Modern devices have the potential to both recharge worship and flatten its spiritual battery. EMMA HALGREN investigates the Church’s turbulent relationship with technology, the pitfalls of PowerPoint and meaningful ways to use a mouse.
The Quaker Caroline E. Stephen described her first experience of the movement’s mostly-silent worship meetings like this:
“My whole soul was filled with the unutterable peace of the undisturbed opportunity for communion with God, with the sense that at last I had found a place where I might, without the faintest suspicion of insincerity, join with others in simply seeking His presence … the most soul-subduing, faith-restoring, strengthening, and peaceful communion, in feeding upon the bread of life, that I have ever known.”
In stark contrast to that experience of worship are statistics like this: in the US in 2006, churches spent $8.1 billion on audio and projection equipment. Some 80 per cent of churches integrate sophisticated video and audio systems into their worship services, often requiring a sizeable team of technicians to operate the equipment for each service.
Opinions are divided about the increasing use of technology in church and what it might mean for that sense of communion with God described by Caroline E. Stephen.
Debra Dean Murphy, Assistant Professor of Religion and Christian Education at West Virginia Wesleyan College, singles out PowerPoint for particular attention, urging leaders to be judicious in their use of it in worship and to be aware of how it can form and shape worship — and worshippers.
“To use PowerPoint in worship is to unwittingly set up a competition between what’s projected on the screen and the human voice doing the preaching, praying or singing. And it’s a contest that PowerPoint always wins,” she writes.
She adds that being fixated on a screen can make worshippers less aware of those around them, less likely to engage in eye contact and other forms of interaction for fear of missing something on the screen, and conditioned to react in certain ways according to what is happening onscreen.
“When PowerPoint malfunctions, for instance, people become nervous and lost; they become conditioned to worry that it will malfunction,” she says. “They find themselves thinking more about the screen and the technician at the soundboard than about the God whom they’ve come to worship and the larger worshipping body of which they are a part.”
She says that PowerPoint has become so central to worship in many churches that “it is now common to find more technology experts than persons knowledgeable about liturgy involved in planning and leading worship.”
Good liturgy must come first
The Rev. Dr Stephen Burns, a research fellow in Charles Sturt University’s Public and Contextual Theology Strategic Research Centre and an advisor to the Uniting Church Assembly’s Working Group on Worship, believes that the need to get liturgy right is at the heart of the matter and use of technology should follow — as and where appropriate— from there.
In his teaching and writing on liturgy he focuses on learning well the most basic points of liturgical celebration, the first of which is that liturgy isn’t so much about what we do but about what God does.
“It is focused on word and sacrament because these are, in some sense, God-given,” says Dr Burns. “That’s not to say that word and sacrament are unambiguous, that we don’t have to wrestle with them. Nor is it to say that word and sacrament must be ‘done’ in certain ways.
“But it is to say that word and sacrament are given in the gospel, and that however ‘useful’ or ‘relevant’ they may be, pianos, PowerPoint and all kinds of other paraphernalia are not the central things. Everything should lead to, and yield to, word and sacrament.”
His second key point is that liturgy is about participation. “The trouble with technology is that it can set the congregation into couch potato mode,” he says.
“The leadership of liturgy involves inviting people to participate in word and sacrament. There are many different ways to participate — participation can be quiet and contemplative as well as active and vocal — but technologies cannot do the people’s work for them, and any practice which encourages congregational passivity is best resisted.”
And thirdly, Dr Burns says, “the liturgy has a movement of its own, from gathering, to word, to table, to sending, and this movement matters deeply for Christian formation, not least because it is ‘mission shaped’.”
Physically moving in the course of worship, making the most of different spaces around the church, is the best way to fully live and experience this liturgical movement, Dr Burns says — and a more imaginative approach than getting overly tied to technologies.
“It’s too easy to plonk a screen at the front and then fix a congregation into a very narrow field of vision, with the screen dominating everything else,” he says.
“It would be much more imaginative to do something totally contrary to this; not only ditching the screen but separating out the spaces of different liturgical action — gathering in the narthex or hall or garden, gathering around the word in one place in the church building, gathering around the table in another, sending from the door or gate — not just the presider but all the people.
“My sense is that moving with the movements of the liturgy would be a much better way to stop worship being ‘boring’ than switching on the screen too quickly.”
On the issue of music, too, he urges taking a creative approach. He cites the use of tinned music in worship as one example of an unhelpful use of technology.
“It doesn’t make much difference whether it’s Sufjan Stevens or the choir of Trinity College, Cambridge — turning on canned sound is unhelpful, because it isn’t able to engage with or respond to the emotional dimensions of prayer as sensitive musicians and singers can do. It’s not the voices of the people in the congregation being honoured.”
Instead, he suggests learning a repertoire of simpler, even unaccompanied songs, if that suits the gifts of the congregation better, or turning the problem into a means of local outreach, by looking around the community for musicians and forming partnerships with local schools and clubs.
He emphasises that, rather than trying to make worship easier through technology, we need to learn, or re-learn, the arts of liturgy.
“Get the basic building blocks of liturgy right and technology will find its place. Get the basic building blocks wrong and liturgy is bungled.”
But there is one use of technology in church which he is happy to advocate: the bread maker. “There is something absolutely marvellous about the smell of freshly baked bread for communion,” he says. “That’s an example of technology opening up a sensate experience.”
