Read an Excerpt
A few years after I graduated from college, I became a lay leader at my local church. The pastor invited me to join a 'task force' (a sexy name for a committee) that was assembled in order to rethink and revamp our contemporary worship service. At the time we had two services: a traditional service featuring an organist and a full choir leading hymns, and a contemporary service featuring a band leading praise music. Our contemporary service was fl oundering; the attendance was low and the energy lacking.
Our discussions as a task force centered on things like the style of worship leading, an inadequate sound system, and poor acoustics.
Eventually, these conversations led us to consider the controversial measure of introducing a projection screen. The vast majority of our debate on this issue concerned questions of costs, logistics, and aesthetics.
We wondered where the money would come from. Would the screen be obtrusive? Where would we put it? How would the older generation feel about it? These were all valid and important questions, but we began to believe these were not the most important questions for us to ask.
'IS TWENTIETH CENTURY
ONE WHO RUNS
DOWN THE STREET
SHOUTING, 'I'VE GOT
THE ANSWERS. WHAT
ARE THE QUESTIONS?''
SEEING BUT NOT PERCEIVING
THE HIDDEN POWER OF ELECTRONIC CULTURE
Our original reason for considering a projection screen was largely imitative---all good contemporary services have one. But as we worked through the issue, we realized the rationale of 'everybody is doing it' was fl awed, and we began exploring different questions: Why do all contemporary services have a screen? What is the effect of using a projection screen versus using a hymnal or bulletin?
How would this new form of media alter the congregation's experience in worship?
After some discussion, we came to the conclusion that a screen frees the body from the bulletin or book. It invites movement, dance,
and physical expression in worship. It lifts the heads of congregants,
amplifying the sound and energy of their voices. We believed all of these were the chief marks of a 'good' contemporary service, and they became our guides as we worked to implement this simple change. While this decision was about a relatively minor concern in the life of our church, there was great value in asking this new set of questions. When we considered the broader implications of a seemingly simple decision, it changed the nature of the debate, freed us from our opposing camps, and opened us to better ways of thinking about the rest of the service.
Our conversation was in no way unique to that church. Nor did our insights reflect a grand breakthrough in understanding worship technology. But I believe we hit on the fundamental issue of the ways in which media affect the gathered community. Unfortunately, these issues are often only raised---if they are raised at all---when dealing with simple forms such as the projection screen. We seem less interested in asking this question about the more pervasive and complex cultural forces at play both inside and outside of the church. For example, if something as simple as a projection screen can have a dynamic effect on a congregational experience in worship, what happens when more complex media are infused into the life of a church or into the lives of the people who are the church? What is the effect of the Internet on the way we think about and do church? How does the medium of television shape our understanding of community,
leadership, and mission? In what ways is our understanding of the gospel altered when we communicate or preach with pictures instead of words?
MEDIA: THE CULTURAL ARCHITECT
The answers to these questions are based on a simple notion: The forms of media and technology---regardless of their content---cause profound changes in the church and culture. The power of our media forms has created both challenges and opportunities in the ways the people of God are formed. Unfortunately, just as Dorothy and her companions missed the man behind the curtain in The Wizard of Oz, we stand oblivious to the hidden power of media. Most of us point and stare at the giant wizard head wreathed in flame, quite unaware it is only a distraction---the con man's sleight of hand.
The time has come for the church to pull back the curtain and expose the true effects of media. While this may sound like the hunt for some notorious villain, it is not. The media to which I am referring are neither evil nor good. Yet this in no way means they are neutral. Their power is staggering but remains hidden from view.
Because we tend to focus our gaze on their content, the forms of media appear only in our peripheral vision. As a result they exert a subtle yet immense power. By exposing their secrets and powers, we restore our ability to predict and perceive the often unintended consequences of using new media and new methods. This understanding of media is crucial to forming God's people with discernment,
authenticity, and faithfulness to the gospel.
MR. NO DEPTH PERCEPTION
In 1991, Saturday Night Live introduced America to Mr. No Depth
Perception, played by Kevin Nealon. The character made only one appearance, but for some reason the sketch left an indelible mark on my memory. The title tells the story: It's a sketch about an enthusiastic and well-intentioned man who is completely unaware of the fact that he cannot perceive depth or distance in the world.
In the sketch, Mr. No Depth Perception is energized by the prospect of going sky-diving. He imagines how thrilling it must be to 'pull the rip cord at just the right moment,' only to have his hopes dashed when his wife, for obvious reasons, adamantly refuses to support his eager aspiration. Later he crashes his head through the living room window in a simple attempt to see who is knocking at the door. It happens to be their friend Brenda with her new boyfriend Gary. They sit down for dinner, and Mr. No Depth Perception turns to his wife and says, 'I can't believe Brenda's dating this loser! You know what she's after, right?! I bet he's got money or something!' Gary, sitting only a few feet away, fidgets awkwardly in his seat. When Mr. No Depth Perception's wife reprimands him for his insensitivity, he responds by saying, 'Oh, relax! He can't hear me way down there!' The sketch goes on like this, but you get the point.
If all comedy is a form of tragedy, then the tragedy for Mr. No
Depth Perception is that this rather endearing adult is actually very much a child without any powers of discernment, which means he is quite dangerous to himself and others. As a result he must be tended to and cared for by his family at all times. It makes for good comedy,
but it also makes you glad you aren't him.