Technology in Worship
Technology is essential in the twenty-first century. Technology facilitates communication, financial traffic, supply chain, mobility, information, monitoring, and more. In the church, much depends on technology for membership administration as well as organizing the calendar and schedules. Technology facilitates the online broadcast of worship services to the outside. Inside, some churches use projection screens in worship. While the growth of such screen use generally leveled off about fifteen years ago, some Canadian Reformed churches recently added screens, and perhaps some are considering using screens. This article hopes to provide some thoughts for deliberation along the way.
Intentions & consequences
Technology, like all new developments, generated some unintended consequences. Steve Jobs did not realize his devices would result in developmental issues and even death in infants due to screen addiction. But the technological intentions were different: innovations and developments aimed to “make life better.” Steve Jobs shared with TIME Magazine that computers aim to change the world. Michael Bess, a historian of science, observes that the definition of “human” will change as technology takes over more human functions. Technological innovation is not to solve a problem but to bring change. Technology makes people’s lives more efficient, making people want more. The result is that efficiency has become the golden calf of western culture. Postman refers to the dependency on technology as the “deification of technology.” Therefore, churches should evaluate the intention as well as the consequences (both intended and unintended) when considering using technology in worship.
Before the printing press, knowledge was oral; now, in this post-Gutenberg era, knowledge is increasingly formed through “secondary orality.” This theory is called the Gutenberg Parenthesis. Today’s society is more visual than before, as we increasingly use videos and images socially and in professional environments. However, we are not returning to the pre-1500s—printed materials have changed knowledge capture, transfer, use, and development. Books will continue to be used but now in conjunction with visual aids, resulting in the need to make choices. If both options are available, which do we choose and why? Educators face this dilemma as well.
A reason for using screens in worship may be the fear that young people may leave the church. Researchers such as Pew Research and the Barna Group have followed the younger generations for decades and concluded that technology and fear characterize young people’s lives. At the same time, they are more dependent on technology, lonelier, and spiritually illiterate. A report in the UK revealed in 2021 that tech-savvy young people suffered from “Zoom fatigue,” and they preferred personal contact instead. Technology may not be the solution if there is a young people’s concern. Perhaps there is another compelling reason.
Screens in worship
Could projection screens be used in corporate worship? Could a church in the twenty-first century worship without using screens? And if screens are used in worship, what is the purpose? Can we worship better by using screens? Was the worship experience broken that it needed fixing? Could technology promote consumerism? There is no general answer, and every congregation must decide for themselves.
Such an evaluation may include the impact on the activity of the congregation. When people read from the screen, their involvement is limited to looking at the screen. Parents may find it challenging to engage children physically as screens project everything for them. And it does not seem logical to ask the congregation to keep the Bibles open after they read the Scripture text on the screen. Regarding the singing, participation may be impacted negatively when the projection does not include the music. The congregation struggles with some songs more than they would when using a book that includes music. Teaching new songs or improving the singing of existing songs is more challenging or impossible. This concern sometimes impacts the minister’s song selection for worship. These are practical issues, and they can be addressed in some cases. However, using screens may also have other implications.
The congregation sees the Scripture text, catechism question, or stanza for as long as it takes to read or sing. Reflecting before or after the reading or singing is based on memory, as there is no visual anymore. People have different learning styles. Screen use limits visual learners because of the limited time displaying content, and there is nothing left for kinaesthetic learners. For church members with limitations, such as dyslexia, worship becomes problematic when using screens.
Another point is that screens don’t display context. The 2014 Book of Praise includes the five divisions in the book of Psalms, which are only visible when using the printed Book of Praise. And when reading, e.g., from the Sermon on the Mount, the surrounding passages are not visible on screens. In our tradition of singing stanzas, the printed Book of Praise provides the context of the stanzas. Much information and knowledge made available in print is lost when replaced by digital projection.
More than books
The Book of Praise or the Bible is not only a medium for words, which could be either printed or projected. The structure of the Bible books has significance, and the Book of Praise is more than a songbook. It is a “Book of Worship” with the orders of worship, creeds, confessions, prayers, liturgical forms, etc. Using the books exposes the worshipper to much more than only the song or text.
Screens could be considered essential in making guests feel welcome in the church service, as the projection will guide them through the service. Although screens could be useful, it removes the necessity for church members to guide guests through the service. While guests may browse through the Book of Praise and discover creeds, confessions, prayers, and liturgical forms, screens display limited information for as long as needed. Primarily church members make people feel welcome and included in the church service. If guests are to know more about our faith, the Book of Praise gives many opportunities for interaction during and after the service.
Connecting with young people
Older generations might be fascinated by technological advances; younger generations are often indifferent, as they grew up with technology and use it all the time. During the pandemic, Millennials and Gen-Z became more dependent on technology, from small to large screens. These highly connected generations increasingly experienced loneliness and anxiety. Researchers conclude that young adults don’t need more technology in the church but, “Now, more than ever, young adults are longing for meaningful connection—something young people are hoping the church will offer.” This meaningful connection is not digital but a personal relationship for young people. Do screens facilitate personal relationships in the church community? If some worshippers, who are themselves dependent on technology, experience loneliness and anxiety because of technology, it’s necessary to ask: is technology an effective tool in worship?
Reformed churches in the Calvinist tradition are known for a minimalist presence of art and symbolism. Church bulletins may feature an image for the children or a logo, but sanctuaries generally do not feature artistic works of sculptures, carvings, paintings, and drawings. Yet, screens feature digital art through pictures, images, symbols, and, perhaps, videos. When screens in Reformed worship show digital art, we should consider how to worship God through digital art. Screens display art temporarily but in a dominant manner. Is there also a place for more permanent and less prevalent art in our auditoriums and church buildings? Does the source of purchased digital art matter in worship? Are there opportunities for artists in the congregation to be involved? Using screens likely requires a more in-depth exploration of art and worship.
What is beneficial?
“‘Everything is permissible’—but not everything is beneficial. ‘Everything is permissible’’—but not everything is constructive” (1Co 10:23 NIV84). Some evangelical and Canadian Reformed churches have screens but intentionally do not use them in worship. Evaluating technology requires defining the role and purpose of (corporate) worship and how screens impact worship. The consistory’s concern is the spiritual well-being of the flock. How does the impact of screens in worship contribute to the congregation’s spiritual growth over time? Does using screens increase the knowledge of God’s Word so that church members grow closer to God, worship him with greater love and understanding, and are more effective disciples in the world? Our motivations, intentions, and desired outcomes of using screens in worship require foremost a spiritual perspective.
 Barna Group, The State Of The Church 2008, Cultural Research Center at Arizona Christian University, 2009.
 D. N. Kardaras, Our Digital Addictions are killing our kids (New York: New York Post, 2018).
 Stacy Collett, Humanizing the Digital Experience (CIO, 2019).
 Mark Milian, The Spiritual Side of Steve Jobs (CNN Business, 2011).
 Sean Illing, Technology Isn’t Just Changing Society – It’s Changing What It Means to Be Human (Vox, 2018).
 Nitin Nohria, Managing the Unintended Consequences of Your Innovations (Harvard Business Review, 2021).
 Neil Postman, Technopoly (New York: Vintage Books, 1993), 71.
 George Barna, New Insights into the Generation of Growing Influence: Millennials In America (Cultural Research Center at Arizona Christian University, 2021)
 Barna Group, State of The Church 2020, Detroit, Michigan, 2021.