Disposable Worship: a caution about using too much technology in worship

Last month I attended a "worship experience" that included smoke machines, lasers, digital graphic projections, and more flat panel screens than I could count. Technology is changing the way we worship, but what are we losing as a result? David Fitch, pastor of Life on the Vine Christian Community in Long Grove, Illinois, and author of The Great Giveaway (Baker, 2006), encourages us to use greater discernment when employing technology in worship.

I read a nice story recently about football player Jerome Bettis (aka "the Bus") returning home to Detroit for the Super Bowl. They described his whole journey and how he bought a house for his parents on a golf course in suburban Detroit. But he didn't stop there. Johnie Bettis, the running back's mother, recalls: "When Jerome found out we were going to the laundromat, he said that wasn't acceptable and told us to go get a new washer and dryer. But I kind of liked the laundromat because you get to meet so many interesting people."

Mrs. Bettis' comments reminded me how technology can change the inherent "good" of the basic practices of our lives. Technology, in this case a washer and dryer, means no longer needing to go to the laundromat. As a result, we lose the "good" of meeting and engaging interesting people in our lives. We must therefore discern whether more technology (buying a washer and a dryer, a cell phone, or Tivo) is a good idea by considering more than just the capitalist reasons: "it's more efficient," "it saves time," or "it just looks and feels so good."

The same of course is true of worship. Not every technologically enhanced "improvement" necessarily improves our worship. The flashing of the Lord's Prayer on the screen with a powerful graphic may disable us from bowing as a community and saying it from our soul's memory - in submission together as a Body of Christ.

The brilliant Albert Borgmann in his book Power Failure, narrates for us how technology can change something that was once a "commanding reality" with deep personal and corporate value, and turn it into a "disposable reality" devoid of meaning and power. For example, the music symphony that took so much time, effort, tuning up of instruments, the staging of a concert hall . . . is now reduced to a handy CD that we can play at our convenience and command. He believes this shift to a disposable reality changes us and how we view our world.

Borgmann says technology can make certain wonderful "goods" in our lives disappear without us even knowing it. Example: the central fireplace is replaced by the invisible central air furnace. In the process the family that once gathered around the fireplace to get warm before heading off to bed no longer engages in the community-building routine. The family no longer talks about the day, tells stories, or prays together. Through technology we lose what Borgman calls a "focal practice." We lose a concrete, formative, and simple activity, and our lives are changed without ever noticing.

April 06, 2006

Displaying 1–10 of 28 comments

Glenn Parmiter

May 03, 2006  3:02pm

I'm 24 and am all for getting rid of unnecessary technology. I should have to bring my bible to church instead of depending on a big screen with the verses on it. In a youth group I attended they would do candle light services with a full acoustic set. Acoustic bass, guitars and no mics, all in the atmosphere of a dim candlelight. It was amazing, it was really intense and you were forced to focus on the lyrics you were singing instead of the guitar effects, lighting and sound quality. I like the idea of less entertainment value. I can go to a movie for entertainment, I come to church to have community, leadership, and worship

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Dann Stouten

April 25, 2006  6:22pm

Marshall Shelley makes a good point in his editoral in this month's issue. I agree that faithful church leadership needs to model itself after something other than the business world. I spent ten years in different leadership roles in the business world before going into the ministry. Then I spent the next ten years trying to lead the Church by applying the things I'd learned in business, which only frustrated me and those around me. It is only in the last ten years that I've finally reached what I hope is an appropriate balance between the two. The answer it seems to me can be found in the Servant Leadership Model. Servant Leadership strives for excellence while at the same time trying to be sensitive to the needs, abilities, and shortcomings of those you're working with and for, and in that sense it takes the best from both worlds. As Leaders in the Church we need to walk the tightrope of faithfully Serving our God, Serving our congregations, and Serving our communities. Like it or not, that involves measurable goals and return on investment. We need to measure the effectivness of our service in all areas and we need to ask if we're getting a return on the investment we're making in people lives. Clearly, Ministry is not a business, but neither is it an excuse for mediocrity. We tend to overemphasize the role of Shepherd and underemphasize the role of Servant Leader because we're more comfortable and better trained in the former. Now in this post-modern era perhaps it's time for us to train future leaders in both.

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April 22, 2006  9:55am

I just came back to this post. I have been contemplating it for several days. I preach every week in my position at Mn Teen Challenge. Recently the organization has built a new chapel complete with all the current technology (sound system, projector, computer, CD/DVD/VCR). I have been able to utilize the technology to enhance my messages. Also due to the circumstances that brought my men to my program, it is rare that we can have a live worship service. This being the case, we use wonderful pre-recorded worship on DVDs to facilitate our worship. I have also prepared presentations and used video clips etc. Now to my point: I have gone through various stages of using the available technology. At the beginning, I tried to use everything at my disposal. Some weeks I use hardly any. I often find that the simpler a message is, the more worshipful the experience is. Sometime there is some particular information I want to get across and the technology helps with that. I guess using technology is a give and take. I want to be faithful to express the simplicity of the gospel while understanding that modern technology (used the right way) can be a tool in doing that.