Answering a need
In rural areas where ordained ministers are scarce, technology can help answer a deep need.
Project Reconnect, based in the Uniting Church’s Mid-Lachlan Mission Area, resources small rural congregations with a weekly DVD containing a message which is screened in worship in place of a sermon.
After the message, parishioners share a time of discussion of what they’ve seen and heard, and how it can be applied in their community and beyond.
“The real issue for Project Reconnect was not about using some fancy new technology, but rather reaching back into the deep wisdom of our faith tradition,” says Project Reconnect facilitator the Rev. Tom Stuart.
“The most important thing was to go back to the basics and ask the fundamental questions, what is our faith about, what is koinonia about, what is mission about?”
In asking these questions, the team arrived at the goals of Project Reconnect: reconnecting with God, reconnecting with each other and reconnecting with the world and its practices: participation, communication and self-determination.
“We wanted worship where everyone participated, we wanted congregations to recognise that their future was entirely up to them and not determined from outside. The technology had to be in service to that,” says Mr Stuart.
He says one of the biggest traps congregations can fall into is using technology to make things easier or to do things that they should be doing for themselves. Another is for smaller congregations to simply rerun filmed services from larger congregations.
“Large congregations and small congregations have their own characteristics and strengths. Large congregations benefit from that feeling of strength and wonder of the gathered people. Small congregations have strength of intimacy. We should not use technology to port one style inappropriately to another.”
Mr Stuart says the Project Reconnect team has learned the hard way that technology is for worship, not the other way around.
“The use of technology needs to avoid the demonstration of prowess of the technocrats!” he says. “Strangely, people warmed to Project Reconnect because it looked home grown. We would have loved to have done Hollywood specials each week but we didn’t have the knowhow, skills or equipment. But, to our surprise, people connect with ‘us’. That was an important lesson.”
He says that Project Reconnect has encouraged the growth of worship skills within the congregation, helped parishioners to get to know each other, and given them a space to express their stories of faith, through good times and bad.
“When Project Reconnect began it was being used by people who were wondering if their church would soon have to close and, because of the ten lean years from drought, if maybe God had forgotten them altogether. Project Reconnect was a palpable statement of hope,” he says.
But there have been challenges.
“Some people have stopped going to church where Project Reconnect is used because they don’t feel it is worship. In the best possible cases people still attend worship and say they really enjoy the Project Reconnect services; but they still don’t feel like they have been to church. I feel very sad for these people. I’m reminded that even as change in these times is critical, it no less costs a great deal.”
Interacting with the holy
A concern voiced by many commentators about the increased use of technology in church is that it can turn congregations into audiences and worship into entertainment.
Quentin Schultze, a communications professor at Calvin College in Michigan and author of the book High-Tech Worship? Using Presentational Technologies Wisely, argues that technologies like PowerPoint can have their place in worship — if they are used properly and appropriately, in ways that suit the purpose and flow of the worship. If they’re not, they can distract and overwhelm.
“Think of the flow of worship as a kind of dialogue,” he says. “As soon as the dialogue is interrupted, worship is no longer ‘fitting’. Worship is not meant to be like a performance or movie, where ‘consumers’ passively take in the messages from the experts.
“The question is not whether worship is contemporary or traditional, high-tech or low-tech, PowerPoint inclusive or PowerPoint exclusive. Instead, we need to ask the more difficult questions about fittingness: Is God being glorified and praised? Are we being moved to worship in Spirit and truth? Do we ‘hear’ from Jesus during the service? Do we ‘see’ our sins more clearly? Are we filled with gratefulness for the journey ahead? Are we challenged to go out into the world as agents of God’s kingdom?”
Darren Wright, a Uniting Church Youth Worker serving in the Riverina Presbytery, believes that, where technology is used creatively or to build relationships, it can be a good thing.
He gives the example of a project in a Uniting Church congregation which involved a group of young people visiting an older member of the church each week, armed with a video camera, to be shown around their home and to talk to them about their life and their faith. The interview would then be screened at the following Sunday night’s service.
“The people doing the interview got to know the people that they were interviewing in a new way,” he says. “Friendships, connections, relationships were built, and by and large the people that they interviewed actually came to the church that night and met a lot of other people who they otherwise wouldn’t have known.
“It wasn’t just something that they did because they had the technology. They thought about how and why they were using it.”
He has observed that, much of the time in the church, technology is used to reinforce current ways of doing worship, rather than to try doing something new that might speak more clearly to the surrounding culture.
In his own leading of worship, he has actually been cutting back the use of newer technologies in favour of older spiritual practices. When he does use technology, he tries to use it in creative ways; for example, using audio or images to create an atmosphere of space or to challenge thinking.
“Images can speak more powerfully than text,” he says. “If I was to talk about, say, the BP oil disaster and I was just to show statistics and quotes to back up what I’d been saying, you wouldn’t get much else out of it other than what I’d said. But, if I was to talk about that while behind me I had images of birds dying, the congregation’s experience of it would be quite different.”
But he says that, in a world where many people are surrounded by technology almost all the time, church can, and perhaps should, be offering an alternative.
“If church is to be a space where we interact with the holy, the sacred, then could it be a space where we actually remove all those distractions, disconnect ourselves for that space of time, maybe picking up some of the older spiritual practices like the labyrinth or contemplative prayer, having the Sabbath away from those connections.”
Emma Halgren is a journalist and editor.