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Gizmos and Grace: One example of how new technology can help worship leaders

Have you ever filled put one, of those product cards in a card pack or magazine? I ordered a catalog from "Banner Media Services," hoping to get some new banner ideas for use in worship. But the word banner was used in quite a different way than I expected; the company was marketing audiovisual equipment. More catalogs followed from different companies that mysteriously got my address; they offered a dizzying array of sound boards, microphones, video systems, "cassette ministry" systems, and more. I also learned about Technologies for Worship Magazine (formerly Religion), "your guide through the world of technology and application in the worship environment." Technology to manage the sights and sounds of worship is becoming big business.

Investing in New Technology to Look Great

The dominant technological marvel of the Western liturgical tradition was the pipe organ, the "king of instruments." Some churches continue to invest thousands, even hundreds of thousands of dollars in maintaining, rebuilding, or purchasing new pipe organs.

But many churches are beginning to invest large financial resources in other technological directions. A church I attended recently (not a megachurch, just a good-size church in a rather small town) had recently installed large video screens. I could watch the pastor in "real space" or look up at him in larger-than-life form. Three people operated cameras, and two very skilled technicians selected the shots, preparing on-the-spot editing for later broadcast in a nursing home. The people behind the project were not the youth, but middle-aged people wowed by the technology—people who had the financial resources that made the investment possible. The video aspects of the service were first-rate, including announcements, song texts, Scripture theme, sermon outline, and more.

The audio aspects of the service, however, didn't measure up. A pipe organ that had never seen good days accompanied hymns along with a piano that could not be heard above the organ, and the singing struggled in a room that featured acoustical tiles in the ceiling, padding on the pews, and carpeting on the floor. By the congregation's account, however, the singing was better than it used to be, now that they could look up and see the words on the screens.

The video investment in that church seemed like a technological Band-Aid over many deeper worship issues that needed attention. But what did impress me was the congregation's commitment to making the new technology work for them. No expense was spared. People previously uninvolved in worship leadership had found a new way to offer their talents, and they spent countless hours learning new technical skills, wanting to give their best.

New Technology to Sound Great

We're becoming a very visual culture, so it's no wonder we're interested in making our churches look up-to-snuff. But many churches are also investing large amounts in helping their church "sound great."

Sounding great can be taken two ways. There's the technological side of providing good musical instruments and good sound systems. One of the qualifications for the ministry used to be a strong voice, but mikes now can make even the weakest voice audible to those with normal hearing. Good devices for the hearing-impaired are also available.

But just what are we helping to sound great? The best sound system will not redeem poor theology, a boring melody, an unworthy instrument, or a sloppily played hymn. The dominant musical leadership in most worship services still comes from keyboard players, whether they sit at the console of a pipe organ or at a piano or electronic keyboard. How do they learn to "sound great"? Here, too, standards from the culture are high, from the sophisticated equipment that makes performers sound "better-than-life," to the artistry that many performers work years to develop.

New Technology to Develop New Technique

One skill that organists used to cultivate and that many young keyboard players are now eager to learn is to play "by ear." In RW 41 Jan Overduin gave some pointers and encouragement to get musicians started; he also provided a list of improvisation resources for people who are willing to spend considerable time and effort learning to play without notes.

Another resource for keyboard players is Barry Liesch's new book, The New Worship: Straight Talk on Music and the Church (Baker, 1996). An appendix to the book provides the Internet address for an on-line keyboard course (see box). Liesch considers the chapter "Free-Flowing Praise" his most important contribution in that book. He distinguishes three worship forms: the liturgical service, the thematic service, and the free-flowing praise service, which is the "new worship" he is describing. But he is most interested in "the multitude of ways churches are innovating variations within and mixes between the three forms. That is where the action is."

In a Foreword to the book, Donald Hustad appreciates Liesch's "Scripture-plus-common-sense approach" even while squirming over the easy adoption or imitation of worship "flow" that is rooted in charismatic theology. Barry Liesch is not a theologian, but he is a very biblically informed musician with a passionate interest in worship. That's why Hustad can come back and say on the one hand, "There is so much significant material included that it needs to be considered again and again," even while also saying "noncharismatics ... should develop their worship rationale based on their scriptural understanding, and then sing up their own theology!"

Amen to that. Pastors and musicians, especially the keyboard players Liesch addresses most directly, need every bit of help and encouragement he and others can provide. Let Reformed theologians as well as pastors and musicians join Liesch in the effort to use both books and the Internet, both technology and technique, to develop our theology as well as our practice.