Monday, July 12, 2010

Technology in Worship -- Benefit and Drawbacks

As I sat in our nice air conditioned sanctuary yesterday, listening to sounds amplified by a modern PA system, thinking about the cds of the services to be distributed on Monday morning, with the sounds of the majesty of a 65 rank pipe organ and the ivories of a concert grand dancing in my ears, I thought for a moment of the technological advances that we take for granted every day in the Church.  But I also thought for a moment on the question of whether they are all of equal merit or benefit to the Church.

I seriously doubt whether anyone (and we have our share of Luddites in the LCMS) would disdain such things as central heat and air conditioning, or systems to make the voice sound loud and clear in everyone's ear, but there are other advances that have made their way into the Church with less of a welcome.  We all cringe at the myriad of wild and unusual cell phone rings that seem to go off at all the wrong times in worship.  (I recall a story in which a preacher said he would love to know what the sound of Revelation's heavenly chorus was like -- when a cell phone went off to the tune of "Take me out to the ball game" -- and paused and said, "Now I know...")  But these are not the only advances to be considered.

An app for the I-Pad which provides the Roman Missal has been greeted with less than wild enthusiasm.  The thought of people choosing an app for a tablet computer or phone instead of a hymnal or missalette gives you the very weird picture of pew filled with people watching a screen with ear bugs hanging off their heads.  Ugh!

At the LCMS Convention in Houston a TV screen was embedded in the altar.  It had to be a very unfortunate choice and appears to have made technology both the deity and the means of grace.  I was not there to see how it was used but the image of that screen in the altar is a most unpleasant wedding of technology and worship -- at least in my viewpoint.

The ever present screens presenting everything from sermon notes on PowerPoint to the images that go with what was happening in the service (instead of stained glass) to a fully orchestrated video presentation to a dancing dot over the words of the songs being sung... and I could go on...  Well, I am not sure what to make of it all.  I disdain the idea that the Pastor or worship leader controls the experience by means of the video or images (that are often the only visual graphics or art in the building).  It reeks of manipulation.  I do not like that we have become slaves to video so that we must have our minds spoon fed with images instead of allowing the Word to paint those images upon the canvas of our minds and hearts.  I resent the idea that the only way modern people can relate to God is through the technology that shapes and defines too much of modern life (turning worship from an encounter with God in the means of grace to another YouTube video).

Before anyone accuses me of being anti-technology, let me make a few points.  I do blog. I have several computers.  I do use PowerPoint.  I am a fan of YouTube.  BUT... the place of technology is as much an issue as the technology itself.

When Bach played the pipe organ, that instrument was one of the most complicated mechanical devices of the age and represented some of the heights of technology for his day.  The technology was nearly invisible and the music was center stage.  Today's technology is not so invisible and seems to not only demand something from us, but shape how we see things.  When technology becomes its own object or distraction, then its place in worship should rightfully be questioned.  It is exactly like the music that gets in the way of the text.  Worship is not about the experience or the aesthetic, but about the Word (and visible Words or Sacraments) through Christ comes to us, bestows upon us His gifts, and imparts to us the Spirit that we might receive those gifts with faith).

I must confess that we all are in love with our technology but this love affair has not brought with it the kind of critical review that is needful to the Church.  One of the purposes of this post is to ask the question -- which technology is bad for worship as well as acknowledging those which may be useful.  It is not just a matter of how it is used.  It is not like the judicious use of certain technology is salutary and other usages are not.  It is not merely a matter of degree here.  For example, I am not talking simply about the usage of screens or their placement, but what does this technology do to change worship?  What does it do to the worshiper and what does it do to the Word?  What is the end result of such technology?

There was a time when it was thought that electronic media would completely replace publishing.  It has not happened.  Though some said the publishing of a hymnal might one day be obsolete (even with respect to LSB and 2006), we have seen that this is not the case.  The question is then whether this day will come or whether we should allow it to come?

St. Paul's advice is good.  Not all things possible are beneficial.  No more pointed wisdom needs to be said as the Church wrestles with this issue of how much technology is good and how much is bad in worship.


Lee said...

Pastor Peters, I am continually impressed at the quality, quantity and variety of your articles.

We have started using ppt in worship for the words of hymns and Scripture readings. We use a blank, white wall behind the lectern to project. It has helped us reduce paper in bulletins and has actually helped our singing because people are looking up at the wall and not down at the hymnal.

I guess my rule of thumb about how much is too much is to ask myself, "What would happen if the power went out?".
Could we still sing the hymns or are they to complicated without the organ? Can I still deliver the main points of the sermon or is its deliver completely dependent upon the illustration? Can we still gather around God's means of grace and participate in the liturgy, or have too many hymnal been remove from the pews in order to make room for more children's scribble pads?

