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On Worship Technology

Incorporating evolving technology has been an ongoing theme in Christian worship for two thousand years. From the use of scrolls to the invention of the printing press, from the use of lanterns to the invention of electricity, and from use of a pipe organ to the invention of electric guitars, worshipers have always been adopting new technology in worship.

This recurring column will address a wide variety of tech issues. So send your tech questions, best practices, and lessons you have learned along the way to ReformedWorship@crcna.org so that we can all grow in our knowledge and ability to support the worship of God through technology.

Light

“God is light; in him there is no darkness at all”. (1 John 1:5)

For thousands of years, Christian worshipers have been using light to illuminate the gospel truth and brighten places of worship. One of the main features of the great cathedrals of Europe is the luminous stained glass windows. From Chartres in France to York Minster in Northern England, these windows not only allowed light into the houses of worship, but they also illuminated the biblical narrative for those who couldn’t read.

This journal has published many articles describing the use of color in worship, which colors are appropriate for which season, and what various colors symbolize. But how can the present church use modern lighting technology to draw upon the rich history of using color and light in worshiping God?

Lighting technology has changed throughout the history of the church, from candles and lanterns in the early church to the use of electric lights in the recent church. As new lighting technologies were invented, the recent church adopted many of them: dimmer switches, fluorescent lights, colored PAR spots on the stage to give participants a more natural look. Many of these lighting decisions were not made by the worship committee but by finance teams and the building and grounds committee. The use of light became a practical matter, not a theological matter.

Over the past few years, lighting technology has changed once again. LED lights have become more affordable, and digital technology to control them has become widely accessible. It is now within financial reach of many congregations to use light creatively as a way to illuminate the gospel truth and brighten our places of worship. Digital “smart LED” lights can be wirelessly controlled and shine in a great variety of colors and intensities. They can be controlled from a tech booth that probably already contains a computer and control over the general lighting fixtures. The use of these new lighting features can be used to enhance the worship of God.

Creative Uses of Light in Worship

  • Use different colors of LED lights during different times of the liturgical year.
  • Gradually dim the house lights during a Good Friday service and exit in near dark. Reverse the process on Easter morning.
  • Use wall-wash LED lights to reinforce the colors of an Advent wreath.
  • Mimic a stained glass window to add beauty to a sanctuary.

Sound

“Then the man brought me to the gate facing east, and I saw the glory of the God of Israel coming from the east. His voice was like the roar of rushing waters, and the land was radiant with his glory”. (Ez. 43:1-2)

When thinking about early worship I have often wondered about sound. How did people hear Jesus when he spoke to the 5,000? How did people hear Peter when 3,000 people were converted at Pentecost? How was Paul heard on Mars Hill?

One theory is that these people took advantage of natural features that funnelled sound to the listeners. As worship moved indoors, buildings were designed to take advantage of acoustics. Many churches were designed so sound could be reflected toward the congregation, similar to outdoor amphitheaters. Buildings were constructed with front walls that were curved to reflect the sound, pulpits that were elevated to emphasize the preeminence of the Word and to project the speaker’s voice further into the sanctuary, and “roofs” that were built over the pulpit to focus the sound down to the congregation. About the only instrument loud and large enough to fill an entire worship space such as this was the pipe organ. This instrument is known as the King of Instruments for very good reasons.

In the early 20th century, electricity was introduced into churches and amplification became widely used. No longer were churches, dependent on acoustic architecture to allow people to hear the Word; architects could now artificially magnify the sound and allow buildings to be designed without acoustic considerations. Preachers were not confined to pulpits, choirs could be small and yet heard effectively, the organ did not need to be the primary instrument, and congregants could participate in leading worship.

As amplification technology improved, the need for people who could understand and operate all of this new equipment also increased. This opened up worship planning and participation to a whole new demographic of people.

The sound engineer has become integral to the worship process, turning mics on and off at appropriate times, mixing the sound from many different sources, and playing recorded music at specific times. Members who never before participated in the worship service can now use their gifts and talents to help others worship more fully.

Whatever these new sound technologies can do, we must keep in mind what the Westminster Shorter Catechism states—that the chief aim of humanity is to “glorify God and to enjoy him forever.” How can we use sound to reinforce how we glorify and enjoy God?

Sound Use Examples from a Recent “Blended” Worship Service

  • Smartphone playing music through the mixer as people enter the sanctuary
  • Wireless headset used by preacher
  • Recorded Scripture played over the speaker system, as “Paul” enacts his prison epistle
  • Sound mixing for
    • Electronic Allen organ
    • Piano with two mics
    • Drum set with two mics
    • Acoustic guitar
    • Bass guitar
    • Violin
    • Praise team with four wireless mics
    • Prayer and Announcement time wireless mic

Projection

“Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts”. (Col. 3:16)

Sitting on the shelf in front of me is a stack of hymnals. Next to them sit a King James Version Bible, a Revised Standard Version Bible, and two different New International Version Bibles. And next to that is a copy of Our Faith: Ecumenical Creeds, Reformed Confessions, and Other Resources. All these books have been used at some time or another in the churches I have attended. For years, these books were the main source of information, except for maybe a few songs, creeds, and Scriptures that were recited by memory.

But with the advent of projection technology over the past decade, more and more churches are adopting this technology to introduce a wide variety of songs and texts. Entire hymnal collections can now be accessed on a computer. The question that now arises is “How can projection best support worship?”

  • Should only song lyrics be projected or the music as well?
  • Should Scripture be projected, should we use the Bibles found in the pews, or should congregants bring their own Bibles?
  • Is it detrimental or beneficial for the preacher to have sermon notes or sermon illustrations projected? Is it appropriate to show video clips during the service?
  • Should we replace the bulletin with a scrolling slideshow that plays before the service?
  • Is a 60-second greeting “countdown” too long or not long enough?
  • Has the text been proofread? Screen errors can distract from worship.

With so many resources available to churches, a worship planning team needs to include someone familiar with available technologies. Projection can aid in worshiping our Lord and Savior, but it can also be hinderance. We must keep at the forefront of our planning discussions the question “Does this help us worship?”

As Christian worshipers with a great many technologies available to us, we should embrace those that aid us in worshiping, we should engage in an ongoing discussion with those who plan, lead, and support worship services about what is appropriate and beneficial, and we should continue to explore the wide variety of technologies available to us. Given how quickly technology changes, this is a big challenge, but we can meet it best if we do it together.