Last month our Episcopal parish closed the 50-year-old main church building for 15 months of renovations and repairs. This displaced four out of our six Sunday worship services. We are holding three of those four services in what we insist on calling the Parish Life Center, which others no doubt would simply call the gymnasium.
I've realized that the most jarring aspect of this temporary move is the absence of hard-copy Prayer Books (i.e., the Book of Common Prayer) and hymnals, which have been put into storage during the renovation. Instead of holding books in our hands for worship and singing, we now read the words from a projection on a pair of large video screens. Our contemporary service has done things exactly this way for many years, but it's a new thing for those of us from "the nine o'clock crowd."
A quick Google search confirmed my suspicions that video projection screens for worship are becoming more popular in churches:
- According to one publisher, over 40 percent of congregations "are projecting media (image, sound, lyrics, light, and beat) that connect the people of God with the spectacle of praise and celebration." This publisher offers a series of books and DVDs entitled "Fresh Out of the Box," which it describes as "an expanding reference library of content for worship teams to adapt and customize . . . . [including] offer ten digital experiences for worship during the Advent and Christmas, or Lent and Easter, seasons."
- A 1998 article reproduced in Christianity Today reports that:
What Gutenberg's printing press did for Christianity in the 1500s, overhead projectors, video projectors, and other multimedia equipment will do for evangelism in the 21st century. That's what pastors like Michael Slaughter of Ginghamsburg Church in Tipp City, Ohio, are saying.
According to Slaughter, multimedia tools are radically changing the church because they're allowing Christians to put the gospel message before unchurched people in a form they can readily understand.
The article suggests that a number of churches that have invested in video-projection technology have seen their attendance increase dramatically. Attendance isn't the be-all and end-all, but it's certainly an important metric in determining whether we're being effective in doing what we're supposed to be doing, i.e., preaching the Gospel.
- Another Christianity Today article says that video projections "gets people's heads out of books, hymnals, and bulletins and into worship," quoting a Baptist church's director of media ministry as saying that it "increases the intensity of participation."
Something about this trend vaguely disturbs me. I'm uncomfortable with the notion of using video screens to show the words of the liturgy.
I have no problem with video projections during the sermon or announcements -- videos of youth-group trips, pitches for the stewardship campaign, etc. We've done that every so often at the nine o'clock service in the main church. It seems to work fine.
But when it comes to the actual liturgy, the words we say as our act of corporate worship, I seem to have a different feeling. Tossing the prayer books in favor of the projection screen is troubling.
Why does this bother me? I think it's because, when we use physical Prayer Books, we have a visible, tangible reminder that we're using the liturgy of the church as a whole, not some fanciful variation dreamed up by the clergy, the media team, or whoever. We can see the celebrant reading from the big Prayer Book on the altar or table (which s/he still does, even in the gym). We can follow along by reading our own Prayer Books. (Most of the adults, me included, have long since memorized the service and don't bother with books.) That seems to provide a comforting sense of community and continuity with the wider church beyond our own parish.
At dinner tonight I mentioned this to my father-in-law. He said all my points were valid. Something in his tone of voice caused my mother-in-law to say, "but?" (They've been married almost 64 years, so she knows when the other shoe is about to drop.) My father-in-law responded that, since we moved the nine o'clock service to the gym and its video screens, an older friend of theirs has been able to follow the service for the first time in a long time. Apparently this friend had been having some difficulty with the Prayer Book, I surmise because of failing eyesight.
Maybe I'm just turning into an old fart -- to which my teenagers would no doubt respond, "that ship sailed a long time ago, Dad."