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Technology and Worship

Reflections from a Worship Committee Meeting

Our worship team was brainstorming one night in response to a facilities improvement survey. We talked about the way our sanctuary and the rest of our buildings don’t flow well—they seem strung together. This is true for many churches: Education wings were a second thought after the sanctuary, and additional space—from kitchens to gyms to side chapels—are tagged on as years and needs accumulate. Things change, sometimes without much thought about the overall impact of the build-up of small changes over time.

Our conversation turned to the offering. We’ve done electronic giving for several years, and several committee members noted that during the offertory they have nothing to do. They’ve already sent in their offering online, in the privacy of their home—a communal effort between their fingers and their keyboard. They wondered if in the future the offertory might be even less meaningful or whether it will need to develop into a broader expression of the offering of ourselves, just as many of our offertory prayers say. There will be a Sunday coming when the offering plates are returned without any budget envelopes or cash, symbolically showing emptiness. This would be exactly the wrong demonstration of our gratitude to God.

Perhaps we could invite an offering of another sort—an opportunity to write what we are grateful for this past week, for example, or to tie a symbolic ribbon that expresses our gratitude for gifts given to us. Perhaps the offertory could simply be a time of reflection, giving our souls a chance to engage the divine without having to be aware of passing a plate. We could become enraptured with the offertory music, as I was one Sunday in listening to a soloist sing Mendelssohn’s “If With All Your Heart.”

Next we talked about our bulletin. We are heavily reliant on a printed order of worship, both because of our participatory liturgy and because we have repudiated any screen-projection system. Our congregation does not have a place for a screen or projector either in the sanctuary or in our views of how we want our worship to proceed.

We had a good conversation about this decision when a guest preacher asked about projecting photos to enhance the sermon. The preacher said the photos were quite pertinent
to what he wanted to convey through the sermon. We discussed this deliberately, and then found a way to accommodate the pastor without either a screen or a projector.

How can we train ourselves to focus on our relationship with God, with some tools to assist us, instead of letting the tools dominate and dictate our worship?

Our current print bulletin is available in large print and in regular type. We wondered what it would look like if instead of a large-print paper version we had some kind of electronic readers available that offer backlighting, enlargement capabilities, and other advantages to visually impaired people. Of course, envisioning people with electronic readers in their hands takes some imagination for us too.

I’ve used personal technology in worship for quite a while. I wear hearing aids and depend mightily on the clarity of the induction loop system in our sanctuary. And for many years I have used my smartphone’s NRSV Bible app or a lectionary app instead of the pew Bible. But I still get curious looks from people wondering what electronic game I’m playing or whether I’m sending text messages or checking Facebook.

There have been times I have sent text messages during worship. My job requires me to be on call, and I find it far less intrusive to respond with a text message than to get up, leave the sanctuary, make a phone call, and return. Sending a text message instead of taking a call also gives me a bit more control over my response and the interruptions.

Speaking of control, our worship team also talked about the endless possibilities for distraction when we use technology in lectures or meetings or worship. There are countless opportunities to divert our attention to something else. Email pop-ups, text messages, Facebook posts, tweets, breaking news—all these and more serve to nab our focus from the task at hand.

If the task at hand is worship—the work of the people—then how can we develop and nurture restraint when it comes to technological distractions and amusements? Perhaps we could engage in conversation about the appropriate use of technology and share our own methods for using it to enhance worship, not distract from it.

A few years ago I went with my spouse to a service at a megachurch satellite in a western city. Some of the people who accompanied us were all aglow over the use of technology. “Did you see how they panned the congregation during the applause after the praise band?” “Did you notice how they alternated screenshots of the pastor from the main congregation (at a different site) with shots of the associate pastor at our service?” “How cool to have all those nature shots during the song!” My spouse and I bit our tongues so as not to offer our critique of the “show,” aware that we could be perceived as worship snobs. We were surprised at the level of technology used. We felt the images on the screen served to distance the congregation from doing what they came to do: worship. It was an exercise in rapid eye movement and stimulation. Sure, it engaged eyes and ears, but how much did it engage the soul?

Electronics aren’t coming; they are already here in a pew near you. What I hope we can do is discern what’s helpful—and what’s not. Here’s an example from my hospital work: When in the intensive care unit, patients are linked to numerous monitors and gadgets. When a patient is dying, family members often will focus on a monitor or jump at the sound of an alert or alarm. I see them watching the squiggly lines or pulsing numbers with intensity, and I suggest they might be far better off focusing on the patient instead. Talk to the patient as if she can hear you. Tell her what you need to say. The monitors don’t tell the whole story. Be present, look at the person, and offer your attention and your presence.

The church is no ICU, fortunately; nevertheless, how can we train ourselves to focus on our relationship with God with some tools to assist us instead of letting the tools dominate and dictate our worship and attentiveness to God’s work and movement?

My congregation tries to minimize the amount of technology used in worship. That is not the answer for every context. But regardless of how much your congregation uses technology, remember that technology is a tool, and tools are not in themselves the focus, but assist us in enhancing worship and ministry.