Why Churches Must Stop Feeding Our Screen Addiction

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Prelude

The increasing speed of TV is a great contributor to the loss of imagination since the mind has no time to recover from the constant bombardment. How does this affect our ability to meditate on God in the necessary silences of worship? Are we able to deal with the ambiguities of God that force our minds to go beyond what is readily apparent?

The loss of imagination is also related to some of the twaddle (Kierkegaard’s word) that characterizes some churches’ worship these days. As William Fore explains, “Trivialization is inevitable in the world of the technological era, with its emphasis upon utilitarian means rather than truthful ends” (32). If we simply want a God that “sells” to the masses, we will invariably reduce the truth of our multi-splendored God. If we want our faith to be developed as fast as problems are solved on sitcoms, we will not have the patience to imagine God’s working in us to grow us when there are no immediate, visible results.

Worship that is filled with splendor, in contrast, will greatly stimulate the imagination – with symbols and other works of art, with a wide variety of musical sounds, with texts and preaching full of images and thought-provoking challenges, with silences that give inspiration free reign.

-Marva Dawn

Call to Think in Worship

When Marva Dawn first warned us in 1999, contemporary churches were themselves just beginning to embrace extensive media use in corporate worship. Now, fifteen years later, even traditional churches have done so. No more is the Sanctuary a sanctuary from the poison of media saturation.

Just as we’ve come to recognize silence on TV or the radio as someone losing their job, we have become uncomfortable with any open space for meditation and inspiration. We need the media stimulation. Church services are designed to meet the felt needs produced by cultural media saturation, but I wonder if those felt needs are actually the greatest needs.

Maybe it’s not that we need all that stimulation to worship. Maybe it’s all the masses can handle.

I fear that our minds have been conditioned to not be able to do the work that historic corporate worship demands. I fear we’ve become unable to think deeply enough to engage with the call of the Gospel on our lives, and do the important work of corporate worship.

A Mindful Offertory

Here’s what my wife, a respected mental health therapist, says about this:

Emotions give us good information, but we shouldn’t rely on them to interpret reality (think about children – excellent observers, but unreliable interpreters). We have to think through our feelings, and be curious about where they come from. It’s crucial that we use our prefrontal cortex (executive functioning) to keep us safe and enable us to have meaningful and healthy relationships.

This reminds me of the Apostle Paul’s words. “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.” Maybe this is what he was talking about: to put aside relying on emotional information alone, and intentionally choosing a response through integrating logic, through careful reflection, through consideration of consequence.

Emotion is an undeniably good and important thing, but to leave behind our childish ways, we must also think. We must engage deeply with what’s going on around us.

As a former educator, I’ve seen the effects of media on young minds, and have been a part of education’s vain attempt to recover. Technology is now an expected element in every subject and lesson. Of course there are many things technology can do for us. But when used pervasively and indiscriminately, instead of being an aid, it becomes a crutch. An addiction, even. Sooner or later, students won’t be able to learn without it. Though the attempt is to make learning enjoyable and easier, the result is that minds are not strong enough to grapple with idea and concepts. Instead, they require spoon-feeding.

Cathy, a commenter on my blog, put it this way:

“It bothers me that kids are being “entertained” during worship, and I don’t think it’s a “good” thing or that churches need to “get with the times” and use technology because kids won’t pay attention without it. There’s value in teaching children how to be quiet, still, and meditative. It’s a process, for sure, but kids need to learn how to delay gratification and that life isn’t always about them. (As a teacher, I see this in a different venue as well.)”

In the words of the great American hymnwriter, Billy Joel, “Oh, but you pay for your satisfaction somewhere along the line.”

On a more personal level, I feel this paucity very acutely. From a young age, I used TV as an escape from reality. As a child, I self-medicated emotions with media. As an adult, I have had to learn how to interact with my negative emotions, instead of filling the space with media. Even though I’ve functioned well in my education and professional life, I’m hauntingly aware that this reliance on media may have capped my growth far short of my real potential.

Children’s Sermon (for Grown-Ups)

Remember those old McDonald’s playgrounds with the weird hamburger prison you could climb into?

mcdonalds

At one point, you could climb up all the way to the top and look out through that little hat (is it a hat?) at the top. It was a lot of work, but the view was worth it. At some point, maybe it was around the time the old lady spilled coffee on herself, I guess McDonald’s decided that small children eight feet off the ground in a metal cylinder was too much of a liability, so they installed this piece of metal to block you from getting all the way to the top. The best that you could do was crawl around inside this fake hamburger and look through the prison bars that held you in.

That’s a lot like what media saturation does to us. It keeps us from fully engaging our intellect and imagination in worship. It teaches us to vegetate. We struggle to get to the “upstairs part” of our brain (prefrontal cortex/executive functioning). And instead of letting corporate worship challenge us with new perspectives, we’ve installed our own emotional barricades. We’ve replaced symbols, themselves impetus for imagination, wonder, and mindful reflection, instead often substituting flashy, shiny visual entertainment, to which of course we will far too quickly become desensitized and look for something bigger, flashier, and shinier.

Going Forth

So what do we do? The answer has become increasingly unpopular, but I think it’s inescapable. We must stop spoon-feeding. We must stop over-stimulating. We have to be honest that the very presence of visual media can limit intellectual engagement, stifle creativity, and worst of all, enslave us to its use.

I invite you to begin to assess the way we use media in corporate worship. I’ve heard good arguments for throwing it all out. Just getting rid of it. But at the very least, we have to be judicious in what we use, and make sure it inspires thought and creativity, rather than catering to laziness and impatience often found in our culture. After all, loving the Lord our God with our minds requires us to think.

Maybe it’s time we bring mindfulness and imagination back into our worship services.

  • Maybe we only use electronic visual media in very rare instances, if at all.
  • Maybe we should use artistic, live music with limited amplification.
  • Maybe we should use hymnals. Dawn puts it this way: “Our culture is becoming less and less able to discern the ‘one-step-removedness’ of their screen addictions. Since screens are connected in daily life with activities that are bodiless, will their use in worship begin to make us less aware of the Body and of our own bodies, which otherwise could touch the hymnal and see more fully the more lasting evidence of the Church’s communal song?”
  • Maybe the tastes and textures of Holy Communion should be offered weekly. The Eucharist is the natural culmination of Christian worship, and by its very nature draws us out of our screen-induced stupor into participation in the life of Christ.
  • Maybe we say “no” to segregating and over-stimulating children in their own “worship experiences.” With what we now know regarding how visual media harms young minds, continuing to subject them to such environments is a willful act of violence against our youngest worshipers.
  • Maybe we rediscover good preaching. No more of the easy self-help crap where God and the Bible and the Christian life are simple, debt-free, and can be wrapped up neatly in three bullet points and a take-home.
  • Maybe we help our congregations rediscover self-discipline and anticipation in corporate worship. We can’t keep amping them up emotionally and letting them think they’ve worshiped. They must be thoughtfully engaged in sacred storytelling.

The fear exists that we may lose butts in the seats if we require too much. To be sure, this kind of mindful engagement requires much more from our congregations, but it can do wonders in grounding us in the sacrament of the present moment and engaging our minds in the work of the people.

Otherwise, the doors to beautiful and meaningful Christian worship may continue to close.

Lift up your hearts. And your brains.

Photos:
Flickr, creative commons 2.0
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