Church use of digital media ?Ãƒâ€žÃƒÂ¬ technology such as projection systems and computers ?Ãƒâ€žÃƒÂ¬ has been a primary worship phenomenon in the past five years. Churches all over the world are using digital media in worship on a weekly basis and it is having a profound effect on their ministry. Whereas community-style churches have been using this kind of worship for a generation or more, interest in its use has now spread throughout mainline denominations. Some claim digital media is transforming their churches, fueling growth and strengthening their church communities. But how pervasive is it, and is it a fad or something that is an enduring part of our worship landscape? What are the theological considerations? Is it just for seekers? Is it only for large churches with resources? And if digital media is introduced in worship, what form does it take, exactly?
How Many Churches are Using Digital media?
In the last five years many churches have moved from the “thinking about it” category to “have it, want to do it better.” There is much more anecdotal than statistical information in regards to specific data about the trend, but recent research conducted by Stephen Koster at Michigan State University has indicated a sharp increase in use of what he calls “visual media technology” in worship, from 16% of Christian churches in the United States in 2000 to more than 50 percent in 2003. With the trend only continuing, it may be safe to assume that there is a majority of churches using digital media in worship, even within more traditional denominations. And it is certainly safe to assume that many if not most churches are at least thinking about it.
There are many examples illustrating how the use of digital media has led to growth. Often, these are seeker-oriented, mega-church models. Fellowship Church of Grapevine, Texas, whose roots are in the Southern Baptist Convention, began in a small office complex with about 150 in attendance in 1990. Almost from the beginning the congregation has used media as an integral part of their weekly worship experience. In the first year alone, it had to move into a new 750-seat facility, and attendance quickly grew to more than 3,000. The congregation now has more than 18,000 in attendance each week. Every worship service is designed with video, graphics, lighting, drama, cutting-edge music and relevant preaching in mind. One of the core purposes is to reach out to people who do not attend church. That is reflected in their intentionality to make worship connect through the use of digital technology.
But while digital media has been closely associated with non-denominational churches and the “praise and worship” movement, this is also rapidly changing. The use of screens is now occurring in churches of all traditions and with worship styles as varied as “contemporary,” “traditional,” and “postmodern” (such as those labels may be).
At Community Church in Jackson Heights, New York, pastor Dr. Ronald Tompkins has also experienced the fruits of sharing the message using digital media. His church has four primary language groups that come together to experience worship in a community of 150 language groups. The screen has helped that congregation break down the barriers that speaking different languages creates. The congregation creates what Dr. Tompkins has called “wordless worship” by using imagery to make biblical connections. Art and technology helps them transcend the boundaries that exist in its complex situation.
More churches of all sizes and styles have discovered that the use of digital media is much more than a fad, or even a trend, but a fundamental way in which our culture communicates?Ãƒâ€žÃƒÂ®as powerful as the printing press has been to the modern era.
Why Should a Church Use Digital media?
Some argue that the use of digital media creates a “production,” that it just entertains, that it is shallow or “dumbs down,” that it requires churches to abandon their traditions, or (mostly) that it just requires too many people and money resources. Those fearful of change may find that the move is less about breaking tradition and more about finding new ways to communicate them. This is exactly what Jesus addresses in his parable of new wine and old wineskins in Matthew 9:16-17. Old skins, filled with new wine, will burst. The wine, or the message, needs to be presented in a new communication form that won’t break down before it gets to the eyes and ears of those who hear it.
The use of digital media in worship is vital to our dominant digital culture because it fits with how the Gospel always has been communicated. Jesus’ use of story and parable in the first century fits with popular culture’s use of digital media to communicate in story and metaphor today. Paul’s ability to engage his culture and use its latest media, from writing to roads, fits with our digital technology’s present ubiquity. Pope Gregory’s blessing on stained glass as the “Bible for the illiterate” fits with the projection screen’s facility to bring post-literate people to an experience of the Word. The explosion of innovation and change that occurred in the church during the Reformation, concurrent with the rise of the printing press, parallels the explosion in cultural change occurring today. Even the early growth of the United Methodist Church, as one example from a specific denomination’s heritage, is rooted in the innovative use of newspapers and circuit riders to spread the Gospel. In each case, adoption of innovative communications technology was met with initial resistance, then gradual acceptance. Sometimes, initial resistance was even violent. As Walter Bagehot states in Physics and Politics, “One of the greatest pains to human nature is the pain of a new idea. It…makes you think that after all, your favorite notions may be wrong, your firmest beliefs ill-founded… Naturally, therefore, common men hate a new idea, and are disposed more or less to ill-treat the original man who brings it.”
What exactly does digital media look like in worship?
With the global village we live in today, old communication forms such as stained glass and circuit riding don’t make much sense, but the idea of taking the Gospel message to the world is one that remains the same. How can we communicate that message if it is not understood?