The Next Faithful Step

Technology and Worship Life

A Pastor's Reflection

Explanation Of The Issue

As the world gets increasingly technologically advanced, the Church finds itself in an interesting position. What to do? Embrace and keep up? Stand firm against the tides of modernity? These represent two opposite poles of possible response and, to be fair, they are caricatures in a way. The one lets trends take the lead and gladly follows along, while the other takes a sort of self-styled “prophetic” stance. Caricatures are often unfair because they are silly. But here I think they work because they highlight the reality that much of the discussion surrounding and decisions made concerning technology and the worship life of the Church are simply not serious. I do not mean that people are not serious about or committed to their opinions on the issue. Rather, it is that their opinions are often not reached in thoughtful ways that go beyond a simple canonization of their own personal preferences.

Just within the last couple of weeks I heard a very active and committed church member and leader say something to the effect of, “With the advance of multimedia opportunities and the way the world is changing, technologically, one day every church will have iPads in the pews.” I’m not sure exactly what he thought about his prediction, but my impression was that he was on board.

What struck me about this was what I have characterized as the unserious nature of what this leader said. He seems to have genuinely believed what he said at the time. But it appeared to be 1) completely made up on the fly, and 2) taken as a given without any effort to give thought to any implicit ramifications/consequences involved. As if anything that happens in worship could somehow be non-theological.

At the same time I also had recent contact with a woman in church who is dreadfully opposed to any kind of multimedia presentation or use in worship. Whether it takes the form of PowerPoint to aid a sermon, the use of video clips in the service, or screens on which to project words to songs and hymns sung, she will have none of it. For her (and she is among the most faithful attendees, persons of prayer, and pastoral encouragers we have), a copy of the Scriptures and the Hymnal are the divinely sanctioned tools for worship. But, as wonderful and a blessing to the life of the church as she is, her conclusions are just as unserious (although seriously held).

Exegeting The Issue

How can we be more serious, then? A way to begin is by teasing out what is implicit in the issue of technology and worship. Here is the antidote to an unserious approach to issues and an easy sanctioning of our own personal preferences. So, what is at stake? Here are some things just for starters.

ORGANIZATIONALLY

Clearly, the possibility of using technology in the worship life of the Church brings with it all sorts of organizational issues. The polity of the local church, of course, will determine many of these. Who makes these sorts of decisions for a congregation? But after this, questions arise concerning how to implement the use of technology. The more stuff we use in worship (from one point of view, at least) the greater the chance that something is going to go wrong. Ideas don’t just implement themselves—people need to put legs on the ideas. Who is going to provide those legs? This seems all too obvious, of course. But the average church is largely volunteer-dependent. Are there people available who are both willing and capable to lead the use of technology in the very unique context of the worship of the Church? Nothing kills a good idea quite like the poor implementation of a good idea. This especially goes for something like technology—its ease and helpfulness is more than matched by what it can mess up when it goes wrong.

INTERPERSONALLY

Whether we like it or not, whether we think it should be this way or not, the reality is that the Church is filled with people whose personal preferences, idiosyncrasies, and psychologies often largely determine their response to what happens in the worship life of the Church. And this in no way only goes for some church members who are just theologically unsophisticated or un-thoughtful. Pastors are just as likely to make judgments concerning worship based on personal preference—we’re just better at finding ways to bully folks into conceding to our preferences by couching them in theological language. At the very least, what this alerts us to is that the use of technology in worship is going to bring about deeply felt responses that go beyond the rational. This is in not to say that these reactions are necessarily irrational—that would be too dismissive. It is simply to recognize that the pastor needs to remember that he or she is so often dealing with more than peoples’ minds. Guts are much more tricky to deal with. And when it comes to worship, peoples’ guts will respond strongly.

Let’s take just the issue of change. Implementing changes in worship—especially ones as drastic as bringing in new technologies—calls for special sensitivity on the part of the pastor. It is too easy to oversimplify things here: On the one hand we have those who are opposed to change and those who embrace it. But this is unfair. Look closer:

“Those who are opposed to change.” I think it is probably rare to come across someone who is simply opposed to change as a general life rule. People don’t react to “change” so much as actual, real changes. The question is what these changes represent. What might a change in worship life represent to some? Just as a start, it potentially throws a huge wrench in the experience of safety in worship. The issue is safety and not just being comfortable. I think of the historical image of someone running into a cathedral in late-medieval Europe and crying out “Sanctuary!” There is something quite beautiful in the image of a worshipper feeling a similarly profound sense of deep safety and freedom from what oppresses when he or she comes to worship on Sunday morning. But imagine that medieval fugitive running into a building claiming the safety of sanctuary only to realize he has run into the bakery. It may seem a bit overly dramatic to those who may like a particular change in worship life and expression. But I have known enough deeply faithful brothers and sisters who have responded negatively to change in worship (particularly around the issue of technology) to sense that there is something more going on in their dramatic response than a shallow and general aversion to the boogeyman of “change”. We probably should be careful about the soft demonization of the “But we’ve always done it that way” crowd. They’re likely deeper than that.

