Will applications on mobile devices help to improve the daily practice of personal devotion and prayer? I believe that two recent examples provide encouraging evidence that the answer may be yes.
First, an article last year in Worship offered an observation on the effectiveness of the liturgical reforms enacted in the Roman Catholic Church at the Second Vatican Council. The article itself focused specifically on how liturgical worship had changed in English speaking countries during the intervening 50 years since Vatican II. I read the article as an interested, outside observer. Vatican II sought several worship reforms in the Catholic church, one of which was to renew and restore the use of the Daily Office among Catholic laity. One comment from Paul Turner, the American observer, stood out to me. He wrote:
Fifty years later—a bonus [the reforms of Vatican II] could never have foreseen–the number of people praying the Office is spiking due to its accessibility on electronic devices. People discouraged by purchasing the expensive four volume set, figuring out the week of the year, struggling with ribbons, and inserting and losing cards, have enjoyed the simplicity of praying from a handheld phone or tablet (Turner 2013).
Many Lutherans also pray the Daily Office as an expression of their devotional piety. But, convincing the average parishioner to pray the Office each day is not an easy sell. Even in the Roman Catholic Church, where the Daily Office has a much more prominent position, convincing each successive generation to structure their day around worship, prayer, and the reading of the Word has been difficult. Yet, observers are noticing that American Catholics are praying the Daily Office more than they had in the past because they now have a device in their pocket that can both remind them to pray and guide them through the process.
I don’t cite this example to say that you need to start praying the Daily Office to prove your devotional piety. I’m pointing it out because I think this piece of evidence is important: Mobile devices are increasing the popularity of a system of worship originally conceived for monasteries.
Turn next to a New York Times piece from July 2013 that profiled the popular Bible app from YouVersion.com (O’Leary 2013). This free app appears to be leading millions of people to read the Bible more frequently than they may have otherwise.
When Jen Sears, 37, a human resources manager in Oklahoma City, wants to pray these days, she leaves her Bible behind and grabs her phone instead. “I have my print Bible sitting on my dresser at home, but it hasn’t moved” in the four years since she downloaded YouVersion, Mrs. Sears said.
We are observing similar trends in WELS. The use of daily devotions published via the WELS mobile app, via websites (e.g., wels.net, whataboutjesus.com, parish websites), or RSS-powered email campaigns is common.
Now, the thought of someone launching an app instead of opening a paper Bible gives some of us the creeps. “How cold; how lifeless!” Be aware, however, that there was a time when men criticized printed copies of the Bible, saying that hand-copied versions of the Bible were better for the soul (Levinson 1997). No information technology is truly neutral, and all new information technologies leave change in their wake—the printing press did from the 15th Century on; iPhones are causing similar changes today. While there are certainly characteristics and benefits unique to printed Bibles and hymnals, the changing practices surrounding private, devotional worship may signal new opportunities.
“No one reads the Bible devotionally anymore.” “Private prayer is a dying practice.” These are common laments in the church today. Is it possible, however, that the very habits and practices we think are dying may actually be increasing thanks to the ubiquitous, handheld screen? What if people are reading the Bible more today because it’s on their iPhone? What if more people are building the habit of daily prayer because they get daily reminders from the apps on their devices?
I mention these two examples of longstanding Christian practices finding new expression on mobile devices because the Technology Committee is actively researching how we could encourage similar habits of personal worship and prayer through a hymnal application for those same devices.
Our research has included a survey of the existing hymnal apps. We have discovered that available hymnal apps are useful as digital facsimiles of printed books. For example, they allow faster searching and indexing than a printed book. Some allow on-the-fly key changes in hymns—an impossible task for printed hymnals. Today’s hymnal apps are useful for hymnal “power users” like pastors and musicians as a sort of “Swiss army knife” version of the hymnal. But, they are sorely lacking when it comes to using the hymnal as a tool for personal devotion.
The problem, I believe, is this: Hand someone a hymnal and say, “Use this for your personal devotions,” and most people won’t know what to do next. Replicating the same experience on an iPad isn’t the solution. A hymnal app meant to foster personal devotional use will require that we overcome those conceptual hurdles by thinking differently about how to present the contents of a hymnal.
Take the Bible app from YouVersion for example. When you launch the app the home screen is not a digital representation of a faux, bonded leather cover that says “Holy Bible” on it. Nor is there an in-app purchase that would “emboss” your confirmation date and name on the digital “cover.” Instead of these graphical representations of print media, YouVersion’s app presents a dashboard of options designed to lead users into the text. These features range from a “Continue reading where you left off” button to “Verse of the Day” delivery. Open the app’s menu and you’ll find more ways to interact with the Bible, including a list of your bookmarks, annotations, and access to your daily reading plans. Instead of replicating the experience of using a printed Bible, the app is designed to guide readers into the Scripture in useful, contextual, and relevant ways.
A digital hymnal app would need to do the same. It must provide a different organizational model for the content of the hymnal. For example, arranging the hymns in strict numerical order becomes less important when the app is focused on presenting appropriate hymns in the context of personal devotion. The “cover” of a hymnal app should not be a picture of a printed book cover, but a dashboard of options that guide the worshiper through the hymnal on a path of personal use. A digital hymnal app may also need additional content not found in the print edition—content designed specifically for private, small group, or classroom use.
An app with such a clear focus on devotional use would not be as useful for, say, musicians or other “power users.” Nor would such an app be as useful in congregational worship settings. Words and music printed on paper are tough to beat for their utility, convenience, and (perhaps most important of all) reliability. But a digital hymnal application designed with singular focus on devotional use would open the door for the hymnal’s renewed relevance at home, in the office, and in the classroom. Perhaps we will later observe—as many Catholics and Evangelicals have—greater personal engagement with the Word in private, devotional worship.
There are exciting possibilities. The Technology Committee has been researching this topic for several months and will continue to do so. In the meantime, I would like to ask: What features in a digital hymnal application would help you use the hymnal in your personal devotions? How can we help you use the hymnal around the dinner table, in the classroom, on the road?
Johnson, Clare V, Bill Burke, Paul Inwood, Patrick Jones, and Paul Turner. 2013. “Sacrosanctum Concilium At Fifty: Reports From Five English–Speaking Countries.” Worship 87 (6): 482–516.
Levinson, Paul. 1997. The Soft Edge: a Natural History and Future of the Information Revolution. New York: Routledge.
O’Leary, Amy. 2013. “In the Beginning Was the Word; Now the Word Is on an App.” New York Times, July 26.