Friday, July 31, 2009

When the Lights Go Out: Technology in the Worship Service; Analysis and Practical Application

Something I find myself doing a lot (especially lately) is imagining what a worship service would have been like in the past. There are many history books out there that describe ancient liturgies and customs that certain churches, both Catholic and Protestant, would use every week. I would encourage everyone to research and dig around to find more information on how Christians in the past developed and implemented their liturgy and how worship services were conducted—especially in your own tradition. But that’s not really what I’m getting at here. I want to know what it was like to actually be there. I want to sit where they sat, to feel what they felt, to hear what they heard, and to see what they saw. More specifically, I want to hear what they heard…and how they heard it. I want to see what they saw…and how they saw it.

Imagine you are in a great cathedral in Europe in the Middle Ages. Or maybe in a small frontier church in the American West around the 1800’s. Or how about the house of a Jewish fisherman in Capernaum in the 1st Century. Now imagine a thunderstorm rolls in. Great flashes of electric current spread across the sky. During the storm the church is doing what the gathered church does: praying, singing, read Scripture, and hearing the Word of God preached. The storm has no real distracting effect on the worship service, other than an occasional thunderclap and perhaps a prayer offered in thanksgiving for the rain. Hey, if the storm is really bad there might even be prayer for safety on the way home.

Now fast forward to the present day. Picture yourself sitting in a modern day church building. You may be in a building that looks like “a church”—steeple and all. Or perhaps a school, a theatre, a warehouse, or a six-thousand seat Megacenter. Ok. Same situation, big thunderstorm rolls in and lightning fills the sky.

As a music minister, do you know what runs through my mind right now? Gut wrenching panic. All of the songs I prepared are now sitting in an electronic file, on an electronic computer, waiting to be displayed electronically. Most of the instruments are plugged in to an electronic box, connected to an electronic soundboard—as well as every single electronic amplification device in the building, from speakers to microphones. Above the congregation hang many light fixtures designed to electronically illumine the building, the flickering of which gives me the first indication that my current panic will soon become full blown horror. Then…BOOM! The storm has dealt its final death blow and with a static pop and a descending hum the congregation is plunged into darkness.

The lights are out. There is no projector. There is no sound system. What happens now?

This happened once to me a few years back. Thankfully, we had already sung most of the songs, but there was one more right after the sermon. On this particular Sunday a student from the youth group was preaching his very first sermon when all of a sudden…ZAP! the lights go out. I sat there dumbfounded like everyone else for the first few seconds. Then, you know the feeling, it’s that hint of giddiness a schoolchild gets when the lights go out at school and the teachers have no control. But it’s ok, we’re at church, everyone contains their inner schoolchild (except the kids!). Someone found a flashlight and after a few minutes the student went right on preaching. Good for him. Then it hit me, what am I going to do? I knew the congregation wouldn’t be able to sing song I previously selected by memory. Do I use the darkness to slip out of the sanctuary to the office where I can make 200 copies? Nope. Copy machine is electronic and therefore, dead. Then I looked in front of me and a light came on (in my head). Praise the Lord for hymnals! The sermon was about over so I flipped through the hymnal as fast as I could, trying to find a song that everyone was familiar with. No time to consider if the song would be an appropriate response to the sermon, just find a song! So I found an oldie but goody, went up to the pulpit and announced the hymn number. Then, in the dark, we sang the first line together, “O soul, are you weary and troubled; No light in the darkness you see?” The words we sung were appropriate and slightly ironic when you really think about it. At this point I’m thinking to myself, I am either a genius or an idiot. Upon further reflection, considering my haste and carelessness in selecting the song, I can plainly see that I was an idiot—blessed and given grace by the Lord—but an idiot nonetheless.

With the exception of the last 110 years or so, the Church has always held its services in buildings without electricity. 110 years is just a blip on the radar screen in comparison with 2000 years. But today, unless you meet in a small group in a house, you will be hard pressed to find a church gathering that does not implement audio and visual enhancement technology. And even in a house church you’ve got lights!

So what exactly am I getting at here? Well, to be honest, I hope all of this imagining helps us to think about how technology benefits us or limits us in our gathered worship service. In 1 Corinthians 10:23 Paul writes, “Everything is permissible—but not everything is beneficial.” I believe we can apply that logic to technology being used in the church. So the first thing we should ask is, “Is it beneficial?” When it comes to clearly hearing and seeing in congregational worship, I would say yes, absolutely!

Even in ancient times, the church has always utilized technology. Imagine how architects designed the acoustics of the cathedrals and meeting halls. The rooms were vast and spacious. The speaker’s podium was high above the congregation so that he could be seen. Hundreds of people could hear what was being spoken without the aid of a microphone. Large windows were created to allow the natural light to pour into the building. Stain glass windows served as visual instruction to the illiterate. Places were intentionally built for candles to illumine a room. The printing press allowed for the reproduction of innumerable Bibles and hymnbooks. All of these innovations were beneficial to the worshippers who gathered together at that time. All we’ve really done today is “electronified” them. But the fact remains that the Church got along just fine without our modern day technology, which leads us to the question, “Is it necessary?” Well, yes…and no.

The reason I say yes and no, is that modern day technology is only necessary when the situation dictates it. Lights are what we in the industry call a ‘no brainer’ in the necessity department. Are lights necessary? I would say, in all occasions, yes. It is up to you whether or not you want electric light bulbs or candles. But most people find that the benefits of electric light bulbs far outweigh that of candles; a fact in which most firemen agree.

