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Behind the Curtain

There’s a lesson for worship leaders in a famous scene in The Wizard of Oz. Dorothy and company are meeting with the Great and Powerful Oz, whose voice and visage have them shaking in awe and wonder. Meanwhile, the dog Toto pulls back a drape, revealing an ordinary fellow frantically pushing buttons and pulling levers, desperate to conceal his role in the spectacle of sight and sound. He bellows, “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!”

This story illustrates one of the primary dangers of working with powerful present-day presentation technology: the temptation to conjure up the holy, to counterfeit an encounter with God. The phony wizard sought to remain hidden in order to preserve an illusion. But today earnest worship technologists voice the same cry—pay no attention to the man (or woman) behind the curtain—for a different reason. They want to point to what is real. They want to be invisible, concealed in a dark booth in the back of the church: them and their technology transparent to the living God meeting us in worship. It’s a difficult and often thankless job.

Unfortunately, the World Wide Web—the place of so much assistance for preachers, prayers, musicians and artists; the place where one might most expect high-tech help—offers little to aid the thoughtful worship technologist.

Websites on Technology

Much of what is available is found not on worship-specific sites but on technology-specific sites. For example, www.prosoundweb.com offers a wealth of information: topical articles, e-mail forums, and even live chat for audio engineers. If you want to learn how to make the most of EQ, avoid lobes and nulls, or fix hiss in your monitors, this site will do nicely. But don’t expect much help thinking through whether or not it’s a good thing for God’s people gathered in worship to be using a system that requires monitor speakers in the first place.

Other sites do offer support specifically for the church techie. The magazine Technologies for Worship Ministries has a website (www.tfwm.com) that features an article archive, information about upcoming conferences, and a directory of companies and professionals who lend or sell their services to houses of worship. Some other popular sites are www.churchmedia.net, www.experiencingworship.com, and the winners of the domain-name race: www.usingpowerpointinchurch.com. Unfortunately, all of these sites are equipment-oriented and vendor-driven. While worth a visit, they prominently feature for-pay services, and they’re peppered with annoying ads and product profiles. One can learn something clicking around these sites, but their language and ethos seem uncritically borrowed from the entertainment world, where so much of this technology was developed.

Other magazines and their websites offer more theological insight but, being broadly aimed, they don’t provide much traction. So, for instance, see Sally Morgenthaler’s article on worship technology, first published in Worship Leader magazine (www.sacramentis.com/articles/worshipleader/screen/tech2000.shtml) or the article first published in RW 65 by Quentin Schultze and now available at the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship website (www.calvin.edu/worship).

What’s desperately needed is a combination of these two—the abstract and the actual, the conceptual and the concrete.

Not Much on Worship and Technology

A good—though sadly singular—example of this sort of help that combines issues of worship and technology can be found at the website of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (www.elca.org/dcm/worship/faq/music/technology.html). Here, a frequently asked question (Can technology help lead congregational singing?) is given practical articulation (should we use recorded music in worship?) in three distinct ecclesiastical circumstances. In each case the insightful response points to a biblical principal (the Christian assembly is a fundamental expression of our faith), which offers the basis for a reasonable solution (Karaoke Kirke is a bad idea).

The trick is to identify the direction a given technology will pull a congregation, discern whether that direction is God-ward or otherwise, and adjust accordingly. When you’re walking along the edge of a cliff, you do well to lean toward the rock wall, away from the chasm.

For instance, displaying movie clips in worship might engage the congregation at an emotionally deeper level, but it also tends towards the impersonal, the larger-than-life. So which is a better use of the technology: a two-minute clip of The Matrix before a sermon, or a two-minute clip of a congregational shut-in whom no one has seen in five years before a congregational prayer? These are the sorts of questions that need answering.

A New Column

So Reformed Worship will be introducing a column on worship and technology, alternating on a somewhat regular basis with the column on Web resources. The new column will deal primarily with issues like amplification, lighting, projection, and so on. It will point to useful resources and offer practical help, all the while considering the deeper theological questions that ground and inform our use of technology.

When people think of technology and worship, what most often comes to mind are the tools of multimedia wizardry: plasma-gel video screens, huge racks of stage lights, and sound mixing boards with more knobs than a jet aircraft. But technology is nothing new to the church—see John Witvliet’s cheeky “top ten” list of technological innovations in worship (sidebar). Such a list helps us to get over our misperception that technological innovation is a fairly recent interloper into the worship arena.

However, the pace of change today is more rapid than in past years. As more and more churches experiment with spotlights, mixing boards, and Power Point, the need for guidance grows. If worship leaders are to point to and engage the real power, the presence of the living God behind the curtain, they’ll need all the help they can get.

 

Excerpt

If you know of some churches who are using technology well and wisely, who are asking the right questions and finding some good answers, or if you have an issue you’d particularly like addressed, e-mail me at: ron.rienstra@calvin.edu.

 

10. Central heating. Provided comfortable environment for worship. No longer was worship something to be endured by the clergy doing spiritual work on behalf of their congregations.
9. Printing press. Enabled publication of books of common prayer. Also inadvertently lost the individual characteristics of each village’s worship when a printed worship order was delivered from HQ.


8. Non-fermented grape juice. Invented by Methodist Mr. Welch to avoid the intoxicating effects of wine.

7. Pipe organ. Took 500 years to become congregational accompaniment of choice for most Western churches. Contributed to slower musical tempos, larger worship scale, and the addition of artistic ornamentation to worship: the prelude and postlude.

6. Microphone. Paved the way to larger sanctuaries and amplified instruments. Worship became more energetic but less intimate and personal.

5. Internet. Every week, 20,000 songs are available to overwhelm the average worship planner. The paradoxical result is musical homogenization as worship planners often rely on the most convenient or memorable music, rather than what is necessarily the best in a specific context.
4. Synthetic carpeting in sanctuaries. Significantly diminished worshipers’ ability to hear and let their singing soar.


3. Electricity and lights. For obvious reasons.

2. Mimeograph machine. Allowed every modern church leader to do his or her own thing (reversal of sorts of 9 above).

1. Wristwatch. Enabled set times for prayer and made folks more aware of the time they spent in worship.