A Curmudgeon Weighs in on Evangelical Worship: Disney World Worship, Part 3: The Sovereignty of Technology
Disney World is dependent on technology. Consider what a trip there would be like if Disney World went “unplugged.” I doubt your “dream vacation” would be so dreamy without all the rides, gadgets, and experiences brought to us by advances in technology. And Bruce Ashford wouldn’t be able to see his dream come true of doing the Castle Package at the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique if Disney World didn’t build itself on the wonders of technology (I mean, without a blow dryer, what would they do with Bruce’s hair?).
Christian Worship has benefited much from technological advances. We take for granted the wonder of printed Bibles, for example. Without the development of the printing press, we simply would not have access to the Scriptures in the manner we do. For musicians, there are improved instruments (yes, technology brought us better-made instruments – give that natural horn a try, those of you who play valved instruments), printed music, and music publishing software. And we have made significant use of advances in audio and visual technology in the past decades.
I’ve always been an advocate of making the best use possible of technology in worship. I see no point in being a liturgical Luddite. At the same time, I am troubled by what appears, in some instances, to be the use of technology in a way that is unfitting and overbearing. I worry that in some places technology has assumed a magisterial rather than ministerial role. That is, it has come to rule our worship rather than serve it. In too many instances, technology has become sovereign in our worship.
Let me clarify two points. First, I’m not entirely sure how we can measure the problem I’m surfacing here. Perhaps others have some ideas about that. But, I’m not going to offer any hard and fast arguments in this post. Second, I’m not questioning anyone’s motives about the use of technology, I’m simply raising questions of judgment.
It’s a rarity to find a church in the United States that does not use some sort of audio reinforcement. Even cathedrals (we have relatively few in the US) typically have basic audio equipment – a pulpit mic and some loudspeakers. Other churches make extensive use of audio equipment, with installations of sound equipment alone in the range of five figures and even six at times (yes, I mean that churches spend hundreds of thousands on audio equipment). Let me identify a couple of problems I see with the use of audio technology these days.
First, I think we often turn up the volume too high in our worship services. It’s not difficult to ascertain optimal decibel levels in a room, but very often we use audio technology to exceed that level. On more than one occasion I’ve asked the question, Why exactly do we reinforce sound? We reinforce it (that’s what we do with the audio equipment) so people can hear. So, once they can hear what they couldn’t hear without reinforcement, we have to ask, What is the point of then turning it up louder?
I’ve heard a number of answers to that question. Perhaps the winner is that people think if they turn up the volume the congregation will sing more. This is simply a misunderstanding of congregational dynamics. If people can’t hear themselves, they actually sing less, not more. (The inverse is true too. If they only hear themselves, most won’t keep singing). You don’t encourage the congregation to sing by blasting more sound at them. Find the optimal sound for your room and leave it there. I promise you that optimal is nowhere near the maximum settings on your system. And, if you think turning the sound up loud is “cool,” get over it. You’re doing a disservice to the people.
Second, we use audio effects boxes in a manner that is irresponsible. The effects box is that little unit that is used, for example, to create reverberation. Now, I’m not opposed to using such a device. I served in a church for several years that was in a converted mall, and due to low ceilings we had an acoustical nightmare on our hands. The effects box helped restore some of the natural sound to voices and instruments that was lost in that room. This is a fitting and appropriate use of technology in my view. What I object to is the use of an effects box to make a singer sound like someone else, like they have a voice they don’t actually have. We “warm up” a voice with the effects box to make it sound better than it actually is. I realize that the pop music industry is built on such use of technology (I once heard a popular CCM group rehearsing when the effects box went out – Weren’t we all surprised that they sounded very little like they did with the aid of technology?). This is inauthentic. Just let the singer sing. And teach them to sing better, to sustain lines, and to find the natural warmth of their voice. If the sax player doesn’t have a great tone, don’t use technology to misrepresent him. I really worry about our indiscriminate use of such equipment.
Video equipment, for all its usefulness, has its problems as well. The use of screens, for example, for projection, has given us a lot of good options we didn’t have before. We can now make aspects of the service visible in ways we could not previously. While that’s true, our efforts to improve visibility have a downside. Several years ago I began displaying the Scripture text for my sermon on screen at a certain point in each service. I wanted the congregation to read the text aloud together each week and, with the proliferation of different English translations along with the fact that I was preaching out of a different version than our pew Bibles, I made use of video to display the Scriptures. I thought this was working quite well until some congregants made the observation that some people had quit bringing their Bibles to church. Talk about unintended consequences. I wanted them to pay more attention to the Scriptures, but in the process I took the Bible out of their hands. (Why I want the Bible in their hands is a matter for another blog. But, to be clear, it’s not so they can receive a gold star for bringing their Bible to church. It is part of a desire for our people to know how to read the Bible well, something we should be showing them from the pulpit). I think my motives were proper, but I hadn’t thought this one through. This wasn’t a problem with the use of video per se, but it is an example of a good use of technology might have some problems associated with it that we might not think of at first.
Another issue with the use of technology that is quite common these days is the practice of displaying shots of platform personnel and the congregation continually during the service. This has the effect of turning the worship gathering into a large TV viewing service. I am amazed at how often I watch the screen to see what’s going on twenty-five feet away, when I can see it just fine without the screen. Even when I’m conscious of it, my eyes are still drawn to the screen. My observation is that this is a common occurrence, and I think it too has unintended consequences. We divert ourselves from the real to a representation of the real, and we become once removed from that which should have our attention – a real image-bearer of God preaching God’s good news. Instead, we look at an image of the image-bearer. Also, I’m terribly distracted in worship services where we have close-ups of singers and musicians happening all the time. I wonder why we need these shots at all, but at the very least we should do it less often. Worship isn’t a TV show, it’s communion with God amidst his people. In an odd way, our attempts to build community by showing video shots of congregants and platform singers actually produces an artificial effect that makes people seem distant, the very opposite of our intention.
A side note here: Can we please stop “staging” worship services with singing groups that have choreographed movements and outfits? This isn’t high school show choir (no offense to high school show choir directors. Or, maybe, offense to you. Whatever the case may be). And, please, if you have to do this, don’t put it on video. Let the musicians stay in a back room where none of us can see them.
In the end, if the elements of worship, or our actions in worship, or use of media, or technology, garner more attention in a worship service than Christ, then something is out of order. Christ is the sovereign, not technology or anything (or anyone) else. We need to be more cautious about making a servant (technology) the master in our public assemblies.
Thus ends my musings on Disney World Worship. Next up, I’ll continue my series with some constructive comments about a biblical theology of worship in a few posts and then some thoughts on the practice of worship in the local congregation.