Music in Worship: Screens and Machines

Let me begin with a little thought experiment. Admittedly, some readers will regard it as nothing more than a dark look into a dystopian future. A world worse than the Hunger Games! Others will regard it as utterly utopian. An immanentizing of the eschaton.  

What would happen if all the churches of Jesus Christ woke up this Sunday with no access to electricity? Suppose we all suddenly lived in a world where the federal government rationed electricity for the next ten years. For the good of the country. Sunday officially became low-kilowatt day. Just enough power to keep the lights on and keep the air conditioned.

What would become of our churches without the use of all those screens and machines?

At the risk of being called a Luddite, I am pressing this thought experiment because we too often do not challenge things that have become inviolable presumptions. In the music of worship today one such presumption is the ubiquitous shimmering screen. Music use to play chiefly upon the ear, now it plays heavily upon the eye. Have we considered what we have lost? 

Dr. Read Schuchardt, a media ecologist at Wheaton College, challenges his students to account for the liabilities that come from adding screens to worship: “Listening requires the practice of listening, just as music requires the practice of music. Video screens may condition us to be willing to listen only if we can tolerate looking. Which is an effect that has already completely transformed the music industry, and which is why all your pop stars are so hot and cannot sing very well. Whereas the old pop stars weren't very good looking but could sing beautifully."

For many years, dating back to projection in theaters and box televisions at home, the only access we had to cultural celebrities came through a few bright screens. The lust to touch celebrity and be entertained by it was dampened by scarcity. Our fathers in the faith could enjoy screens outside of worship without demanding they be essential to worship.

Now with screens everywhere, the vibe of entertainment is pervasive. Instead of being profoundly cynical of how this dynamic corrupts the worship of God, churches have become adjuncts of it. We project images of our music, of our musicians playing, and more and more, of our worshippers worshipping. Churches thus prove their commitment to leave people undisturbed in their consumer quest to be entertained by people on television. But now we are those people. We get to watch ourselves. We are all celebrities now.

In her essay, PowerPointless, Debra Dean Murphy says: “To use PowerPoint in worship is to unwittingly set up a competition between what is projected on the screen and the human voice doing the preaching, praying or singing. And it's a contest that PowerPoint always wins because, as Richard Lischer has observed, when the brain is asked to listen and watch at the same time, it always quits listening. What PowerPoint enthusiasts see as enhancing the worship experience is instead a form of sensory overload that manipulates emotions and stifles imaginations."

Church leaders should be asking serious questions about the screens and machines of worship.

Does the man in the pulpit feel pressure to be as cool and effervescent as the song slide? How does the screen-pressure to be hip impact the gravitas of the minister’s speech and conduct (Titus 2:7-8).

Do worshipers lose something substantial – the sense of having been entrusted with something by previous generations – in not having hymnbooks and psalters in their hands?

Does the inability of the worshiper to go back and look again at the phrasing of a previous line in a hymn or song significantly handicap their understanding of it?

Does bringing a screen into the worship service unwittingly also bring the triviality of all screen-life which exists outside the worship service? In other words, where has a screen ever effectively mediated “reverence and awe” (Hebrews 12:28)?

Do we feel like we are falling behind – like a company still making rotary phones – if we do not have a screen in our worship service? What is the legitimacy of such a competitive feeling?

Has a superstitious spirit befallen us if we think we cannot worship God with fresh vitality unless we are plugged in?

Writing of our sinful proclivities in worship, Calvin said: “Such is our folly, that when we are left at liberty, all we are able to do is to go astray. And then when once we have turned aside from the right path, there is no end to our wanderings, until we get buried under a multitude of superstitions” (The Necessity for Reforming the Church, 1543)  

Let us remember. We have liberty in Christ not so we might eclipse his glory with our own pleasure. We have liberty so we might seek him and please him without deference to the rules of men.

John Hartley has been pastor of Apple Valley Presbyterian Church since 2010, having previously been a pastor for 10 years in Vermont. He is a Wisconsin native and a graduate of University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee as well as Dallas Theological Seminary. John lives with his wife Jen and their five children.

John Hartley