How about microphones? Are microphones necessary? Well, not in every situation, but if people cannot hear the preacher, give the man a microphone to amplify his voice so that all can hear. A microphone is a relatively inexpensive way to make sure everyone can hear you. Sure you could do without, but when are you planning on building that acoustic friendly cathedral? Sure, there may be occasional distracting feedback, but that can be corrected. If you met outside there may be an occasional distracting horsefly.

How about projection? Projection is extremely beneficial and yet, completely unnecessary. Using a projector is the equivalent of using a power drill. It allows you to do difficult things with simplicity. Could I do it by hand? Sure, but it is almost effortless if I use the power drill. Could we sing from memory? Sure, but it does limit you to a very narrow song selection. A more apt metaphor would be to liken the projector to a multi-functional tool, such as a Swiss Army Knife. This tool can be used for announcements, schedules and for many it is an aid for teaching. It also can be used to see visually what a large group may not be able to physically see for themselves. For example, pictures or video of places mentioned in the Bible, or video messages from a missionary.

One of the most obvious and beneficial uses of the projector is the ability to project song lyrics. But as the church has the option to sing from a hymnbook or from copied paper, the projector remains unnecessary. However, the benefit of the projector is the ability to provide the congregation with songs that are not found in the current publication of their hymnal. If the hymnal is the bucket of water, the projector is the running faucet. The projector also gives the ability to arrange a song in whatever fashion the music minister may desire, allowing for a more authentic approach to congregational singing. Essentially, the projector provides simplicity and versatility, both of which are absolutely beneficial but not absolutely necessary.

Let’s Get Practical!
I haven’t yet even considered more detailed items such as electronic instruments, stage lighting, monitors, wireless features, ipods, computers, DVDs, etc. but for the most part I believe you can run them through the “is it beneficial? – is it necessary?” filter. When you ask yourself, “Is this beneficial?” the answer should be “yes” before you move on to the next question. If whatever you are using is not beneficial (ie. it is not glorifying to God, nor edifying to the Church) then do not use it (see the second part of 1 Cor. 10:23). However, if it is beneficial then ask yourself, “Is it necessary?” Here, remember to take the context of the situation into consideration.

If what you are using is necessary for your situation, then by all means use it. But if it is not necessary, then my suggestion is that you would use it with the expectation that you may not be able to use it. A good question to ask yourself is, “Do I depend on it?” Meaning, do you depend on it to the point that if it is ever taken from you then gathered worship would halt? For instance, let’s say your church doesn’t have any hymnals; and you have three songs prepared in PowerPoint, all of which will be accompanied by an electric keyboard, electric guitars and drums. The power goes out. No projection and the only instrument that people will hear are the drums. This should point out your dependence upon unnecessary things. Once you have figured out what the unnecessary things you are depending on are, you can now create a situation to prevent it. If your church only uses PowerPoint and does not have hymnals, make sure your congregation knows 10 songs by heart—start now. Be mindful of the type of instruments you currently lead with. Do you have an instrument that will work in an acoustic setting such as a piano or an acoustic guitar? And remember, even instruments are not necessary—be prepared to sing a cappella! What does the room look like when all the lights are out? Can the preacher be heard in the back without a microphone? Etc.

I would advise anyone in a church leadership position to run through these things and go over them with the people involved. It is a good exercise to do a Tech Check. I just totally made that phrase up. Now I’m not into formulas and 12 step plans as to how to “do church” so take this info for what it’s worth. I believe it is a biblical and logical way to keep our congregational worship authentic, humble, edifying, and ultimately glorifying to God when it comes to the use of technology in the worship service.

The Sound Doxology Tech Check:

* Figure out if the technology you use is beneficial
* Ask if it is necessary
* Find out if you have become dependent on anything unnecessary
* If it is beneficial and unnecessary then use it with the expectation that you may not be able to use it and work out a solution to make that statement true


  1. Rich,
    I like this post very much. I've been working with technology for awhile, and have written on the subject at my blog (frequencies) a few times. I get frustrated at churches that make so much use of technology when they could scale it back a little and have more to spend on things like missions, both local and distance.

    Is it necessary...such an important question, even when considering upgrading the church secretary's computer. Thank you for this insightful post!

  2. I'm new here and came from iMonk's blog on singing in church. I have to disagree with one thing you said: You were definitely not an idiot for leading that darkened congregation in singing "Turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full in His wonderful face, and the things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of His glory and grace." Serendipitous, yes. Idiotic, absolutely not.

  3. Rhymeswith,

    Thanks for the encouragement.

    I wasn't exactly referring to singing in the dark as idiotic, rather, my behavior just before. Perhaps a better description would be "fearful and panic stricken" but I still think idiotic strikes close to the mark ;)

    BTW, stick around and post often! I don't update as much as imonk, but I try to make it a goal to post something of worth at least twice a month.


  4. Rich,

    Thank you for helping readers reflect - something we don't have much time for anymore, due to our busy-ness working out our technology for worship, texting our worship teams, googling fresh video clips, and other "real life" issues.

    Have you read "Worshiping with the Church Fathers" by Chris Hall? Not much technology in the dessert, and they were hammering out theology we take for granted. It is very hard to grasp that for the first 1500 years the Christian Church worshiped and lived their lives as disciples with no printed Bible. OMG!

  5. Paul,

    I have not read that book. Looks interesting! Thanks for the suggestion.