Media Art in Worship 101: Stop! (Part I)
August 04, 2008
Eileen D. Crowley
“Stop!” If your church has gotten involved with the use of media in worship…or is considering jumping in, I beg you. “Please, for the love of God – literally – stop now and ask yourself and your congregation…What has media got to do with our worship of God?”
If this plea sounds dramatic, be assured that I intend it to be. We are at a critical point in our uncritical use of media in worship. We need to call a “time-out” for discernment. Somebody’s got to shout, “Stop! Let’s think about this…” Turns out, that’s my job!
I’m not being an alarmist, here, and I’m not a mediaphobe. I am both a liturgist and a media producer. I have 30 years of experience as a pastoral musician in parishes, and I teach worship, arts and communication at Catholic Theological Union, a graduate school of theology and ministry in Chicago. I teach Catholics and Protestants. I give workshops, teach courses, and lecture on worship in our media cultures. I’ve written a doctoral dissertation and two books on the subject. I’ve been thinking about this topic for more than a decade. And I am very concerned. One of my Methodist students, who is a pastor, told me that if she did not use media in worship, her superintendent would get after her. What’s going on here? Why the pressure to turn pastors into media producers?
We have multiple social and institutional forces at work. Conceptions of what constitutes “worship” come quickly into play…
What is Worship?
If you are part of a church where “preaching is teaching,” and worship primarily involves some songs, a sermon, prayer, and a collection, you most likely are operating out of a conception of worship-as-school. That model assumes that, in order to teach effectively, you must use media since you want to engage the multiple intelligences of today’s media generations…from the 80-year-old soap opera fan to the iPod-absorbed, Facebook-addicted, YouTube-plugged-in teens, “tweens,” and even their younger siblings. You want them to remember the point of the sermon and to go out further inspired to live as true disciples of Christ.
Is your church following Church Growth Movement principles? That is, does your church incorporate the use of media technology and art as part of the overall “program” to add some pizzazz to your services in order to attract Seekers? If so, you most likely are operating out of some combination of the education model plus the service-as-production model. You want to produce a highly polished production and have every second of your service (not necessarily called or even considered as “worship”) well-choreographed for maximum impact on your audience. You want new attendees to come back. You want long-time congregants to learn how to lead better lives, and so you use media to reinforce “Today’s Message.”
If you are part of a church where worship calls for “full, conscious, active participation” of the baptized in the work that is rightfully theirs, leitourgia, you have additional concerns and priorities. As a pastoral leader, you try to collaborate with others to create an environment and to choreograph liturgical action that encourages the assembly’s active participation, internal and external. You may have introduced media in your church to project lyrics to get people to sing better. You may use media to illustrate your sermon. You may put your announcements, prayers, and order of worship up on a media screen or video displays. You want the media generations to participate. Everyone tells you that media used in worship is going to make that happen… especially your local distributor of media equipment and projection systems.
If you are part of a church that has consciously rejected media in worship all together, you may be operating out of the worship-as-temple-precinct model. “Bringing media into worship brings the secular into the sacred and pollutes our sanctuary. It’s caving in to the media world and people’s insatiable appetites for entertainment.”
What’s going on?
Ironically, while churches may operate out of different understandings of worship, advocates and opponents of media in worship do (unwittingly) share a common assumption about media itself. Advocates insist: “We have to use media in worship today. It's the only way to deliver the gospel message to media savvy people in this day and age.” Opponents argue: “We should never use media in worship today. By using these crass commercial tricks we are stooping to the level of used car salesmen in selling the gospel by trivializing it and dumbing it down.” What do these two seemingly diametrically opposed positions have in common? They both treat the gospel as a commodity and see media in worship as an instrument for selling it. Unfortunately, both arguments also overstate the case to the detriment of deeper discernment. Such polemics misdirect church conversation into dead-end debates on what constitutes “entertainment,” “distraction,” and “participation.” Ultimately, any potentially fruitful dialogue on what might really be going on in the hearts, minds, and souls of worshipers is squashed.
What’s missing entirely in church dialogue is the fact that media is more than a tool for communications. Today’s media can become the stuff of new media art, the fruit of the creative convergence of “traditional” visual arts, music, and performing arts with photography, film, video, computer technologies, and editing software. Creating this new media art are people who claim the title “artist,” as well as people who put together carefully crafted web albums or videos of their new baby and email them to their family across the country. Although marketing efforts do put cameras and camera cell phones in the hands of people, the media art those people in turn create is not necessarily associated with any sales agenda. Rather, their media art arises out of relationships. Their media art may reveal moments of grace experienced in ordinary life. This other side of the story of media – the potential of media as art – is usually missing in church conversations.
In Part II of “Media Art in Worship 101” I will focus on how we got to this point and on what can happen when churches stop seeing media as only a communication tool and instead explore how they might develop a ministry that results in the creation of liturgical media art.
Eileen D. Crowley, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of Word and Worship at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. She is the author of A Moving Word, Media Art in Worship (Minneapolis MN: Augsburg, 2006) and Liturgical Art for a Media Culture (American Essays in Liturgy) (Collegeville MN: Liturgical Press, 2007). She was also the guest editor of Liturgy 23:3 (2008), the entire volume of which concerned media in worship.
Images provided by Eileen D. Crowley
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