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Gregorio Borgia, Associated Press
Pope Francis is seen on the screen of a smartphone as he poses for a photo for a member of a group of Argentine police officers during his weekly general audience in Paul VI Hall at the Vatican, on Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2016.

SALT LAKE CITY — Earlier this month, members of St. James' Episcopal Church in Lewisburg, West Virginia, gathered for an unusual series of events. Over the course of 24 hours, they played board games, built birdhouses, practiced yoga and held an English tea party.

What inspired this eclectic schedule? Each activity was a fun alternative to playing on your phone, according to the Rev. Joshua Saxe, who leads the church. Participants had committed to spend a full day unplugging together.

"We wanted to reconnect with each other without the use of technology," he said.

That may sound like a simple goal, but it's hard to achieve in a phone-loving culture. The average American picks up their phone about 52 times per day, according to a 2018 survey on mobile devices.

"You go to a restaurant and see people around the same table on their phones and not talking with each other. I think that's tragic," the Rev. Saxe said.

Problematic phone habits affect more than relationships, he added. They shorten our attention spans, increase anxiety and even make it harder to connect with God.

Provided by St. James' Episcopal Church
In early March, members of St. James' Episcopal Church unplugged from their devices as a group. They put their cellphones away and played board games, practiced baking and built birdhouses.

The Rev. Saxe and other religious leaders want to inspire healthier technological habits, and see Lent, the period between Ash Wednesday and Easter, as a good time to do so. Many Christians already spend it taking stock of bad habits and developing better ones.

"Lent is like a spiritual tuneup," said the Rev. Corinne Freedman Ellis, minister of congregational life at Macalester Plymouth United Church in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Committing to stay off a certain phone app or reduce screen time may seem frivolous compared to fasting or Bible study, but developing a healthier relationship with our digital devices can also deepen faith, religious leaders said.

"If we're totally consumed by our devices, then there isn't much room for anything else, including our relationship with God," the Rev. Saxe said.

Changing habits

Unplugging, or the practice of detoxing from digital devices, is gaining attention as Americans struggle to moderate their phone use. Retreat centers advertise phone-free trips and New York Times tech columnists praise the "restorative boredom" that comes from spending a weekend off-the-grid.

"It's an unnerving sensation, being alone with your thoughts in the year 2019," wrote Kevin Roose in a February column.

Faith-based unplugging events like the one at St. James' Episcopal Church are part of this trend. Religious leaders want to highlight the spiritual and relational benefits of feeling less attached to your phone.

"There are very few spaces that are trying to be countercultural and invite us to connect face-to-face and not digitally," the Rev. Ellis said. Churches are one of them.

That's part of why attending church events can sometimes feel intimidating, she added. She described watching members of her youth group slowly get used to old-fashioned communication each week after dropping their phones in the cellphone basket.

"None of us are used to interacting without that crutch," the Rev. Ellis said.

" I'm not saying goodbye to technology, but I don't want to be on my phone during those powerful, reflective times. "
The Rev. Corinne Freedman Ellis

That includes faith leaders, said Kenda Creasy Dean, a professor of youth, church and culture at Princeton Theological Seminary. Students in her recent course on social media strategies, who are soon to be ordained, recognized that helping others adjust their technology habits began with adjusting their own.

"How to find good balance is one of the perpetual questions people have about any kind of online activity," she said.

The Rev. Ellis has been working to address some of her worst phone habits, like rushing to check new notifications. During Lent this year, she's trying to stop playing on her phone first thing in the morning and right before bed.

Provided by St. James' Episcopal Church
In early March, members of St. James' Episcopal Church unplugged from their devices as a group. They put their cellphones away and played board games, practiced baking, sampled wines and built birdhouses.

"I'm not saying goodbye to technology, but I don't want to be on my phone during those powerful, reflective times," she said. She's now journaling each morning and reading at least five pages before bed.

Similarly, the Rev. Saxe wants to learn to resist picking up his phone during special or sacred moments. He laughed as he recalled fighting an internal battle over whether to get out his phone to take a picture during a worship service led by the Most Rev. Michael Curry, the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church who became a bit of a celebrity after speaking at last year's royal wedding.

"I’m the kind of person who wants you to put your phone down and be present during the service. But it was Michael Curry!" he said.

Why try?

Since he knows how hard it is to resist digital devices, the Rev. Saxe tries to avoid judgment as he leads events or discussions aimed at reducing screentime. The goal is to encourage healthier technology habits, not rant about modern life, he said.

"We live in a world where (social media) is the most appropriate medium for letting people know what's going on," he said. It wouldn't make sense for most people, including faith leaders, to log off for good.

Bullit Marquez, Associated Press
In this Friday, Jan. 16, 2015, file photo, Filipino Catholics take photos, using their phones and tablets, of Pope Francis aboard his Popemobile as his motorcade passes by on the way to another "Meeting With Families" at the Mall of Asia Arena in Manila, Philippines.

It's also not helpful for religious communities to try to ban certain phone apps or websites outright, said Andrew Zirschky, an assistant professor of practical theology and youth ministry at Memphis Theological Seminary. People need better strategies, not more shame.

"The danger isn’t social media. The danger is that everything else gets swallowed by social media," he said.

It's difficult to negotiate better boundaries, but the payoff can be "huge," the Rev. Ellis said. She's seen how phone-free mission trips strengthen the bonds between youth group members.

"Groups that have their phones split up after a meal and sort of go to separate corners. Our group will play games together and have more conversations," she said. "They do things they wouldn't normally do at home. And I think that's a huge gift."

" While phones aren't expressly spiritual, the fact that we spend hours glued to them means that they shape us mentally, physically and spiritually. "
Andrew Zirschky, an assistant professor of practical theology and youth ministry at Memphis Theological Seminary

Even a less dramatic change, like staying off Facebook during Lent, can be meaningful, the Rev. Saxe said. Since unplugging for 24 hours with his congregation, he's found it easier to focus on people instead of his phone screen.

"I'm a little more aware of how much screentime I engage in," he said. "Life is going by while you're stuck on your device."

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It may seem strange that talking about technology habits is now part of a pastor's job description, but addressing phone use is part of helping people flourish, said Zirschky, who is academic director at the Center for Youth Ministry Training.

"While phones aren't expressly spiritual, the fact that we spend hours glued to them means that they shape us mentally, physically and spiritually," he said.

Faith leaders shouldn't shy away from the topics that are on everyone's mind, including the devices in everyone's pocket, Dean said.

"I think faith communities need to talk about issues that matter in life. This is one of them," she said.