Tweeting in church? Worshippers spread God's word via cell phone

STALLINGS, N.C. —As Pastor Todd Hahn sermonized onstage on Easter Sunday about St. Paul's take on Jesus' resurrection, Scarlett Hollingsworth bowed her head and brought her hands together.

She wasn't praying, though. Her eyes were open, and her thumbs were busy. She was pounding out a short message on her BlackBerry.

It was time for Twitter:

"I'm listening to the teachings of Paul," wrote Hollingsworth, known to those following her tweets as beingscarlett. "& wondering how many people need to hear that we can face hardship in life without fear."

Most churches ask worshippers to turn off cell phones when the service starts. But at Union County, N.C.' s, Next Level, a rock 'n' roll-style church where Hollingsworth attended the 11 a.m. Easter service, members of the flock were encouraged to tweet away on their cell phones, iPhones, BlackBerrys and laptops. Their messages landed on other cell phones — as well as online for those who looked in from a personal computer at home.

"I hope many of you are tweeting this morning about your experience with God," Hahn announced before launching into his sermon.

Churches have been using the latest technology to spread the word and boost Sunday attendance since the 15th century, when the Gutenberg Bible — a product of the printing press and movable type — paved the way for mass distribution of Scripture.

Later came radio, then television, then the Internet, and now Twitter — 140-character message bursts designed to pass on what the sender, identified by a user name, is thinking at that moment.

Still, some of those tweeting Sunday couldn't quite believe where they were doing it.

"So excited for the nextlevel Easter service!!" wrote GamecockCB. "Tweet from church?! Are you kidding?!"

Hahn, 40, said the idea was hatched by the church's Creative Team of 20-somethings. They wanted to do something special for Easter, he said.

With so many churches competing for young people, some like Next Level are trying to stand out by embracing the latest technology: websites, blogs and now Twitter.

On Good Friday, Trinity Church, a historic Episcopal church in lower Manhattan, even re-enacted Jesus' Passion — the hours leading up to his death — with tweets from people playing Jesus, Mary, Pilate and Peter.

Hahn acknowledged that the church's accent on Twitter is partly a marketing tool. But he said it can also enhance members' religious experience and build community.

Hahn said evangelical churches have focused so much on the me-God relationship — with services full of what he called "prom songs to Jesus" — that "we lose the communal aspects."

"Twitter is a social network ... that can remind us we are worshipping with other people. We're not in a bubble," he said. "And when people read some of the (tweets) they may have an 'a-ha!' moment, and say, 'A lot of others look at things like I do.' "

On Sunday, photographer Kristen Hinson, 24, felt liberated by the Easter message — and her ability to pass it along via cell phone. "I love Next Level Church," she tweeted. "The resurrection is like a sales receipt from God, a guarantee of what's to come!!!"

Hollingsworth, 44, a designer at Central Piedmont Community College and a self-described techie, said it was hard sometimes to pay attention to the sermon and tweet about it. But, she added, the world is changing, and the church needs to change with it.

Tools like Twitter are "how we communicate now," she said. "If you don't jump on the new technology, you're going to lose opportunities. We use it for work and for life. Why not church?"

Tweet, tweet

Here are some of the Twitter messages from Next Level Church on Easter Sunday:

melissajackson3: Awesome foo fighters song to start the service at nextlevel.

imkay: Nothing u do 4 the lord is in vain.

desimae: I remember the day when Easter meant dressing up against my will and being bored for three hours at church ...thanks, nextlevel for change!

psalm46: Resurrection is real; ... He is still raising us day by day from this level on to the nextlevel, higher up and further in.

renwicks — lady: Getting ready for Nextlevel church, getting my texting thumbs stretched and ready to go!!!!

charburns: nextlevel had awesome music today and yes i am twittering in church.