Media Detox: Rethinking the Role of Tech in Worship

April 14th, 2011

First rule of media in worship: Jesus is Lord, tech is not.

That may sound like a strange starting point, coming from someone whose job as a campus minister brings him into daily contact with the most tech-savvy generation in the history of the world. But despite their tech immersion—and maybe even because of it—they know what many preachers and worship planners do not.

That tech is a tool, not a savior.

Nothing illustrates this point better than poor use of technology. Ever suffered through a sermon with three points and three hundred power-point slides?

Or watched a preacher die behind the pulpit because the video she built her sermon around wouldn’t play for some reason?

Or gotten completely lost because the cool YouTube clip you watched after the scripture had nothing whatsoever to do with the rest of worship?

If you have even minimal contact with church, you probably answered yes to at least two of these questions. But if tech is such a hazardous tool, why do so many church leaders insist on forcing it into worship?

A retired friend of mine tried to explain recently why he uses a movie clip with every sermon he preaches. “Because that’s what people nowadays are used to,” he said. “I can preach for ten minutes and lose the congregation completely, but I show a video clip and they are immediately paying attention.”

I didn’t have the heart to tell him the truth: that their attention may be less a product of the value of multimedia as it is a commentary on his monotone preaching style.

Regardless, my friend’s theory is quite popular, judging from the number of times I’ve heard worship leaders make that same argument. If multimedia is both everywhere and readily available, it only makes sense that we use it in worship as we make and teach disciples. The tool is there, and we need to take advantage of it.

But any tech—including multimedia—is like the proverbial hammer: when that’s the only thing in your toolbox, everything becomes a nail.

Or think of it another way. Air travel is one of the marvels of the past century. It’s faster, safer, and often cheaper than driving, and it’s a useful tool for those of us who often travel long distances. But I would not book a flight to go, say, to the coffee shop two blocks down the street. I’d probably ride my bike instead.

Simply put, the vehicle I choose is determined by where I want to go. The destination is the point. The mode of transportation is secondary.

Anna, one of my campus ministry students, tells about a recent encounter with an over-teched worship service. “The songs all had these moving backgrounds that kept me from thinking about the lyrics. And then they showed a video that was supposed to be funny, but wasn’t—and didn’t relate to the sermon a bit.”

Why would a twenty-one year old woman—and a communications major, no less—complain about using multimedia in worship? Quite simply, because she knows when she’s being pandered to.

 “[The use of tech] didn’t communicate anything,” she says. “It was obvious that whoever planned it was out of touch with multimedia, but wanted to look cool. Do they not think I’m smart enough to realize when they don’t have any content to their message?”

So how do we use tech in worship, but still keep it in its place? Here are some basic rules of thumb.

  • Make sure anything you use is of excellent quality. Anything that is poorly filmed, pixilated, or cliché is no better than that opening joke you got off an internet website.
  • Make sure it’s the right vehicle. If you can get where you are going in worship just as well without using tech, consider saving it for another time.
  • If it’s not yours, don’t use it! Copyright infringement is more than a matter of not getting caught. Those of us who plan worship need to model the highest ethical standards. Most worship videos and graphics can be purchased for a reasonable fee, and some are available as public domain. Make sure you have permission to use something before you throw it up on the screen.
  • Plan in such a way that your sermon or worship service can go on, even without the tech presentation you prepared. Remember, it is a tool, not building material. Your worship service should be able to stand without it if a bad cable wrecks your plan.
  • Involve some media savvy people in your planning. Don’t assume that your video of a young Bob Dylan singing “The Times, They Are a-Changin’” will speak across generations just because you use it in church. When in doubt, ask youth and young adults what they think of an idea before you project it.

And remember, there is nothing quite so interesting in worship as a real, living person who embodies both joy and compassion. Any live event has real connection in it—and real risk. Perhaps in addition to learning new tech toys, we worship leaders should also spend some time sharpening our own presentation skills.

After all, God did not send a clever MediaShout slideshow to convey good news to us. He sent a real person, because even the most brilliant tech presentation cannot convey the most basic of God’s traits: Love.

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