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Is technology appropriate for incorporating into worship? If so, how much and toward what end?

This is a loaded question. First of all, technology connotes ‘electronic media’ in most contemporary church circles. One immediately thinks of presentational technologies – anything that can be projected on a screen, for instance video, song lyrics, still images, etc. However, technology in the purest sense refers to those methods or ‘techniques’ we utilize for accomplishing something. In this truer sense, printed books are technology. At the advent of the printing press, it is certain that these compact, hand-held, widely available, compendiums of an author’s thoughts were considered ‘technological’ more in the modern sense – as we consider computers today.

A medieval scribe.

A medieval scribe.

Actually, another ‘technique’ that was quite controversial in the Church was the writing down and copying of Scripture. It seems almost silly today, but some – including major Church pundits – were not at all too excited about moving from a more ‘reliable’ oral tradition to the fixed, but open for unguided interpretation form of written tradition.

So, technique or technology is really just the idea that humans develop and are constantly developing new ways to accomplish tasks.

The task we are discussing is gathered worship. So, what techniques ought to be considered for use in the service of worship?

The general answer is, ‘all of them’. But, more specifically, I think each technology must be run through an ideological grid before it is employed toward the leading of the praise of God. The first, and most important question of the grid should be: What is worship? (Or, you might ask: What is the goal of worship?)

Simply put, worship is the dialogue between God and humans, in which God initiates the conversation and humans respond in cyclical fashion. The goal, then, would be to facilitate this dialogue (to the extent to which we can).

Once we have agreed upon our goal or definition of worship, there are more questions to ask that are specifically relevant to evaluating the technology in question. For instance, we might ask:

How will this technology help us ‘hear’ what God is saying to us?

Traditionally, we hear what God is saying in numerous ways: the reading aloud of the Word, words given by the Holy Spirit through individual worshipers, the Spirit again speaking through the preacher of the Word, etc. These all have to do with speaking and listening. What other techniques might we use for ‘hearing the Word of God’?

In the Middle Ages, most church goers were illiterate. On top of that, the Mass was said in Latin, which was not understood by most present for the Eucharist. The common people spoke whichever vulgar language they spoke. How did these worshipers ‘hear’ the Word of God?

In fact, they ‘saw’ the Word, to ‘hear’ the Word.

Bas relief stone carvings – which can be seen today in cathedrals all over Europe – depicted vignettes from the Gospels. Stained glass windows also depicted scenes from the life of Jesus, or Old Testament stories. Statues of saints reminded worshipers of the faithful ones who came before. The shape of the cathedral interior, the placement of the altar, and the seating arrangements (all technologies by the way) ‘spoke’ of the holiness of God, the reverence of the Meal, and God’s relationship to his people. These technologies ought to be – and have been – critiqued for their effectiveness toward hearing the Word of God.

A final interesting point here is that a really good and true evaluation of one techniques effectiveness is not eternal. While the images in a Roman cathedral may have been duly effective, by the time the Reformation had come and changed many hearts and minds regarding the uses (or abuses) of images, these became less and less helpful and perhaps more distracting to Protestants who assigned negative feelings to such non-verbal communication.

And, yet again, in our present age, images are familiar and prevalent. In fact, our culture is ‘image saturated’. Once again, it is necessary to judge the credibility and effectiveness of images. And, this must be done from one culture to another, and every time major cultural shifts take place.

Other important questions include:

How will this technology in question help us respond to God?

In the case of images, these can be viewed and reflected upon toward the offering of prayers. If practical, worshipers might even create their own images as prayer-offerings to God from their hearts. Negatively speaking, images tend to be limited in conveying complex ideas. In this sense, images may not always work as a communication tool for responding to God.

What are the possibilities for distraction?

Images that are offensive to some are not offensive to others. Those who plan worship must be well-versed in the values and sensitivities of their congregational body. Also, images that are displayed poorly or just wrought with a lack of skill can deter people from either hearing God or responding to Him.

Does the chosen technology/media change the message that is being communicated in a destructive way?

Marshall McLuhan said, “The medium is the message.” In other words, all media take an intended message and alter it in some way before it reaches the receiver’s ear. In the case of images, the question becomes, how does a picture of something differ from a verbal description of it? What is gained or missed when a picture is employed instead of actual words?

We could go on listing these questions for there are many. But perhaps now we can better answer our initial questions posed here:

Is technology appropriate for incorporating into worship? Yes, in fact it is likely impossible not to employ some technique in worship.

If so, how much technology? This depends on which technologies are attempted and also what cultural sensitivities are at work in the society in which the worship will take place.

And toward what end? The end is worship -dialogue with God. We must always determine whether or not our technologies are promoting dialogue with God, or instead promoting entertainment and distraction.