August 2, 2014 at 1:00 am

Churches putting faith in social media: #YesforGod

Churchgoers at Hope Community Church in Raleigh, N.C., use their smartphones to read the Bible on the church's app during a sermon. (Sarah Shaw / MCT)

Raleigh. N.C. —When they walk in the doors of the sprawling, red-brick Hope Community Church in Raleigh, no one takes a bulletin. Instead, they whip out their smartphones, tap the silver “Get Hope” app and open the sermon notes.

“We never really knew if anybody was reading them,” said Joe Woolworth, the church’s media director. “People would often just recycle them when they were done. With the app, it was cheaper, and we were able to go green.”

Thousands of people have downloaded the church’s app since it was created two years ago. Once inside, they can sign up for a community group and find one of the church’s 13 Facebook pages, nine Twitter accounts and three Instagram pages. They can donate to the church via a secure Web page. They can sign up to volunteer.

Woolworth said the app fits snugly into the church’s mission: “To love people where they are and encourage them in their relationship with Jesus. A lot of people use apps every day, so we wanted to participate in the way they are consuming information.”

Even if a church doesn’t have its own app, other religious apps abound. Android boasts hundreds of apps for the Bible as well as the Quran. Apple shows thousands on its iTunes store.

“That is the biggest sort of rise I have seen in churches is for people to bring their phones and read their Bibles,” said Lee Sartain, a pastor at East Raleigh Fellowship.

Sartain uses the popular Bible Gateway app to study outside church and to follow along during a service.

In addition to reading the Bible, churchgoers are sometimes encouraged to tweet during a service.

The Rev. Lisa Yebuah recently preached a sermon at Edenton Street United Methodist Church called “Press Pause and Give Thanks.” She encouraged those attending the church’s contemporary services to tweet their messages of thanks, using the hashtag “#estreetthanks.” A Twitter feed on a video screen showed messages as they came in.

According to trendinalia.com, the hashtag ranked first in Raleigh for a few hours that Sunday and sixth for the day.

Back in March, the Twitter hashtag “#AshTag” became soaringly popular as teens, adults, nuns and priests posted pictures of themselves with ash on their foreheads to honor Ash Wednesday, a Christian tradition that kicks off the 40-day Lenten season of repentance, fasting and remembrance of Jesus’ death. “#AshTag” reached almost 2,400 tweets per hour on Ash Wednesday and achieved almost 14 million hits.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops even created an album of the Ash Wednesday selfies on Facebook.

Even as smartphones become integrated into church services, some find social media to be a double-edged sword: While it can supplant piles of bulletins and thick Bibles, it can also distract.

Michael Burbidge, bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Raleigh, tweets from “@BishopBurbidge,” but, he said, “Not in church.”

Danger lies, Burbidge said, in letting the ease and fun of social media distract from the real point of worship: “We have such little time for sacred space. That’s the time we try to give to the Lord, one hour a week when we step away from the business of the world.”