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April 19, 2006  1:52pm

I know this is an old post and I have responded already but I need to reiterate the necessity to do whatever it takes in this world to reach people for Christ. A post from Joel states that all the technology is overshadowing true worship to God. As I stated in my previous post, we should be looking for what we can do for God not what God can do for us. Its so easy to sit back and criticize different methods of worship. I believe in being current and relavant in a world filled with negativity towards Churches. I also want to commend Pastor Atkinson for pointing out the fact that if churches are missing the mark, then God's blessing will not be on it. If souls are being saved, then who are we to criticize the method in which it chooses. I can imagine there were many critics against Apostle Paul in the early church. He preached an entirely different way to worship God in spirit and in truth. Lets be brave and bold in our ministry for God. My passion for God is what makes me bold. thanks jay

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April 18, 2006  9:11pm

All in all though, I think that there is definitely a caution that needs to be held when we're dealing with worship. I have been to services where lights and fog make the atmosphere more accessible to worship; on the flip side I've also experienced times where the technology seems to try too hard to add a ‘cool' factor. So I think when we're dealing with these issues, we need to take the good with the bad. Personally, I love the contemporary scene, when done correctly; when done incorrectly, emotion can get the best of us and become our focus. Emotion plays a huge role in modern worship, whether it's for good or ill. When we worship, we touch God's heart, and it only makes sense that the convey of emotion would become an important part of worship, but when how you feel becomes the focus of why you worship, there are problems. I've never been a fan of the traditional worship scene simply because I have a really hard time worshiping to a hymn and an organ. It's not that I disagree with it doctrinally, its just that I can never sing along with them because a lot of hymns have erratic melody lines that are hard for me to follow. But hymnal worship is no less worship than contemporary is, it's just preference. At the end of the day, we have to check our hearts and let God do the rest.

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Pastor John Atkinson

April 14, 2006  7:09pm

If technology isn't your thing then worship where it's not used but we need to be careful not to criticize any style of worship where people are coming to know Jesus through it. Our church uses lot's of technology and over 4000 people have asked Jesus to be their Lord and Savior in our church in it's eight year history. Technology is being used to reach the people who wouldn't have ever come to church to start with without it. Acts 5:38-39 38"So my advice is, leave these men alone. If they are teaching and doing these things merely on their own, it will soon be overthrown. 39But if it is of God, you will not be able to stop them. You may even find yourselves fighting against God."

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April 13, 2006  9:20am

A few months ago we took our Youth Group to Acquire the Fire. They had upbeat worship music with all the technology to enhance it, drama, music groups, and plenty of videos. It seemed like it was geared towards helping teens experience God. But for the most part, it didn't, at least not for my group. They were so overwhelmed by it all that they were underwhelmed spiritually. They stood up for so many altar calls that they can't remember everything they promised to do. They enjoyed all the hoopla but when I asked them about the difference it made in their relationship with Christ, for the most part I come up empty. I think that with all the focus on entertaining the teens, we just might be missing the boat. I'm wondering if we've traded in "entering the Holy of Holies" for the latest fad or trend. We are relational creatures at heart...we need to experience Him not just get excited about Him. Well, that's just my thoughts for whatever it's worth.

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Julie C.

April 12, 2006  9:21am

I sometimes like the big worship productions, sometimes I don't. I don't see them as being the root of all evil. I find the whole church as production thing to be what is annoying. If you are going to be in a structure, being served by people with defined roles like usher, sitting staring at the front of the room in good classroom form, following off a set printed schedule, listening to some man read a paper he wrote, why not make worship part of the production? Its what everyone expects. The way we do church seems to try to contrive us to look to God, but how often are the people who are doing the pointing for us actually worshiping more than they are stressing about the details of the show...

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andrew jones

April 11, 2006  7:51am

yes - he has a point in asking these questions. what are we losing. In the mid-late nineties we did a fair amount of rave based worship (the smoke/lasers/etc in san francisco, but one of the main reasons was the large number of ravers giving their hearts to Jesus and wanting to worship God with their own cultural forms, not those of their parents (rock, easy listening) i think sometimes i have got too infatuated wiht technology, especially when digital storytelling pointed more to the digital than the storytelling, and i have made a large effort in the past few years to use minimal technology to achieve equal or greater effect. worship has to be about the object of our worship, not the tools.

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April 11, 2006  4:09am

Am so delighted to see such rigorous discussion. I'm originally from a mainline background and for the past couple of years have gravitated towards and seem to be settling in a charismatic environment. I love the freedom, excitement, joy of charismatic worship. But...there are moments where I miss the reverence and awe of 'traditional' worship. There are hymns that usher in the presence of God because they proclaim his greatness without ostentation and gimmicks. It's so wonderful to shout out to God, but sometimes we need to bow before Him. To remind ourselves just how mighty, awesome and great this God is. And often, His magnificence is obscured by the dazzle, razzle and blaze of our modern technologies. The other concern, is that we believing worshippers, know who God is. We know that church is not a show. That we don't come to be entertained or to entertain. I imagine it may difficult for seekers to make the distinction between what worship really is about and who God really is, when our church 'productions' pique their interest instead of their souls.

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