- Screens are distracting. Like the TV in the living room, they inherently become the focal point of the Sanctuary, instead of the symbols of our faith, like the cross, font, table, and pulpit. Corporate worship should be a refuge from the things we recognize elsewhere are potential distractions.
- Screens are ugly. In more traditional sanctuaries, there is nowhere to put them, but we still try, and make an awkward mess of what was once a beautiful, serene space. As screen use has become commonplace, new church constructions have moved away from beautiful, distincitively sacred architecture, and the long association of corporate worship with aesthetic wonder and beauty has been broken.
Screens make lazy singers. There’s something about finding the hymn number, opening the book, and holding it as you sing that engages mind and body in the act of congregational singing. Even in settings where hymnals are available, fewer individuals seem to be attentive and disciplined about the task of congregational singing.
- Screens prevent good singing posture. Seriously. The only way for screens to be seen is to place them above the congregation’s eye level. You can’t sing well with your chin up in the air. Hymnals or other printed materials are quite easily held at a comfortable level for good singing posture. Despite the objection that people will just sing down into the hymnal, this problem can be easily corrected with good modeling and minimal instruction.
Screens have hastened the decline in musicianship in the church. Is it any wonder that graded choir programs have died off as we’ve become dependent upon screens instead of hymnals? We no longer expect our congregations to sing well, so we’re getting worse at it all the time. Plus, those of us who can read music are limited by not having access to it. The truth is, even the musically illiterate can learn to follow melodic direction and read basic rhythms with a little practice.
- Screens limit the number of songs a congregation can sing. Advocates of media in worship usually claim the opposite, that hymnals keep churches from ever singing anything new. But I’ve never been to any church, even one that exclusively used hymnals, that never, ever sang anything that wasn’t in the hymnal. The hymnal was the core resource, but other songs could be easily printed in a bulletin and distributed for congregational use. But when screens only are used, a church is limited to a relatively small rotation of songs, since the congregation must have the melody completely memorized.
- Screens open the door to theological disunity. Denominational hymnals contain songs that are considered, examined, and vetted for adherence to their theological tradition. Using hymnals as the starting place for congregational repertoire helps us ensure that we are singing what we believe.
- Screens have cost us an awareness of our common hymnody. Printing songs in a hymnal gives them legitimacy and permanence, especially when they’ve been included in volumes for decades or even centuries. Even when we don’t sing them, they remain there, and we encounter them in the pages. When we do sing them, we see the words fixed there on a printed page, and they don’t go away when we move to the next phrase. Ask people who have never used the hymnal what their favorite hymns are. You’ll probably hear “Blessed Assurance” and “It Is Well with My Soul” and “Amazing Grace” and a few others that have appeared on the Elevation Worship or David Crowder albums. How many of them will give you “Holy God, We Praise Thy Name” or “Of the Father’s Love Begotten?” Very, very few. Before long, we may lose the best of our musical heritage completely, simply because nobody’s ever seen them, let alone thought of recording them.
- Screens further distort our sense of continuity with those who have come before. Marva 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.”
- Dependence on technology escalates our need for it. As a former public school educator, I’ve seen this first hand. It is, of course, quite possible to use technology to teach children, and it often appears that it is more effective. But over time, the novelty will wear off, and we must heighten its use to get the same result. It becomes a crutch, an addiction, even. 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.
- Excessive screen time is bad for all of us. This is, I think, the most compelling and disturbing reason. The negative effects of even minimal screen time on our youngest worshipers should be reason enough for us to pull the plug, or to never plug in to begin with. But screen time can also be very bad for adults, and include grey matter shrinkage, poorer cognitive performance, eye strain, and problems processing emotions. Perhaps books are merely an older form of technology, but they certainly do not carry the risk of electronic media.
So what do we do? Just get rid of the screens entirely?
This answer has become increasingly unpopular, but I think it’s inescapable. We must stop over-stimulating. We have to be honest that the very presence of visual media can limit congregational engagement, stifle creativity, and worst of all, enslave us to its use. The negative reaction this post is likely to receive may be proof enough that we’re already dependent past the point of easy return.
The fear exists that we may lose butts in the seats if we require too much. Screens, after all, make things all too easy. To be sure, worship that requires mindful engagement asks 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 voices. And your brains.