My home church is in the middle of a building project. Amidst all the excitement and hopeful anticipation of future ministry in a new space, there is an equal dose of stress-inducing decisions needing to be made as unforeseen circumstances develop. Behind it all we must constantly remind ourselves that even the smallest choices can have significant repercussions on future ministry.
Not the least of all are our decisions and the priorities given to the space for the assembling of the saints for worship, for prayer, for fellowship, for the administration of the Lord’s supper and for receiving and feeding on God’s word. Each church member might be individually invested in various ministries before and after this moment. We might be engaging in very similar activities in our homes, our workplaces, or in private devotion. But something special happens when the church gathers together. We believe God meets with His people, and we believe our highest goal is to receive and proclaim, with all genuine thankfulness and praise, the glories of Jesus Christ and the gospel of our salvation.
The weekly, gospel-centered worship experience is mostly defined by what we hear and see in that peculiar space and in that time. This means that every part of the corporate worship gathering is an opportunity to either spotlight the gospel or distract from it. For our church in this season those opportunities (or pitfalls) are especially relevant. We are called to prudently determine if the Gospel is truly being heard and clearly seen. Not only that, but we are asking ourselves where we might be undercutting or distracting from the very message we are trying to faithfully convey.
Helping or harming?
Churches readily recognize the influence of stage design, audio and video systems, lighting and aesthetics in their worship services. In fact, current trends tend to demonstrate that churches are more than willing to invest top dollar, hired staff, and exorbitant planning energy into their worship ministries. We genuinely believe that these resources will highlight the message of the Gospel and encourage worship – and they can! However, instead of signposts to something much greater than themselves, technologies have the propensity to outsize the gospel message that they are meant to serve. When this happens, instead of pointing us towards the Gospel, their outsized influence creates its own gravitational pull. Instead of ascending heavenward and reaching the sun as we intended, we’re thrust back toward earthly things.
Media ecologist Neil Postman insightfully observed that “technology always has unforeseen consequences, and it is not always clear, at the beginning, who or what will win, and who or what will lose.“ The invention of the automobile resulted in faster travel, fewer horses, and thereby cleaner city streets (use your imagination). Other less-pleasant outcomes included air pollution, noise, and a giant leap in traffic fatalities. The lesson is clear: as technology gives to one, it takes from another.
Consider just one example in the category of worship technology: the decision on how to light a church worship space. We live in the age of the digital, so any and all illumination is as simple as the flick of a switch (pun intended). Since it is not uncommon these days for most reading to be done on one’s self-illuminating smart phone or tablet, we no longer need to light up a room for that sake. In many churches, printed hymnals are also an outmoded technology, having given way to large screens that also emit or reflect their own light. Last, but certainly not least, digital stage lighting and software interfaces allow us to outfit our church platforms with spectacular lighting effects. The decision seems almost obvious, then – turn down all the houselights so we can make the most of our digital investments and highlight the Gospel presentation through stage and screens.
Now answer one question. If the winner is the gospel message mediated through stage and screen, who or what is the loser(s)?. I would contend that the loser is the gathered congregation. Allow me to explain.
When my wife and I were dating, my go-to date night plan always included a movie. Imagine my surprise to find out that my great idea for spending quality time together was not her cup of tea. For her, ‘quality time together’ literally meant engagement with one another, not simply doing something ‘together but separate’. She was right. Seeing a movie together, even if we both enjoyed the flick, did not satisfy her need for personal interaction. In fact, it would not allow it. It then made total sense to me how she could be so disappointed when spending time together only meant staring at a screen together for two hours.
Likewise, a similar unintended consequence occurs when we shut off all the lights in our worship spaces. We may gain a better overall view of our technologies but we lose sight of each other – literally. The loser in this exchange is the visible, communal nature of the gathering. We give up the intimacy of embodied fellowship in exchange for better technologies. Therefore, while we believe we’re giving our congregation a better worship experience with our lighting choice, we’re in fact robbing Peter to pay Paul.
This is just one example of how a simple worship technology can have undermining effects on our gospel intentions. If we are expending ourselves and our resources in order to gather the people of God together for worship, we ought to take very seriously what ‘together’ means and how our secondary mediums are influencing our primary message. Technology can be used for the glory of God, no doubt. But when technology takes His place, idols are born.
God’s chosen people were once miraculously healed by looking to a bronze serpent, lifted up on a pole. But over time they slipped into idolizing this man-made thing in place of the true Savior. God’s chosen people are still being miraculously healed from certain death by looking to a crucified Savior on a crossbeam. And yet, we too are tempted to make inordinately much of our worship technology, thereby turning God’s good tools into idolatrous distractions to God-honoring worship.
These thoughts have tempered our church’s expectations of what our man-made efforts can bring to true, Spirit-filled worship. These questions have has also reminded us that the purest components of our worship are the ones that will never change – the eternal Word of God, the everlasting songs of the saints, the prayers of God’s holy people, and the fellowship of the Bride and Groom partaking in an already-not-yet wedding feast. These priorities might mean that certain technologies are more of a distraction than a help. In that case, may God give us the wisdom to recognize technologies for how they can serve the Gospel, and the courage to resist the ones that distract us from it.
Three Questions to Ask for Evaluation:
1. Does it cause people to think about Christ more?
2. What is the desired outcome I intend for the congregation as their shepherd?
3. Does it elevate the message of the gospel or the medium?
 1 Corinthians 15:3-4
 “Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business” (1985)
 Numbers 21:4-9
 John 3:14-15
 2 Kings 18:4