Powerpoint, Worship, Mega Churches and a Whole Lot of Other Stuff...



Maybe it's just my learning style, which is highly associative, picking up cross-cutting themes in a number of different disciplines, but recent reading in the blogosphere has been raising a lot of related issues regarding the over-all direction of modern worship and the use of technology in the same, and how that in turn shapes our corporate and personal spiritual lives...


For starters, the whole issue of powerpoint... I am a convert if not a devotee... I use it in most services in my home church but do not feel disabled without it. I have however, both in worship and in other settings experienced the "death by powerpoint" phenomenon (142 slides in 90 minutes in a presentation on "The Review of Public Administration" by way of an after-dinner speech on one occasion). So these two salutory warnings regarding the inappropriate use of this technological tool in worship are very helpful (See Alan in Belfast and Scotteriology).


But, as Alan in Belfast points out it goes beyond powerpoint to other forms of technology (and as someone who has earned a crust as a theatre tech, don't start me on crummy church sound systems and the inability of many to use what they have effectively... Tip: Louder is not necessarily better, but actually hearing voices with or without music in the background, would be my minimum requirement). When we start into the whole video realm, and using the screen as the mediator of the message, then we get into truly tricky ground, as Ben Myers points out in his Faith and Theology blog... I haven't been following his blog since he moved to Australia, and so I only picked it up through Maggi Dawn's page, but the whole thing is worth a look...


It focuses on his experience at Hillsong, one of the Big Brand Mega-Churches of the moment, and whilst his comments about the nature of the preaching made me wince, it was his comments about the use of the screen there that really made me think. I haven't been at Hillsong so I won't comment on anything specific to that church, but there is a potential problem where everything is worship and message is mediated through a screen. It reinforces that sense that the preacher, musicians and all the people at the front (or on screen) are the performers, and that the congregation is the "audience". (I came to breaking point with a wedding coordinator last year when she repeatedly referred to the congregation as the audience...) This is a myth of contemporary evangelical worship that iMonk is trying to debunk in his current offering, but Kierkegaard nailed it over a century ago, when he suggested that this model of worship reduces God to the role of prompter whispering into the ear of the preacher and other performers at the front of the church. Instead, suggests Kierkegaard if we are to maintain the performance analogy, authentic worship is the other way round entirely... God is the audience of one... It is him that we should seek to be pleasing in our worship, not the congregation or the "seeker"; indeed the congregation is the performer, and those up front (or on screen) are only the prompters and stage hands. Reminding preachers and prima-donna praise leaders or organists of that once in a while is a good way to contain rampant egos.


But reducing the congregation to the role of audience (or viewer) has been a perennial tendency in the church... indeed the medieval church fell into an even deeper trap, further alienating the audience from the mysteries of worship by erecting huge rood-screens, and it is only with Vatican 2 that some of those dangers in Catholic worship have been truly addressed... leading to revolutionary approaches to church architecture; new round churches with central altars and the reorganisation of ancient cathedrals to allow for a similar experience.


But the role of the congregation and individual as audience/viewer has reached a whole new level in the modern mega-church movement. The worship event is a highly entertaining, well-polished performance (and all worship SHOULD be the best we can offer, since it should be aimed at glorifying God and bringing joy to his heart)... but ultimately such worship is designed to appeal to human senses and emotions. This is made clear in Shane Clifton's very honest reply to Ben Myer's post, where his ultimate criteria for sticking with Hillsong is that his kids think it is fun...


Now I'm not getting snotty about that, and if I weren't a minister I might be making similar judgement calls on where we as a family might worship (as it is "fun" doesn't get a look in for my kids when their Dad is minister!), but it is indicative of what people are looking for, why mega-churches who meet that need are "successful" and why other churches try to emulate them in their own small (and sadly unprofessional) way.


But it is to reduce worship and church to the level of commodities to be sold. Sold to the audience/congregation Sunday by Sunday, and sold to other congregations in the form of the latest programmes and worship that will make you just like Hillsong/Willowcreek/Saddleback/HTB (delete as applicable)...


And, if worship can be mediated through a screen, then why not just opt out of the whole hassle of getting the kids dressed, driving 20 miles to church and finding a parking space, and instead just switch on the God Channel? If interactivity is required just press the red button... Or perhaps even that is not necessary, and we can just do church through facebook or another social networking site...


Now, again, don't get me wrong, I am not a Luddite, I believe in the appropriate use of technology... indeed this week I was talking with a friend (a real flesh and blood one, not just a cyber-acquaintence on fb), about how social networking sites can be a source of spiritual support, interaction and teaching for isolated Christians... but they should only ever be a means to an end... and that end is the corporate worship and service of God, something that goes way beyond what happens in a Sunday service.


If technology, be it facebook, TV, video, powerpoint and everything else, leads people from being isolated individuals to being integrated worshipping members of the body of Christ then great... But if it is creating a tendency towards individualistic and consumeristic Christianity, then rip it all out...


OK... Time for me to stop being an individual typing on a piece of technology and go out and see some real people...

(In case you think this is simply a rant against trendy churches please tune in for tomorrow's blog, which is a reflection I've been mulling over since March, based on an experience I had then...)


Comments

Alan in Belfast said…
There's so much the church could learn from the theatre - if the church could stop itself from insisting on putting it all into practice! Probably so much that ministers could learn from actors too!

It feels like an important time for NI churches to wise up to what they're doing. So many are either racing ahead or feeling left behind in the technology stakes. Yet I'm not convinced that many have thought through why they're investing their resources - financial and human. It's often lacks intention.

I think we do need to resurrect the idea of Adult Tech Camp to at least raise awareness of what’s being asked of people, give folk confidence by showing how others manage to carry it off, and develop a culture of consistency and concentration. Funny how musicians practice, but techies just wing it on the day!
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