Multi-screen church

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.

23 Replies to “Multi-screen church”

  1. A fine post, Stafford.

    Perhaps I might sum up my thoughts this way, church is concerned with ‘God and his people’, with all that that entails, not ‘God and his pictures’!

  2. Does the same principle apply to banners displayed in meeting houses? i.e. not ‘loyal order’ ones 😉 – but while we’re on that subject, should national flags be on display?

    Should we simply be content with bread & wine & water as the only visual aids appropriate in reformed worship?

  3. Stephen

    My thoughts:

    “Does the same principle apply to banners displayed in meeting houses?” – Yes.

    “should national flags be on display?” – No.

    “Should we simply be content with bread & wine & water as the only visual aids appropriate in reformed worship?” Yes, although I would also suggest ‘cold water in a cup’ as a necessary implication of such worship.

  4. The church I used to attend a few years ago, had a popish image of Christ in the form of a stained glass window. I would have to agree with my Protestant and Reformed forefathers that this kind of imagery is a breaking of the second commandment. If Jesus Christ is God (and He is), and we are commanded not to make any visual representation of God, then why are there pictures and stained glass windows of Him?

  5. Very helpful Stafford. For those who want to dig deeper “In Living Color” by Daniel R Hyde is an excellent little read.

  6. I assume you’ve ‘dedicated’ no stain glass windows (or multi-media systems!) during your moderatorial year so far…

  7. The lines at Church House will now be hot with requests for me to dedicate plasma screens before the end of my term.

  8. very interesting blog and one that should make us all think. In many cases we have lost our forefathers concept of worship. We sometimes slip into the use of phrases such as the “worship time” or “praise time” in forgetting that the we meetin corporate worship is to praise and worship God, all our actions are that the psalms, hymns, prayers, sermons, sacraments, offering etc.

    To me the addition/adoption of powerpoint, moving images, banners etc has come about with little thought or justication and by doing so we are on occasions in danger of compromising our reformed, biblical hertiage. Not that I am opposed to the use of modern technology but without the necessary thought being given to what we use and how we use it there is a possible danger.

    As for images, particularly of “a supposed” christ, I do believe that they are becoming more prevalent in churches today – even reformed churches, particularly through the use of modern technology and ferequently without question.

    To me the issue isn’t as much the technology as the content and more so when the content isn’t governed by the principles we supposedly hold dear – or are plainly commanded to obey.

  9. People will worship anything. Our hearts are idol factories. It doesn’t take much for us to distract our view away from worshipping Jesus. If it’s not multi-screens then we’ll worship the building, a new carpet, the place we sit in church every Sunday, organ music, guitar music even dare I say it worshipping tradition or doctrine or our denomination.

    Anything that helps us focus on Jesus is good but when it becomes legalistic or an end in itself then we’ve lost the plot. I believe the only tradition we should have is the gospel message. Everything else should fit in round it. If we can’t hold losely to what we do in a church on a Sunday then we lose the gospel message.

  10. I blogged about some of this last summer just after PCI’s Tech Camp. Some of it may even have made it into the Herald if I remember correctly.

    Despite being a natural technophile, I probably advocate a very conservative minimalist approach to the use of technology in churches.

    Less is more.

    I was taken my something that Trevor Gribben suggested in conversation last week when he hinted that keeping a single large screen roughly in line with the person talking means that people can glance up at the screen but don’t have to turn their heads away from whoever is talking. Dotting lots of screens around church buildings may be more practical given the architectural sightlines, but they tend to distracts the congregation away from the words being spoken.

    If illustrations are useful for a point in a service then they can be sandwiched between a pair of black/blank screens!

  11. Further to Stephen’s questions … Does the same principle apply to images and pictures introduced during the Children’s lesson?

  12. WRK

    “Does the same principal apply to images and pictures introduced during the children’s lesson?”

    In my view, yes. If we can’t be engaging and creative with our children without, poorly drawn (and they are) ‘Bible’ scenes, fuzzy felt, and colouring in pages, we’re in trouble. Or, at the very least, we ought to explain to our children that the ‘Jesus’ they see in a picture bible looks nothing like the real one.

    Actually talking *with* our children and listening *to* them is usually a good place to start.

    We might think of this another way too. I have a friend who when invited to a summer youth rally to see the drama group’s presentation about creation, declined, preferring a walk in the forest. He kinda had a point.

  13. We live in a very modern, technological age. The youth of today use computer technology with ease from the age of two upwards. With a proper balance and with due regard to scripture surely banning the use of screens altogether might be a backward step. Careful limited use can have great benefits in spreading His Message.

