Technological Worship: Style or Substance

OK, I admit it. I crowdsourced this blog topic. The last few months have been really draining, and I've been running low on ideas (actually, I have tons of ideas, but they're all half-baked). So, I turned to the Twitterverse for some suggestions. Today's topic is courtesy of Mark (@soulfisher), one of our volunteer lighting techs at Upper Room. The bad news: This topic is not mine, and I'm not exactly sure what he meant. The good news is: This is my blog, and I can make it mean whatever I want. It's good to be the king...

The role of technology in the worship experience has been subject for debate for a long, long time. What I always find amusing is how the modes of worship that one generation holds as sacred are the same modes that were heresy in the previous generation. Denominations have split over the use of drums in worship (I am not making this up). Surely, electric guitars are straight from the Devil himself! Well, maybe not...

As a geek and lover of modern technology, I have struggled to find the appropriate place for technology in the worship experience. I'm pretty good at playing both sides of the argument, too. For example, I've written quite extensively about how I am enjoying the community that I find myself part of through Twitter (here, here and here). I've also written about the need to put down the laptop and the iPhone and go talk to another human face to face (here). It is with this same two-faced approach that I deal with worship technology.

Must Have Balance

Mr. Miyagi taught the Karate Kid that he needed to improve his balance if he ever wanted to kick the bully's behind and win the girl (I'm paraphrasing). Thus we have the iconic shot of Ralph Macchio in the crane position on a pier by the ocean. I like to approach technology in worship in the same way. In fact, I can often be found practicing my crane during many worship services.

Seriously, we work really hard at Upper Room to make technology invisible, yet effective in enhancing the worship experience. I'm not really interested in having the coolest light show in the Twin Cities, or the most awesomest video projection, or the craziest sets. When we look at our technology, we ask, "Will this enhance worship or draw attention to itself?" If the answer is the later, we cut it or change it until we get to the former.

Sometimes I see videos of other churches worship gatherings and I think to myself, "Really? That looks more like a concert than a worship service." I struggle with being both jealous of the cool technology and judgmental of how that technology is used. Then I remember that neither emotion is called for and thank God that all those people were in a church that Sunday.

This doesn't mean that we shouldn't seriously evaluate how we use technology, however. Just because we can draw a crowd doesn't mean we are connecting people to God. In fact, I would argue that sometimes the very things we do to reach out to people actually get in the way of connecting people to God. There are those in the unchurched world who look at a church building with a $2 Million A/V install and ask, "Really? There's another typical church, spending all their money on themselves." Is that true? Maybe, maybe not. But was the question ever even asked? Something to think about.

Must Be Relevant

Something the church in general has never been very good at is staying relevant to the current culture. To some extent, "relevant" has become a dirty word in many churches. Again, it's amusing that "relevant" is despised by some as being too trendy at the expense of the Gospel, and by others as selling out, at the expense of the Gospel.

Still, the church needs to communicate to the people of this planet in a language they understand. That language is rapidly changing, and the church needs to keep up. The challenge lies in being true to the message of Jesus, yet framing it in a way that people today can understand and respond to it. Again, balance is in order. While we tend to think that people today want a lot of flash and bang in their worship service (because that was all the rage in culture 20 years ago), the culture is actually moving on and is now looking for more relationships. The huge explosion in Facebook and Twitter belie the true yearning of our society; people want to find meaning through relationships.

So while concert quality sound and lighting might be entertaining, it's really not meeting the needs that people actually have. We're just entertaining them long enough for them to forget how lonely they (we) actually are.

We spent a lot of time in dialog with our church community as we launched out as a church plant. We heard a great many comments about how people want to connect with other people, feel like a family and be in significant relationships. We didn't hear a single comment about wanting better sound, or cooler lights. We have those things in our new space, but we did it on a dime because we want to put most of our effort into actives that draw people together.

Must Be Real

Which brings me to my third point; we must be real. As I watch some of the American Idol-ish church services on the web, I  wonder, "Is this real, or is it a show?" Go to 30 mega churches in the US and you'll see the same thing; reasonably attractive people in hip clothing singing popular songs played by a rad band with cool lights. Are we being real or are we simply trying to be NorthCreekGraingerBack (no offense to any of those ministries).

For too long, the church has tried to be something it's not. We've hidden behind walls of all kinds; high liturgy, the priests, icons, and today, technology. We need to admit who we are, and be who we are. Believe it or not, people want to connect with us, as we are, and when they're ready, to God. Don't let technology get in the way of that. On the other hand, if you can find ways to use technology to create an environment where people can connect with God and each other, use it! Just don't become a slave to it. When you do, it just needs to keep getting bigger and badder than last week (and the church down the road).

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm off to work on my crane...