Anyway, my 2 cents (from my Blackberry. :-). ). Thanks.

Rev. Allen Bergstrazer said...

What we should beware of when we use of technology in the church is at what point does it stop being a tool and becomes a crutch, when does it goe from being a medium to being a means.

I serve in a congregation that uses video screens to display the order of service and hymns. It is very helpful for the members who have poor eyesight, and have trouble following through the service.

The downside is that dependence on the screens leads to ignorance of the Hymnal. Video screens are hardly the end all and be all, especially if they're retro-fitted to a traditional sanctuary. If you have a long and narrow church, those screens will appear smaller than the actual printed words in the Hymnal when you're sitting in the back of the church. Also, the hymnal is indespensable when introducing a new hymn. And then there are those days when the computer crashes, Power Point doesn't understand what Lutheran Service Builder is saying, or the power simply goes out and you thank God that there is one thing you can always be sure of; you don't have to plug in the hymnal and it will never have a software problem.

I've taken to having services from time to time without the video screens to keep our noses in the hymnal. There are services in which I will under no circumstances use a video screen.

I've always been concerned about the technology itself (such as screens or instruments) having a more prominent place, or being larger than the altar. But being a part of the altar? Lord have mercy.

Rev. Allen Bergstrazer said...

^ The other thing to beware of is when Rev. Bergstrazer posts and doesn't spell check. :) Never know when I'm going to revert back to my native tongue of dyslexia.

Jesse Penny said...

Rev. Bergstrazer:

That was going to be my point as well: You have to draw the line with technology at the point where it starts to be a crutch.

My parish uses its two big video screens heavily during worship. It never ceases to crack me up when the congregation will suddenly stop singing during a hymn except for maybe the 5 to 10 of us who use the hymnal because PowerPoint decided to freeze up.

Rev. Paul T. McCain said...

Perhaps a good rule of thumb would be, generally speaking, that if you must have electricity to conduct the Sunday morning Divine Service, you might have a problem, or a potential problem.

Carl Vehse said...

There are large print hymnals available.

ErnestO said...

I love an analog worship service what a blessed contrast to the digital world that batters one about incessantly.

I would venture the power of each to save souls is equal. Analog harks back to when we used to PASS the time and digital is from the present in which we SPEND the time.

Pr. Chris Hinkle said...

The seven volumes of the Large Print Hymnal proved very trying for one of the older members of our congregation. I had to sit down with him and his wife and show them how it worked. He was much happier when I started using Lutheran Service Builder to make him a giant print booklet for each service. I think he would have been happy with projection, too.

I wonder if projection is helpful for those in the still-at-home stages of Altzheimers? Any experience from those of you using them to project liturgy and hymns?

Finally, just a reminder that one of the reasons liturgy exists is so that the illiterate can also participate in the service.

Rev. Allen Bergstrazer said...

Pastor McCain, I would agree on 'needing' electricity to worship the Lord.

I haven't considered whether having the liturgy on a projection screen is helpful to those who are in the early stages of Alzheimer's.

In the long run what is best for them (for all) is consistency in our Liturgy and hence that Liturgy is comitted to long term memory.

Most Pastors can tell of members who cannot remember the names of their children, but can still recite the Lord's Prayer, the Apostle's Creed, and the confession of sins. Though their memory fails, God the Holy Spirit still dwells in them.

Anonymous said...

Your little dumb sheep forget to turn off their phones. Help the sheep out by making by making an announcement.

Janis Williams said...

When the Church is filled with technophiiles, just what is the object of worship? Fr. Peters, I haven't been keeping up with the convention; I tend to depression without aids.

I have lived with video screens in my former Baptist life (even in the Reformed Baptist church), but a screen in the Altar?! What did they do when it wasn't in use? Did they project a green screen with symbols on it, or an interpretation of Jesus' face?

I can understand the arguments for visually impaired folk reading the screen more easily. I can understand the fact that heads are up in a better position for singing. I can see there could be arguments for it being an aid in mental impairment (Alzheimer's). However, (and not to make little of the disabilities of our members - I have MS), there are some disabilities that make holding a hymnal easier. Also, we are not filled with over 50% of folk with disabilities. Readers can catch my drift...

The Regulative principle of worship (nothing in worship not in Scripture) does solve some worship issues. Since we worship under the Normative principle (i.e. adiaphora), we have to be much more diligent and discerning.

It just seems to me that when things become ridiculous, like cellphones with silly ringtones, and screens in the altar we ought to be able to say, "Enough!"