Ditching Digital: Why Using Screens in Church Is Backfiring

In his book Revenge of the Analog, David Sax makes the case that good old-fashioned analog products aren’t going anywhere any time soon. And it isn’t just hipsters––with their love of vinyl and Polaroids––propping up the market for old-school stuff. His research, and the research of many others, points to something more fundamental: humans like physical things.

Now, this comes with a caveat. Obviously we are at a point where digital addiction is the norm. Saying we like physical things more than screens seems counter-intuitive. Yes, we usually choose screens over reading books or hiking or painting. But we choose them in the same way a four year-old chooses candy over a nourishing meal. It’s not good for us. Anytime we exercise some self-discipline and go for that hike, our brains and bodies light up with joy.

So, it’s good for us to put our phones down, turn the TV off, or shut down the laptop. But as many studies make clear, it goes much deeper than that. Screens are affecting how we learn––and not for the better.

Research by Bangor University found that when we encounter information on physical material (like paper), we remember, comprehend, and connect with it better than when we encounter it on a screen. Not only do we handle abstract concepts better on paper, but we actually become more emotionally linked to information in physical form. Many other studies have led to the same conclusions.

To put it another way, learning through screens lowers comprehension, retention, and emotional connectivity. Yikes.

Maybe we understand this on a gut level, because, in spite of all the digital world has to offer, we’re slowly getting back to the basics: 18-29 year-olds are more likely to have read a book in the last year than those 65 and older (80% vs. 67%). But, here’s the interesting part, they’re also more likely than seniors to have a read a print book (72% vs. 61%).*

So the generation coming up is reading more than their grandparents. And, contrary to what most of us would assume, they want to read on paper.

But don’t write this off as just a millennial trend. Everyone wants paper. Sales of e-books have flatlined in the last few years while sales of print books are going up.

How does this relate to your church?

If you want biblical truths to sink into the hearts and minds of your congregation, take these two steps:

  1. Tone down the use of screens in church
  2. Buy print curriculum

Digital signs in the lobby and multimedia experiences during services are backfiring. Study after study shows that people are not connecting with it. Move away from relying heavily on screens to communicate with your church.

When you buy curriculum (for small groups, etc.), buy print copies. And encourage those with iPads and e-readers to do the same. Reading on paper is superior to reading digitally: better comprehension, memory, and understanding. This seems especially important in the context of a Bible study.

Why is paper better? To sum up all the theories and their complicated jargon: our brains prefer physical things. People want to take notes, feel the pages, highlight, flip back and forth––all of it adds up to much more immersive experience than a screen could ever offer.

Encourage your church to put their electronic devices away––not because you‘re old-fashioned, quite the opposite actually: you’re so up-to-date on the latest research, you’d hate to rob them of all the benefits of an analog world.

Partners In Ministry offers several small group studies that are 100% analog. Many of the studies have a short answer format which will further increase your group’s interaction with the material and provide an immersive learning experience.

*Pew Study


5 thoughts on “Ditching Digital: Why Using Screens in Church Is Backfiring

  1. I will concede that physical paper has better efficacy than digital text, but recommending that paper be implemented over digital feels like a hopeful theory based off of research more than a factual recipe for better results.

    For starters, the declining sales of e-readers is due to the fact that most smartphones allow for that kind of reading. When eBookstores started offering an app equivalent, they embraced the beginning of their demise for selling eReaders. As far as eBooks are concerned, I am not so sure lack of sales has much to do with millennial preferring hard-cover books to match their polaroids and vinyl – and even if it did, it doesn’t matter: mainly because Millenials and adults in general are still reading. A lot. I’m not entirely sure format plays as big a role in how likely someone will read something, especially in the context of church.

    If our goal is winning people to Christ, I would claim this: Efficacy of analog doesn’t mean digital is less attractive.

    Just my thoughts.


    • Thanks for your thoughts Tyler. I think the main point of the article is that format actually plays the most important role in how people are reading.

      It’s great that people can read on screens but what the research shows is they’re less likely to remember and comprehend what they’ve read. They’re also not able to deal with abstract concepts as well when reading on a screen.

      We encourage reading in any format. But reading on a screen is like drinking from a cup with a hole in it: sure, you’ll get some hydration, but not as much as if you picked a better cup.

      Postman’s “Amusing Ourselves to Death” offers a excellent insights on this “medium is the message” idea.

      And, yes, digital is incredibly attractive. And it’s not going anywhere. We’re using it right now! But where deep learning is concerned, paper is superior.


    • What is the difference between an e-reader and a smartphone? Other than size of screen, there is none.They are both digital.
      I had a schoolteacher that looked at the substance of the work handed in as well as the way it was presented. If the substance was not there, her comment was “Pretty is and pretty does.” I think that applies to much of the digital world.
      In the cases of churches, having the screens display the most recent hymn number, Bible verse, and the like is good. There is a little less of “what’d he say?” with it. Yes, there can be more, such as the main points in a sermon as a help for note-taking to remember what was said.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Oh my goodness! I thought I was the only one who prefers hard copies verses digital. Praise God! I truly believe you learn more by highlighting, making notes, etc. than just reading it on screens. Thank you for making my day.

    Liked by 1 person

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