Technology in Worship is like K-Pop in my Living Room

Perhaps you have been unaware, as I was, of K-Pop, the musical phenomenon forged in South Korea.  K-Pop is not exactly new—in fact, it has been a multi-million (US) dollar industry for over a decade.  Yet, trying to explain K-Pop is probably as difficult as trying to tell a stranger about rockImage result for kpop ‘n roll.  It’s bright, loud, fast, and, significant for my purposes here, highly-technologized.

Having experienced some limited exposure to K-Pop in my watching of the 2018 Winter Games, I quickly determined that I am as bad at consuming K-Pop…as I am at consuming technology in the liturgy.  I get too distracted by the bright shining lights, and don’t really pay any attention to the music at all.  The same thing happens to me with technology in the liturgy—bring a screen in the sanctuary and I’m a lost soul.

Some examples:

  • We were at Sunday liturgy recently, and the deacon, who had read the Gospel, began situating himself to preach.  He did so by pulling out an ipad, flipping it open, and swiping the screen to begin his homily.  He occasionally needed to swipe at his screen to scroll down his page.  I found myself wondering what would happen if the battery died.
  • A different parish we visited had two large screens projected calming (I assume) images on the walls of forests, waterfalls, romping deer, etc.  The text accompanying the images made various references to the Easter season.  I didn’t notice any typos.  And I checkd very carefuly.
  • At another worship experience, at which I was accompanist, we had a rather well-known (or infamous, depending on your perspective) visitor come to preach.  Before the sermon began, one of the congregation’s elders invited us to “pull out your phones, take a picture, and post it to Facebook!  Tweet about how awesome it is to be at N. worshiping this morning!”  I quietly sat on my organ bench in dumbstruck horror.

In each of these cases, technology served a specific function which intended to support the Image result for using cell phone in churchworship experience, draw people in to the worship space, and even to evangelize.  So, what is wrong with me that I get so distracted?  Why is it that I get stuck on the bright shining lights, the scrolling images, or the outright invasion of secular social media into Christian worship?

I have begun to wonder if this is simply an aesthetic preference.  Some don’t like the organ, or guitars, or the color blue for Advent.  I don’t like electronics, therefore, I find them deconstructive and distracting to my aesthetic worship experience.  Yet, I’m reluctant to admit that it is simply a lack of understanding or ability to use technology which makes me find its use in worship distasteful.  And, don’t worry, I realize that all sorts of things constitute technology, including sound systems, overhead lights, organs, and running baptismal water.  I mean to specify technology which involves screens and emits light.

Image result for preaching from an ipadScreen-centered technology abstracts us from the local and the concrete.  Projected images aren’t real; in fact, if there were too much light in the space, the images would be impossible to see.  As for reading from an electronic device, I don’t have scientific verification to prove this, but in my experience, my brain gets bound to a screen in a way that it simply isn’t when speaking from a printed text or, better still, speaking from the heart.  As for social media in worship…I feel as if this could be a pandora’s box for distraction.  Isn’t worship meant to draw in a community to be sent out from that space, not to provide an opportunity for advertising in real-time?

In short, I am unsettled about the rightful place of technology in worship.  Can technology, like K-Pop, invite us to energizing communal cultural experiences, cross cultural boundaries, and allow us to interface with the contemporary world?  Or, like acknowledging the complexities of K-Pop, should we more critically evaluate how frequently and how deeply we intertwine our contemporary worship with the latest technological wonder?

Or, maybe, in the end, this is just another question of good taste, bad taste, and Christian taste.

10 comments

  1. In Australian Catholic Churches, projection or display screens are now the norm rather than the exception. It appears to have been an idea picked up primarily from evangelical practice here, and seems to have been prompted by us lacking a single, comprehensive ritual music resource for so long. No one hymn book did the job, so parishes picked and chose from the resources available, and projected the lyrics for the assembly. Unfortunately our new Catholic Worship Book II has arrived after projection became such an entrenched practice.

    I think in many cases the discomfort with the technology use in liturgy is that it is being imposed in a way that doesn’t serve the liturgy. This can be a matter of poor-quality presentation design and careless operation. It can also be seen in presentations that appear to be more about experimenting with “gadgets” and “bells and whistles” rather than limiting the presentation to what the assembly really needs to participate. Silence is important in the liturgy, and the silence that’s needed in today’s age is not just aural, but visual as well. The discomfort can also come with poorly chosen or poorly installed technology, and trying to fit such devices into buildings that were never architecturally designed with the intention of accommodating them.

