The other day I received an email that offered to help me up our game when it comes to stage lighting.
Quoting lighting and worship leaders from various churches, the article extolled the virtues of being able to set mood, adjust the lighting temperature for video cameras, use LED panels for dynamic backgrounds…generally to create a vibe.
One hard-working lighting pastor even spends part of his work week contemplating how to use the lighting to enhance the preaching pastor’s message.
The other day I was messaging with a pastor friend who was displaced by a recent hurricane and moved his whole congregation of 300 people under a big top to worship together in a parking lot.
And then another hurricane came through and shredded their “tent of meeting” and left them, I guess, with just the parking lot to worship in.
The juxtaposition of these two situations got me thinking about what we’ve made of worship through technology.
I’m not a Hutterite. I’m not against technology. I love electric guitar, amplification and bass that I can feel in my chest. I even like lighting, especially when it helps me see what’s going on. I prefer projected lyrics and I use powerpoint and video clips when I preach.
But there comes a point when we have to ask whether we are using technology appropriately for our worship context and even whether we are using it ethically.
I’ve watched over the last 30 years (wait, what? Am I really that old?) as the “vibe” has changed. I’ve embraced most of that change, even lobbied for a lot of it.
But if I’m honest, I have to admit that there are some unintended consequences.
People sing less and watch more. Not all people, not everywhere but as I travel I have noticed in the various places I go the congregational singing that happened as we held onto our hymnals has become more spectator and less participant as the lights have gone down and production value has gone up.
I don’t mind saying the worship team is performing or even that I am performing when I preach. But I think we’ve rigged the game with the amount of technology we use and created an atmosphere, a concert vibe, that affects both the worship team and the worhippers in less than helpful ways.
Years ago I was leading worship and we were approaching a moment when the electric guitar would carry the song through a time intended to be reflective. As we came to that moment I caught, out of the corner of my eye, my young, electric guitar player doing “the walk” until he reached his stage monitor, put his foot up on it and proceeded to bang his head during one of the slowest rock n roll solos I have ever heard.
We all loved him but I knew then that we had created a sort of Christian Karaoke out of our worship. Some folks like Karaoke. Some folks are bored by it. Some are just mystified by it. Some look for another bar.
There’s also, I think, an ethical nature to the kind of production this article talks about. The word “manipulation” isn’t used but it’s really at the heart of the article. We have the technology to manipulate people’s emotions and through their emotions we can manipulate their wills.
I get that worship does that on a natural level. The words and music have their effect on us. But like the old preacher who would start his invitation for salvation at the end of his message by telling a dead dog story, a story to elicit strong emotions, we are using technology in our worship that elicits a strong emotional response which people are confusing for the Spirit. My hope is that as followers of Jesus we can agree that manipulation is wrong.
Here’s where I need to bring up the beard.
How many whiskers does it take to make a beard? Two? Four? Twenty-four? It’s difficult to say how many whiskers make up a beard. And yet we know a beard when we see one.
I bring up the beard because someone will inevitably ask, “How much technology does it take before it becomes manipulation?” or something like that. We don’t have to come up with percentages to know manipulation when we see it. And we need to avoid manipulating people.
“The way the kingdom comes is the kingdom that comes.”
Back to my friend, Lucas, in a parking lot without even a tent to meet in. I suspect that they will find a way to worship and their worship will not be harmed by the lack of LED panels to control the lighting temperature for live streaming nor would it be enhanced by the same. Worship is not in our production, it’s what we bring in our hearts and heads when we gather.
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far way called California, some hippies started a revolution. Some of them plugged in. But it was simple. It did not require fog or haze. Follow spots did not help enhance the mood. LED tape did not elevate people. There was no auto-tune to make it sound just right.
Technology has always come with this promise of an easier lifestyle. I think we’ve embraced this in our contemporary worship here in North America and used it to create “vibes” because that’s a lot easier than a lifestyle of worship that carries its own “vibe” with it.
My hope is that we discern the difference between worship and manipulation, between production and producing and between the end and the means. The juice is worth the squeeze, as my friend Jason says. Worship offers us a better promise than technology can ever deliver on.
Now if you’ll excuse me I’m going to go watch my Facebook friends count go down.