Worship & Technology

Media Art in Worship 101: Getting Perspective (Part II)

August 04, 2008

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Read Part I and Part III of this 3-part series.

Eileen D. Crowley

Think the use of media technology and art in worship is just a recent trend? Think again…

How Did We Get Here?

Tshirt Man“These pictures are going to be a great force. It is the age of pictures….these moving pictures are going to be the best teachers and the best preachers in the history of the world.” So prophesied evangelist Colonel Henry H. Hadley who used a silent movie, Hollamoan-Eaves’ Passion Play for his revival meetings in New Jersey. It was 1898! (1)  In the US from the 1910s to the late 1920s, some Protestant pastors incorporated into night worship religious-themed silent movies, slides of religious topics (such as images of the Holy Land), and even song lyrics and prayers. (2)

As early as the 1950s, Pentecostal churches were early adopters of media technology that would encourage congregational singing, would free hands for Spirit-led movement and gesture, and bring broadcasts of famous preachers into the church. In the late 1960s and early 1970s in the US, use of media in Catholic and Protestant reformed liturgy primarily involved images from overhead-projectors, film-strips, slides, or short movies intended to encourage meditation or, less often, as the sermon message itself (e.g., the short movie Parable produced for the 1964 Worlds Fair). Seeker Services arising in the late 1970s incorporated the media of the day – slides, audio, and popular songs – as just one element of services designed as part of the task of evangelization.

dance worldMedia for meditation mostly died out by the early 1980s, in Catholic settings especially, as liturgical experimentation in general came under hierarchical scrutiny and proscription. Media as part of the worship “program” continued to evolve, especially in Seeker-oriented Protestant churches, nondenominational and denominational. Baptist churches embraced media technology enthusiastically, in church and for broadcast. The next largest group to jump on the media bandwagon were Methodist pastors. 


spiralAs the affordability and availability of media technology increased in the mid-1990s and as Microsoft’s PowerPoint software put the relatively easy creation of presentation media in the hands of many congregants who owned personal computers, a growing number of churches adopted some form of media technology and art in their worship. Media equipment distributors and sales people aggressively targeted the Houses of Worship market. As more and more churches adopted the “we’re not a church” auditorium-style of church architecture, increasingly media screens became integral design elements of these worship spaces. Since the mid-1990s, the use of media equipment and media arts in worship has accelerated to the point where in some communities congregants expect media in worship and, where media equipment is not in place, individual church members may offer to donate the money for its inclusion in worship or might pressure pastors for its purchase. (3)

How Does Media Art in Worship Function?

In researching and analyzing the last three decades of the use of media in worship in churches Protestant and Catholic, I have documented five functions of how that media potentially serves liturgy:

1. to convey information

2. to encourage participation

3. to reinforce or enrich oral communications

4. to open up an interactive space – within and outside of us – for discovery

5. to provide beauty.

crowd babyThe first three functions broadly point to media-as-communication-tool. Media serves churches as presentation technology for display of sermon points, lyrics, announcements, prayers, vignettes, movie clips, and other illustrative, didactic, or instructional uses. For churches committed to worship-as-school, services-as-production, or worship-as-attraction-to-Seekers, presentation technology is appropriate and has a legitimate communications job to do. But it also has pitfalls. See Quentin J. Schultze’s High-Tech Worship?: Using Presentational Technologies Wisely (Grand Rapids MI: Baker Books, 2004) for how media can become a voracious idol that must be fed. As some pastors can attest, presentation technology used weekly can quickly take its toll on both human and financial resources.

teen muralFor those of you whose churches espouse the hope for worship-as-participation-in-Mystery and worship-as-rehearsal-for-life-in-service, I propose a different starting point: media-as-art. The last two functions cited above suggest media can serve as art of encounter and media of meditation and inspiration. The underlying assumption here is that this kind of art can provide a sacred meeting place for mediating relationships, human and divine. To describe media art integral to worship and serving in these ways I have coined the term liturgical media art.

let us prayAs opposed to those who see media ministry as about “selling” Christianity through the use of media products (homemade and/or purchased), I offer an alternate vision of a liturgical media ministry. I invite churches to consider the possibility that liturgical media art can be created within, with, and by the local community of congregants and area artists. This new liturgical ministry involves welcoming all members of a faith community, as well as others outside this circle, into a regular spiritual practice that includes the conception, the creative production, and the evaluation of liturgical media art within the context of their own worship. It encourages mystagogy. I call this multigenerational, highly inclusive, open process Communal Co-Creation. The primary focus of this new liturgical ministry is not on media production. Rather, its priority is worship, Communal Co-Creation invites worshipers (and others) into deeper participation in the Holy Mystery they celebrate in their lives and liturgy.

That alternate vision, that new spiritual practice, is why in my first article I urged you to “Stop!” for a moment in whatever you are doing or thinking about doing with media in worship. Because this very different starting point – Communal Co-Creation of liturgical media art – may lead your church to an entirely new understanding of media in worship and to your development of an entirely new liturgical ministry. Interested? Read my next installment of “Media Art in Worship 101” (Part III) for how this alternate vision might actually come to life in one community.

1.  Terry Lindvall, The Silents Of God: Selected Issues & Documents In Silent American Film & Religion, 1908-1925 (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2001) 3.

2.  In this documentary history of the church's use of silent movies in the early 20th century in the U.S., Lindvall provides a fascinating report of the cases pastors made for their use of media arts in worship and religious education and of the ultimate "Great Divorce" between churches and the movie industry as a result of Hollywood scandals of the 1920s.

3.  For a more complete history of this liturgical phenomenon, see Chapter 2 of my book, Liturgical Art for a Media Culture (American Essays in Liturgy) (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2007) and Chapter 2 of my doctoral dissertation, "Testing the First Fruits: Aesthetics as Applied to Liturgical Media Art," (Union Theological Seminary, 2002).

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 guest editor of Liturgy 23:3 (2008), the entire volume of which concerned media in worship.

Images provided by Eileen D. Crowley

READ PART I and PART III of this 3-part series.

Want to comment on this series?  Write us: envisionchurch@georgetown.edu

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