    Despite being a happy technology user, I was personally unsure about using an iPad in Mass. It happens now that two of our priests use them throughout Mass, simply because their eyesight is deteriorating, and the iPad provides them with a font size much larger than the ritual books, and with back lighting to help them read. They use them either on a lectern or a book stand, so they remain rather discretely placed, and the swiping has been far less disruptive to the liturgy than their struggling to make out words on the page.

    I can’t however, see how selfies or social media check-ins serve the liturgy at all. Maybe others can offer a perspective on that.

  2. Technology can be handy, but it can also fail and severely hamstring the liturgy if it becomes to dependent on it. I was once at a parish where the power had gone out prior to an evening liturgy. We shrugged, passed out candles, and proceeded. It shouldn’t be a crisis.

  3. Aidan Kavanagh, of happy memory, in Elements of Rite: “Ritual activity is a ‘cool’ medium which seduces people into the celebrative freedom of common activity. By comparison, electronic media are ‘hot’ and tend to shove people into corners of passivity or isolation where they are manipulable by unseen wills. For this reason it is difficult to visit or converse with others while a television set is on in the same room. Electronic media, in all their aggressiveness, are better used in unritual contexts for instruction, education, or therapy. To conflate the liturgy with such aids is similar to interrupting a play with recorded reflections, aural or visual, on how the performance is going.”

    1. I think there’s one thing that definitely improved with technology in our new worship space: the occasional “letter from the bishop” is now an occasional “video from the bishop.” This is also true for when we have a guest homilist from our Missions Office (required every 3 years) who wants to show a short video.

      I think this helps prove your point, Bryan. When higher-up’s mandate something for education or instruction within the Mass–however inappropriate the interruption–at least we’re getting high quality interruptions.

    2. I agree with Aidan Kavanagh. I hold too that ‘liturgical worship is habit forming’ – brilliant phrase. However across western nations it generally failed in my generation (just about to be 60) and seems to be utterly failing in younger ones. I think there is a great gulf fixed between those of us who can remember taking up technology and those who can’t remember life without it.

  4. A few years ago there was a great article over at the NY Times: “We Have Met the Enemy and He Is PowerPoint,” on how Powerpoint was a curse to the military commanders in Afganistan.

    I am also a little wary of technology in the liturgy. I love my iPad, but I have never used it at the Eucharist. Maybe it will become the norm, but I won’t be a trailblazer in that respect.

    I suppose the challenge is how to Christianize the medium of the new technologies, so that when the digital natives are in church, their attention can be channeled into fruitful worship.

  5. I generally dislike the thought of trying to pray the mass and having a bright flashy screen screaming for my attention. I can say with certainty, without feeling the need for empirical evidence, that flashy backlit screens distract people in a way that hymnal pages do not.

    That said, the best parish liturgists can do to mitigate distractions with them is to display simple white text on a black background for liturgical music and then just blank at all other times, unless a particularly tech savvy priest wants to use it for his homily. Catholic liturgy has a very different aesthetic and intentionality than your average free Protestant service, and I personally don’t think this particular piece of modern technology translates well to the mass. The dicocese where I did my undergrad had a weekly young adult p/w holy hour and they seemed to be perfectly happy with their worship aids.

  6. In the most recent parish I served (Lutheran), I had two screens installed, one on either side of the chancel, with projectors discreetly placed. Thankfully, our Lutheran Service Builder software that accompanied our “Lutheran Service Book” contained a utility to convert it to Power Point. The background was black, the text white and the melody line of the hymns and Ordinary were projected. Our sight impaired parishioners loved it! Our LOL (little old ladies) group thanked me for them not having to hold that heavy Service Book, and everyone was happy. It did not disrupt the flow of the Divine Service, the ambient noise level dropped dramatically, as shuffling papers in the bulletin and all those page turning sounds are actually quite distracting when you preside without them and then hear them again.

    I refused to project an outline of my sermon, as that is not my style and I have been known to get stuck on a point or introduce something I hadn’t planned into my sermon. I vowed to never show a video clip in a sermon and kept my vow to date.

    I remember the pre-projector days when I was in a local Roman Catholic parish on a Sunday morning and someone (actually 2 or 3 guys) rolled in a big screen TV for the Message from the Bishop. At least having his message digitized makes the inclusion less hardware intensive.

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