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Multi-screen church

March 4th, 2010

One feature I have noticed in many of the meeting houses I have visited these past months has been the addition of projection screens, with all the necessary sophisticated, hi-tech equipment, to project words and pictures. Even some quite small, rural congregations have installed data projectors and screens for use during worship.

If it were just one screen and one projector in each meeting house, it might not be so obvious. But given the style and architecture of our buildings, and the fact that in many places the only point visible to everyone assembled in the building is the pulpit, it means that projecting words and images to the whole congregation often requires multiple screens and sometimes several mounted on the front of the gallery. In many places, it is a case of multi-screen church. It is an interesting innovation that raises a number of questions.

Apart from the interesting question as to how much money the whole denomination has spent on all the equipment, the key question has to be “Why?” Why do many of us feel that the congregation’s resources must be used in this way? What is the motivation? Is it more than just “First Ballygoforward has a screen and a projector and we in Second Ballygoforward need to do the same”? Is there a theological or liturgical rationale for projection screens and powerpoint presentations? Is the worship of God’s people significantly enhanced by this innovation?

Undoubtedly some ministers, organists and worship leaders will answer that with the welter of new praise and worship songs and hymns, this new technology allows for a selection of new songs to be used in worship without buying a full, new hymnbook. It makes life simpler for those who plan and lead worship. Some preachers will say that a powerpoint presentation adds interest to the delivery of the sermon. In a predominantly visual age, the church needs to do all it can to communicate effectively with its members and to present itself to visitors in the most attractive way possible. A slide show presentation of the announcements prior to the commencement of the service seems eminently practical and appropriate.

What is clear is that without a hymnbook to hold, many Presbyterians feel very uncomfortable when it comes to singing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. The problem is that they really don’t know what to do with their hands when they stand up to sing the words of a hymn or a psalm which is projected. The view from the pulpit confirms that a significant percentage of Presbyterian worshippers in almost every congregation with screens look decidedly uncomfortable.

The projection of the words of songs and hymns onto a screen began in churches and fellowships committed to a charismatic style of worship. When freed from the encumbrance of a hymnbook, it meant that worshippers could clap, wave a flag, or raise their hands in worship. Suddenly every worshipper was liberated to engage physically in the worship of God. While there is no virtue in a dead, formal style of worship in which worshippers do not sing and are not engaged with God, reformed Christians have traditionally emphasised the spiritual nature of worship. It’s not the posture of the body (or the hands or arms) that matters, but it is the posture of the heart that really counts with God. In one sense it makes little difference if one reads the words of the hymns from a book or a screen. But the enthusiastic commitment of congregations to projection systems seems to be trying to achieve a bit more than that.

What concerns me much more than a bit of clapping or hand-waving in worship is the introduction of images and pictures into worship. When the technology has been available, I confess that I have been happy to use some pictures of people and places in my sermons to help illustrate key points which I have been trying to make. But does the fact that it is possible to incorporate pictures, movie clips or DVDs in worship make it a good thing to do so? In the past, most congregations have been happy to view a missionary’s slides which illustrate his or her report on their ministry. Some have been very sensitive on this issue and have only allowed missionary slide shows at an after-meeting in the hall or at a mid-week gathering. Maybe there is a need for us to exercise some caution.

It may be useful to remember that on the question of images in worship our reformed forefathers were very clear. They believed that the use of pictures or images in worship allowed for, and possibly encouraged, the breaking of the second commandment. That was why all reformed meeting houses in post-reformation days were traditionally plain, barn-like structures without the images, icons, statues and stained-glass windows that characterised unreformed buildings in both the East and West.

While many good Presbyterians would resist the addition of a statue or an icon in their “sacred space”, would we be quite so opposed to a digital image being used in worship? With the technology so readily available, it’s so easy. But is there a substantial difference between a metal or stone image and a digital one? The argument that such images are simply aids to worship, and are not themselves the objects of worship, is precisely the same argument used by unreformed Christian churches for the inclusion of icons, murals and statues in their buildings.

The architecture of traditional reformed meeting houses was of a central pulpit, visible to all, with an open Bible. That symbolised their fundamental commitment in worship. The primary purpose was to assemble together to worship God, to hear God speak through the reading and preaching of his Word, and to respond to that Word in prayer.

I am not entirely convinced that the introduction of multiple screens in the sanctuary enhances that primary objective of public worship. The question we must ask is this: what are the parameters? What is the appropriate, and what is the inappropriate, use of this innovation?  If our “worship experience” is somehow lacking and is in need of an overhaul, are we trying to develop a technological answer to what is really a spiritual problem? Maybe the time has come for us to engage in some serious discussion and reflection on the theological and liturgical issues connected with multi-screen church.

P.S. Observant readers of this blog will notice that I have risked no images at all in this posting.

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