Gerry Michalski doesn't mind if you keep your cellphone on while he's preaching -- as long as you send him a message.
The founder and pastor of Soul Sanctuary embraces the digital technology by asking for text messages about his 45-minute Sunday sermon -- even while he's delivering it.
"I invite texting because it's the new method of communication," he says during an interview that involves three cellphones, a laptop computer, a headset and an electronic tablet.
"I'll have people add to what I'm saying. I'll have people ask particular questions."
While this may seem counter-intuitive to those who prefer to be unplugged during worship, Michalski insists digital devices have a place during a service at his non-denominational Christian church, as long as they don't disturb others.
"If the ringer goes off, I'll stop (preaching) and you'll hear 'boo,'" he says of how the congregation of 500 reacts to ringing phones.
But doesn't receiving a text also interrupt the flow of his sermon? Michalski says no, since he pauses between paragraphs to glance at the cellphone on his lectern. While scrolling through the messages, he says he makes a split-second decision to ignore some, mark some for later action, and speaks to those relevant to his topic.
And yes, he does disregard any texts suggesting he wrap up the sermon.
"There are people, who because they have the access and ability, they take advantage of it, but there are people who have valid things to say," he says of the texts he receives during a typical Sunday morning service, held in a southwest Winnipeg movie theatre.
The father of four isn't bothered if people appear to be more engaged in their phones than his message, saying people have to take responsibility for how they use their technology.
One recent Sunday, Michalski tweeted out highlights of a guest speaker's sermon to his 200 Twitter followers, both as a way to keep virtual notes and to inform others of what they might be missing.
"I'm sharing the knowledge, I'm sharing the 'aha' moment," he says, adding he considers social media as the "new church sign."
"It might be an 'aha' moment for me, but it also could be an 'aha' moment for someone else."
For John Neufeld, lead pastor of The Meeting Place, an occasional invitation to text the speaker is fine, but he wonders if regular use of the medium doesn't take away from the message.
"On Sunday morning, there are a lot of people texting (already.) They're not texting me. They're also looking at web apps," he says. "They're distracted."
He says sending text messages to the minister can create a sense that parishioners are voting instead of responding to the sermon. Instead of playing with their phones, Neufeld prefers people listen to him and he works hard to grab their attention.
"It's not the message problem, it's the messenger problem," quips the pastor of the downtown Mennonite Brethren church.
Sending a text message appears to be interactive, but it takes away from the communal experience of worship by sucking the users into the intricacies of the electronic device, suggests David Balzer, who teaches communications at Canadian Mennonite University.
"Hand any kid an iPhone during church and say 'just text the pastor,' and within half a second they're playing games," he says.
That type of digital distraction in the pews worries the minister of Charleswood United Church, who believes the purpose of a sermon is to engage people with a biblical text.
"Connecting with voice to ear and eye is an essential part of the experience," says Rev. Michael Wilson, who did his doctoral research on preaching.
"People show their response. They laugh, they cry, they look away, but that's a human connection."
Michalski says he's all about the human connection, too, and that any text sent during a sermon is only the beginning of a conversation, which he'll continue by email, and then in person.
"I'm not a fan of texting. I'm a fan of talking to people."
He also wants to connect with people through his sermons -- dubbed life lessons at Soul Sanctuary -- and convey the essence of the Christian message in whatever way he can.
"We hope that what would attract people (to our church) is the exposition of scripture and to learn about the ancient truths of scripture."
Every Sunday, the printed bulletin at Soul Sanctuary includes the following announcements:
Texting: Here at Soul Sanctuary we do things a little different. If you have questions during the life lesson, feel free to text Gerry at 226-2324 with any questions or comments. If time permits, he will respond to the text at the end of the life lesson.
Cellphones: Etiquette requires that cell phones are on silent or turned off in a place of worship. Guess what?? You are in a place of worship. Feel free to "boo" if you hear a cellphone go off during the gathering.
Coming to a theatre near you
Soul Sanctuary now meets at 9:59 a.m. Sundays at Cinema City at McGillivray and Kenaston, but is relocating to Silver City at St. Vital Centre on April 1 while Cinema City undergoes renovations
The congregation of 500, founded by Michalski in 2004, recently purchased property at 2233 McGillivray Blvd. for a multi-million dollar complex housing worship space, a daycare centre, community programs, and sports events.
Find Soul Sanctuary online at www.soulsanctuary.ca, on Facebook, or follow Gerry Michalski on Twitter @soulpastor