This is just the beginning of the likely interpersonal issues implied here. The sensitive pastor will next have to begin thinking about what interpersonal issues might be inherent in the second group of people mentioned above—those that embrace change. In addition, the above is completely generalized, at that. There are seemingly infinite combinations of possible issues when actual people with their own histories and personalities are involved.

THEOLOGICALLY

This is where my unthinking (on this issue) friend most dropped the ball. “One day every church will have iPads in the pews.” It wasn’t necessarily in his opinion that he dropped the ball. It was in the unreflective way he accepted his prediction as a given without consideration as to what this might involve or mean theologically. And it means a lot.

For a start, technology in the worship life of the church might call for an examination of the theological import of the spoken word. Technology in worship often takes the form of multimedia-type presentations and uses. These are increasingly being used in sermons. Just as one example, PowerPoint has over the past several years become more and more popular as sermon supplement. Technology so often is geared toward our visual culture and takes seriously the reality that many people are visual rather than aural learners. (The extent to which it, in reality, is makingpeople into visually dependent learners is a separate, but interesting, issue.)

In Genesis, God creates through the spoken word. In John, Jesus is depicted as the Word of God. The Scriptures are the revelation of God through word. And throughout Christian history all these have been communicated to the Church through the words of preachers. Does God have a special affinity for word communication? Might something be in danger of being lost in a shift from an aural to a visual focus? Of course, the Church has also historically made ample use of visual elements in worship. But as the visible becomes more and more popular in our modern world, should we be more careful to guard the place of the spoke word? What is it about the word? This is a central theological question, I believe, when it comes to thinking about technology in worship.

Another theological issue is that of the Incarnation and how we might appropriate this central Christian theme in ministry. In the Incarnation, the eternal Word of God becomes flesh. And the point is that the Word becomes general human flesh. The historicity of the Incarnation demands a specific flesh—first century Jew in Palestine flesh. But the Incarnation has general efficacy—Jew, Greek, slave, free, male, female. The Word takes on all flesh and when we appropriate this theme in pastoral ministry it should probably say something to us concerning the generalized and indiscriminate approach to pastoral care that we are called to take. The Word takes on general flesh. And the pastor who cares to take his or her cue from this theological reality must then have a similarly general and indiscriminate identification and “being with” his or her congregation. This will call for a particular sensitivity to those with whom we disagree or are easily aggravated. And there is nothing quite like tension over making changes in church life to bring out disagreement and aggravation. But the generalized nature of the Incarnation warns the pastor committed to an Incarnation-inspired ministry against belittling or dismissing some flesh as less deserving of our care. Christ didn’t pick and choose what sorts of flesh to incarnate and which to avoid.

Exegeting The Ramifications

These are just the beginning of the uncovering of organizational, interpersonal, and theological issues involved when it comes to the use of technology in worship. But already we can begin to see some competing commitments.

On the one hand, for example, we have the interpersonal concern with the nature of worship as sanctuary—safety. In reality, this goes for folks on both sides of the “change” debate discussed above. Just as those adverse to change in worship might be so out of a sense of loss of worship as safe space, so those who desire change may have a real fear that refusal to change could indicate spiritual stagnation or insensitivity to the movement of the Spirit of God. These people are just as likely to be afraid: afraid of being in a spiritually unhealthy congregation. The issue is not at this point which side is right. The issue is that these are real interpersonal responses that the pastor has to be aware of and sensitive to.

On the other hand we have the theological commitment to reflect on the theological implications of technology in worship (specifically, reflection on the importance and nature of the spoken word in light of the Scriptures and Christian tradition). We come to a point of competing commitments when the work of reflection is supposed to pay off. As much as some of us might like to, we cannot simply reflect indefinitely. Decisions eventually need to be made in most situations and, when it comes to making a decision concerning the use of technology in worship, making a decision means not only deciding for but also deciding against. Someone will feel that they have lost. And so it ends up that it is our theological commitment to come to a reflective position that puts us in a place to do violence against our interpersonal concerns.

The point is that there is always a cost. We had better be aware of where our competing commitments lie so that we can most effectively deal with the fallout when we have to transgress one of them. And this is just one possible set of competing commitments. There will often be more.

Law And Gospel

In John chapter four Jesus tells the Samaritan woman, “But the time is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” Worship is serious business and it appears that there is a way to get it right (“those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth). Law. But we also must remember that the picture Jesus presents us with here is not one of a God who sits back with a checklist poised to pull the plug on poor worshippers. Instead, Jesus shows us a God seeking adept worshippers. The difference in posture is everything here. It is the difference between a God who sits back with a suspicious eye and one reaching out to bring us in. That is Gospel.

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