernandez is careful to strike a balance with what she does on Sabbath. “I don’t use my media for news on Sabbath, with the exception of if there is bad weather or something of that sort going on. News can wait.”
Tech savvy GenXer Dizárd, agrees. “I’m a huge proponent of media, tech, and their benefits,” he explains. “There is a wealth of Sabbath-ready apps that we can use to justify time spent on our personal devices.”
But, he says, “just as we disconnect from our devices at night to ensure we gain the most from our rest, wouldn’t it be best to also reduce the connection to our smart phones and tablets to increase the benefits we gain from experiencing God’s nature and fellowshipping with other believers?”
Kimberly Luste Maran is an assistant director of communication for the North American Division.