Wednesday, April 14, 2010By Steven H. VanderLeest
What technology do you use to worship? (If you were thinking by the title of this week’s entry that I was writing a diatribe on technology as a source of idolatry, sorry, that will need to wait for another week.) By “worship” I mean praise and adoration of God. I also have in mind a dialogue – a conversation – between Creator and creature. But I prefer not to get much more specific than that, since “every definition is dangerous” (attributed to Erasmus). Let’s start with formal worship, for example, the worship activities that occur during a church service. There is a plethora of technology that shows up to aid us in worship.
The house of worship itself, if it is a typical church building, is a wonderful combination of architecture, materials selection, and structural engineering. Some buildings are designed so that one immediately recognizes them as a church, while others are more subtle, such as a building converted or leased for use as a church or perhaps a building design so modern and styled without traditional sweeping arches or striking steeples to tip us off. The technology of the building contributes to the worship of the believer’s community that meets there by providing a space for the faithful to gather, keeping them warm (or cool) and dry, perhaps providing some creature comforts such as padded seats. The building architecture might be designed so that form and function aesthetically combine to draw the worshiper’s eyes to certain key features, such as a cross up high and in front. It might use stain glass windows that depict familiar Bible stories. It might arrange seated believers in rows so that their voices combine and soar when singing, or perhaps arrange them in a more circular fashion to face one another as a family gathering around the table for a (communion) meal. The choice of materials in wood, glass, and fabric can be important for visual aesthetics, but also for acoustic reasons. The grand cathedrals of Europe used large spaces enclosed in stone to provide incredible spaces for choral music to resound. In buildings of wood where tile floors were later covered with carpet, the acoustics of the room changed, slightly muffling the voice of the preacher and the songs of the choir.
Technologies of heating, air conditioning, and electric lights allow us to meet for worship in different seasons and during the evening hours as well in daylight times. We hardly notice these modern conveniences, a tribute to their transparency, simply supporting our needs as tools which fade into the background so that we can focus on ends rather than means. Modern humans tend to have shorter memories, depending instead on the technology of the print to aid our recall of words and the Word. Thus the dialog of worship is supported by printed song books and Bibles. These technologies tend to be fairly transparent too, in that we use them to sing or to read scripture without giving the book itself much thought. Even grape juice as a substitute for wine is a technology (the process to prevent fermentation into wine was invented in the mid 1800’s) that we hardly notice when partaking of communion.
Sometimes our technology can get in the way however, especially when it gets too complicated. An example, I think, is the use of Powerpoint in worship services. When done well, I think it provides some good benefits, touching on our visual predilections, allowing us to look up while singing (which enhances vocal support, I’m told), and provides more flexibility than a printed page. But this is also a rather complicated technological means: our system pulls thousands or even billions of zeros and ones stored digitally on the disk of a hard drive, representing a liturgy that is magnetically read inside the computer at the back of the room, converting to a video signal that is routed to a project high above so that it can cast a pattern of shadow and light upon the screen in front, all under the control of someone at the keyboard or using a mouse to click through the screens. A system with many links and no redundancy is more prone to failure. When the screen is not advanced to the next verse of a song at the right moment as the music proceeds, we all stumble – sometimes even when I actually know the song by heart, I cannot quickly enough come up with the words because of the distraction of wondering what is going wrong because the screen seems to have frozen forever while the song marches on. A similar disruption can detract from our worship when the microphone for the worship leader does not work. This seems to be even more common for wireless versions (which need fresh batteries, need a proper radio signal, require the user to remember to switch it on, require the sound board person to route the signal to the speakers properly, and more). We have often designed our worship spaces so that they are dependent on sound amplification in order for all to hear. When it fails, our worship falters. Technology does not need to be complicated to distract. Even a clock on the wall can prevent us from fully engaging in the worship conversation.
My solution to these problems is not to throw out the technology, at least not necessarily. First, it seems to me that we should carefully consider each proposed technological addition to be sure it truly will aid us in worship, that it will effectively enhance our worship. If so, then we must also consider the possible failure modes and how we will handle it. If we have a substitute microphone handy that can be quickly swapped if batteries die, then the technology stays mainly in the background with only a momentary blip to correct for a failure. If the song leader is flexible, they can quickly adapt to a Powerpoint failure and transition to a familiar chorus that the congregation knows by heart. As we plan our worship, let us consider how each activity, each action, and how each technology can lead to a deeper conversation, a more engaging dialog, higher praise, and more spirit-filled worship of our God.