Off the Wall Worship: Why Screens Hurt Congregations

Off the Wall Worship: Why Screens Hurt Congregations December 23, 2018

I should preface the following remarks by saying I am not anti-technology. How could I be? I’m an early millennial, for goodness sake. (We once called ourselves “Generation Y” to distinguish ourselves from our supposedly disillusioned and ultra-pragmatic older siblings!) We were the first to grow up with computers in our homes and schools. I have trouble putting my iPhone down for more than a few anxious minutes. I don’t remember a world (or a church, frankly) without technology.

So, please don’t take what I have to say as an attack on technology in general, or some curmudgeonly old fool pining for the good old days. My “good old days” were late-90s evenings chatting with my friends on AOL Instant Messenger, anyway.

But as a millennial, as a professional church musician, and as someone who cares deeply about worship and the mission of the church, I must tell you this.

Visual technology is bad for congregational singing, and corporate worship in general.

It’s killing our ability to sing well, it’s killing our ability to sing good music, and it’s detrimental to our liturgical life. Here are a few reasons why.

Screens Are Distracting

Many of us who grew up in a close, nurturing family unit remember the evening meal as a sacred time of family unity. As a little kid, I wondered why, in a house where the TV was on a lot of the time, we couldn’t just keep it on while we eat. Of course, the answer was simple. Screens are distracting. Screens are meant to be watched, and out of habit we have a tendency to give them our undivided attention, much more so than with books or a leaflet. The colors mesmerize us. The changing slides hypnotize us. The technology dulls our minds and senses. And perhaps most of all, it vies for our attention as we gather, as a family, around our God’s table to share a meal and do God’s story together.

Screens Are Freaking Ugly

Screen installations often do violence to the theological meaning and natural beauty of the sanctuary. They obscure symbols of table, font, and pulpit. I’ve seen instances where screens even covered up the cross. And I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the focus on technology has drastically changed church architecture and design. In fact, many of them look, feel, and sound like a cutting edge movie theater, high on technology, comfort, and accessibility, low on beauty, resonance, and theological meaning.

Screens Produce Lazy, Uneducated 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. Even for amateur or beginning musicians, there is much from the printed score that can be absorbed by continuous exposure. Rhythm, syllabification, and melodic direction can be learned.

In the short term, screens disengage singers. In the long term, they contribute to a decline in the church’s ability to follow the scriptural admonition to sing God’s story.

Screens Lead to Poor Singing Posture

The only way for screens to be seen is to place them above the congregation’s eye level. You can’t sing well with an elevated chin. In contrast 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.

Screen Time Is Bad for Everyone

The studies are continuing to speak: looking at a screen is very bad for small children. That alone should be enough for us to pull the plug. But excessive screen time can also cause damaging effects – including grey matter shrinkage, poorer cognitive performance, eye strain, and problems processing emotions –  in adults. Perhaps physical books are merely an older form of technology, but they certainly do not carry the risk of electronic media.

But We Can’t Just Get Rid of Them!

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.

Like any healthy family, can’t we just sit down at the Table together without turning on a screen?

I don’t think that’s too much to ask.

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

Lift up your hearts. And your voices. And your brains.

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