Worship & Technology

Worship & Technology: Active Participation Is Key - Part 2

September 04, 2008


Projection ScreenAt the end of Part 1 of this article,  I mentioned that in the United States, Built of Living Stones speaks little about how to use technology. The closest this 2000 document comes is to state that the design of the church building should respect the culture of every time and place. What does this mean to a parish contemplating construction or renovation of a place for worship and devotion?

Three essentials are at the core:

» Embrace technology but discern consequences of that choice.

» Liturgy should remain the primary focus with technology to support the liturgy.

» Active participation is the measure for the choices that are being made.

Embracing Technology

First, embracing technology is a real aspect of our time and place. Can the consequence of this choice be wrong? Of course it can. But by experience we know that there can also be good consequences. Most pastors and liturgists agree that when parishioners know what to sing, more people sing. Projecting song lyrics provides the added benefit of elevated head posture. We learned from Environment and Art in Catholic Worship that the most powerful experience of the sacred is found in part by the action of “living gestures.” (National Conference of Catholic Bishops, Environment and Art in Catholic Worship (1978) n. 29.) A gesture of attentiveness is a good consequence from the projection of song lyrics and prayers.

Liturgy As the Focus

Second, technology in itself should not become the primary focus. If a parish is merely trying to keep up with the latest trends in technology, lighting, projection and sound equipment, then it’s for the wrong reason. Such a choice can lead to an artificial reality. When Easter or Christmas Mass is broadcast to another space on campus, more people can participate in the liturgy. Has the liturgy committee thought about manifesting Christ’s presence in this remote setting? If we want to use technology to support the liturgy, not just expand the seating capacity, we must emphasize the “physical, visible and public” gestures, language and actions of that assembly. (Built of Living Stones, n. 24.) Such an active connection to the principal worship space can be done by placing an extension of the music ministry and a cantor in the remote location to lead responses.  Eucharistic ministers need to proceed from the principal space to the remotely located space. In practice, a physical connection with the wider faith community must occur. In this manner, technology is a secondary element of the entire plan to consider physical connections, active participation, and uniform gestures.

Active Participation Is the Measure

Third, while we may embrace the latest technological trends, the promotion of active participation must be considered before all else. Similar to how art is to be incorporated into our places of worship, technology needs to have both a quality and appropriateness. Always, liturgy needs to trump technology and the associated equipment needs to be as invisible as possible. If the technology is not supporting the liturgy, then it is not appropriately installed. If technology can increase active participation, then without doubt it must be considered for incorporation into the design of the worship environment.

For one of my recent projects, the parish received a directive from the diocese that the new worship space needed to incorporate the ability to view videos produced by the diocese within the context of a worship service. The audio/visual and acoustical consultants provided several options for the parish to consider. These options included installing flat screen TVs at numerous locations throughout the worship space, installing three projection screens to cover all seating quadrants, a single projection screen with front screen projection, a single projection screen with rear screen projection and even an option to install a matrix of 20 flat screen TVs. The practicality of flat screen televisions for visibility even in a brighter lit space was seductive, but in the end we could not see the worship space looking either like a TV studio or a large lecture room. One aspect in this rush to embrace technology is the concern that the space has to be perfect for both the liturgy and the technology. For this project we chose to install a single disappearing projection screen. Even though less than 75% of the seating area will have an undistorted view we did not want the visual impact multiple projection screens or monitors. To combat the brightness issues, we will simply turn down the artificial lighting when a video is projected, as we did not want to lose the day lighting into the worship space and felt it too much of an interruption to install motorized block-out screens. In this example we opted to have less than perfect conditions for a video presentation, knowing that the frequency of use would be minimal.

This is but one example of the complexity facing a parish, engineering consultants, architects, and liturgical design consultants when dealing with technology in places of worship. The need for technology will be different in every parish. A small rural parish is different than a large suburban parish. We also know that in the past ten years, the costs for sound systems, lighting systems and now A/V and communication systems have skyrocketed. In addition, parishioners have experienced many different theatrical venues and therefore expect to see some of these same technological achievements in their place of worship. The role of professionals in the design of worship environments is to critically evaluate the purpose and role of each proposed technology. We can embrace those that support liturgy and are consistent with church documents. We must always measure the adaption of technology with regard to active participation. It is equally important to have critical thinkers on your professional team. You want professionals who will explore options and discuss opportunities. For me, it is the creation of a harmonious whole that evokes a sense of the holy and sustains my spirit in the quest to connect with God.

Can technology and worship co-exist? I would expect for many liturgists the first reaction is NO, technology and worship are like oil and water, they do not mix. My experience is that, like many other aspects of liturgy, there is not a simple yes or no answer.

Robert D. Habiger, AIA, ACLS is an architect and liturgical design consultant in Albuquerque, New Mexico USA.

Photo provided by Robert Habiger


Accessibility: An Equivalent Experience
Practical Tips for Equivalent Experience
Worship & Technology: Active Participation Is Key - Part 1

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