    Peter – Your friends avoidence of the presentation means he can make no assessment of its worth for good or for ill. What benefit did he derive from his walk in the forest except the locking of a door in his mind ?

  14. Paul

    The point my friend made to me did not concern whether he went to the presentation or not, the point was that he walked among the real rather than merely observing an echo of the creation around him. He saw beauty; he heard the crunch of grass beneath his feet, leaves disturbed by an evening breeze, the dart of a rabbit. He smelled the air, tasted the rain; he touched what God had made.

    And this, I think, illustrates that the debate runs deeper than new technology (I use new technology everyday in the classroom, there is nothing wrong with technology). Rather, the questions before us are: what is worship, what is church, what is fellowship? I’m no longer interested in a ‘worship experience’, in the latest tune, video clip or sound bite. I’ve seen most of them, from the conservative or charismatic, to a journey with emergent. If worship experiences were what we needed we could all be content to organise our own experience in a way that suited us. There are people who can put together a worship presentation at the drop of a hat, good ones, ones which would make us tingle, ones which tease the senses. But God speaks of mercy, of forgiveness, of koinonia, and, like my friend, I’m tried of the echoes.

  15. I feel you have raised a very important point. What is becoming common is a blurring of the differences between everyday life and the church service. The church service is now more of an extension to television and technology-filled everyday life rather than a time set aside for the sacred, for contemplation, reflection and (self) discovery. To walk into one church I can think of is like walking onto the set of Coronation Street!!

    In the future the youngest members of the church will not thank those responsible, even if done unwittingly and with the best of intentions, for failing to provide them with an awareness of the differences between the sacred and profane.

  16. I am 78 yrs. old and I love Jesus with my whole heart, mind and strength. I also love my church family and ,like many of them, I continue to grow spiritually from the experience of being part of that fellowship. I believe that God’s word gives me the liberty to worship him with my whole being and to use whatever means, I.T. included, I find appropriate to give him all the praise the honour and the glory.
    Are we not loosing many of our young people ? Is it not just conceivable that updating our means of presenting the gospel might help in this respect ?
    Perhaps we should ask Jesus what he thinks !

  17. Peter,
    Points well made. I refer to my “Careful limited use can have great benefits in spreading His Message” which I feel is in agreement with your position. The closed door mentality while well intentioned and thought out carries with it the risk of not hearing the movement of the Holy Spirit amongst us. While there is reason to be careful God works in mysterious ways and we should examine whats behind every door before we close them shut.
    Roy ,
    I don’t think I’ve ever been to a church such as you have referred to and I cannot see that I would enjoy worship in such a place! Perhaps the Minister and the Elders are trying too hard to cater for everyone.
    Congratulations on your seniority. I find myself in agreement with you with the proviso of the “careful, limited use”. Praise, Honour and Glory should never be lost in the provision of the Service.
    Best wishes to all,

  18. Dear Stafford,This morning at Granshaw,we had a fantastic family service of sincere Christian worship.Unfortunatly i suspect that a lot of your fellow bloggers would have disapproved.Granshaw by the grace of God has the priviledge of being responsible for the feeding and accomodation requirments,of 800 orphans at the Fairways Mission in Uganda.Three of our Granshaw volunteers have just returned from a very uplifting visit to Fairways.Thanks to God given modern technology, via video and big screen, our whole congregation was able to wittness at first hand the undiluted Christian joy, hope for the future,and ultimate hope of salvation that our humble efforts are providing for some of the least of Gods children in Uganda.Two weeks ago while our Granshaw volunteers where still at Fairways, we had a live link up during our Sunday service with Solomon the minister and adopted father of the orphans at Fairways.This again was a totally uplifting spiritual experiance. The second part of our family service today, was conducted by the seed sowing puppeteers from Comber.The large life-like totally believable puppets and the very real Christian message that they conveyed so enjoyably,ensured that even though the service ran over its time,young and old alike remained rooted to their seats. I sincerly hope Stafford that our past differences will not stop you posting this comment.

  19. Charlie – your examples seem like a good use of technology. It provided a way for those in the congregation to relate to the folk while they were away and after they came back. That’s not gimmicky or distracting.

  20. Like Charlie and Bertie we use the usual enhance worship in our church. It certainly helps enhance the quality and vitality of the service be it in praise,development of the sermon or supplement to the childrens talk. The content is not superceded by the use of IT but gives a greater devolvement to those in the pews.Gods love has no bounds so neither should a reasonable use of technology especially as the next generation have been brought up on it! Recently stafford used it to great effect in our evening service !

  21. Personal…….. If and when my comments are published may I be referred to as :-
    “Ek View”

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