On Faith

In a Tech-Savvy World, the Word of God Goes Mobile

By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 5, 2006

The latest cellphone technology brings new meaning to the notion of hearing God's call.

Media-savvy ministries are adapting their message for a new generation of phones, which have memories capable of holding entire books and playing videos and music.

The result: missionaries in Asia beaming testimonials onto a two-inch screen; a three-day, 100,000-person crusade boiled down to a two-minute video sermon; a Christian punk ring tone.

"We believe everyone lives very rushed, harried lives and like to think of the cell as your sanctuary on the go," said Martha Cotton, co-founder of the Christian media company Good News Holdings, whose customers get videos of Christian extreme athletes and talks from Christian motivational speakers on their phones. She calls the pieces "short-attention-span theater."

Using a phone for spiritual purposes raises unique questions: Is it rude to watch your phone in church -- if that's where you've downloaded your Bible? Can text-message blessings be spiritually enriching? Is there a sense of religious community on a cellular phone?

Cellphones actually might be well suited for spiritual communication. Carried everywhere by their owners, they are the most intimate piece of technology many people own. They are emblazoned with personalized "wallpaper," have ring tones meant to advertise their owners' very essence and are loaded with personal information.

These palm-size gadgets "can take on a mystical significance," said James Katz, who studies the cultural and social impact of cellphones at Rutgers University, where he is the director of the Center for Mobile Communication Studies.

In focus groups and interviews around the world, Katz has noted evidence of what he calls a "talismanic" connection many people have with their phones: screens adorned with spiritual scenes, Catholics who text-message their atoning Hail Mary prayers, Muslims who carry "Islamic phones" loaded with a Global Positioning System function that points them to Mecca.

Fundamental questions remain about how far people will go in using their phones for data. People send text messages, but how long will they watch a tiny screen? Long enough to watch a gospel video? A religious service? A meaty subject such as religion might be a good test in the data market, which is dominated by such relatively simple things as ring tones, sports scores and games, industry analysts say.

Americans spent $6.5 billion on data products in the first half of this year, according to CTIA, a wireless industry group. Although that is only a fraction of the total wireless revenue for that period -- $60.5 billion -- it is up from $3.8 billion in the first half of last year.

Since launching in September, http://www.themobileword.com/ has gained thousands of subscribers who can watch on their phones two- to three-minute video sermons by Greg Laurie, pastor at the country's eighth-largest church, Harvest Christian Fellowship, or snippets of Christian comics and hip-hop artists.

For $7.99 a month, they can open their phone and get a quick reminder from Laurie, wearing a black, short-sleeve shirt on stage at his evangelical megachurch in Riverside, Calif., that "you serve a smiling God. . . . God has never been disillusioned with you because he never had any illusions about you to begin with. You think he didn't know he was getting a flawed, sinful person?"

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