Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Formational Questions for Worship: Breaking Bread, PowerPoint, and the Christian Practice of Downloading

A few questions that have been rolling around my head over the past year relating to issues of theology, worship, practices, and formation:

1) What are the implications, theological and formational, of pre-broken individual pieces of communion bread ("bite size Eucharist") for the Lord's Supper?

2) What are the implications, theological and formational, of pre-filled individual mini-cups of wine (or "fruit of the vine") for the Lord's Supper?

3) What are the implications, theological and formational, of using PowerPoint for hymns, Scripture, and sermons?

For every decision in the life of Christians, individual and communal, I think it is necessary to ask both facets of each question above:

First, what does this practice/belief/decision/structure communicate theologically? And second, how does it form us?

The first question seeks to ground all things in theology. More to the point, it ensures that we remember that everything is grounded in theology; sometimes we simply have not yet named it. That can be good -- for example, I don't know how many churches have worked out a "theology of signing up to cook meals for sick/suffering/mourning families," but it is undoubtedly one of the most profound practices of churches today. On the other hand, it can be bad -- for example, when we make decisions based on capitalist business practices ("They need to go," or "Well, that's just the real world") and not on the gospel.

The second question reminds us that even when decisions are made with good intentions, or have a worthy goal in mind, or are grounded in excellent readings of the Bible, they still might form us in unhealthy or even ugly ways. An example -- for me of late, at least -- is the use of PowerPoint in worship. I applaud churches who have jumped on board with the fact that Christians cannot live in some idyllic past, but live contextually -- and our context is the technological centerpoint of civilization. To walk into a church devoid or ignorant of computers (and their derivative technologies) is to walk into the past; that is, to walk into a place that is not our context.

But here is where questions of formation are so important. Has anyone else noticed the way in which congregations (and here I speak out of my direct experience with a cappella churches of Christ) don't seem to be remembering the words to newer songs? Start any pre-90s song without a book or slide and everyone joins in; start a newer song and everyone seems to trail off. If I am not the only one noticing this trend, I think the culprit is clear.

We are utterly dependent on PowerPoint slides.

Think about it. Mike Cope wonderfully refers to the way in which we "download" the words of Scripture and worship into our core, to the point that they are a part of us. Thus there are passages or songs, once begun, that we can join in without thinking -- not mindlessly, but from a deeper part of our selves than cognitive memory. The words have been downloaded into our souls.

My experience with PowerPoint -- confirmed through observation of others -- is that we become mindlessly dependent on the screen. The screen goes black, or the transition is too slow ... and our voices fade away. And when the correct slide is up, where are we looking? Around, or down, or "up to God," or at the worship leader? No, we are all staring at the same spot on the projector screen. Nothing is being downloaded because it doesn't need to be; the words, seemingly omnipresent, are always provided. When there were books, one of the reasons for memorizing the words was simple: who wants to be staring down at a book all the time? PowerPoint slides seduce us into thinking we are "facing up" (or facing God!), when we are really just staring at another computer screen telling us what to do. In this case, it is to sing these words at this time. And if they disappear, we look around, unsure what to do.

Now, these are just my ruminations. I don't necessarily mean to imply that PowerPoint need be cast out of the sanctuary. I am just wondering how we might creatively address the lack of soul-downloading going on in worship.

I look forward to hearing if your experiences have been similar to mine, and what solutions you can imagine. Similarly, let me know what y'all think about my (intentionally unaddressed) reflections on the Lord's Supper. See you in the comments.


  1. I think you are dead on. I have noticed the same thing in churches. Something I have noticed in myself is that when I am looking at the powerpoint, I am reading words, not singing or praying to God. The result is that some Sundays I can go through an entire worship gathering without being aware of a single thing I am saying or of the God to whom I am singing.

    I wish we could get entire congregations to develop practices so that once they learn the words, they no longer look at them anymore. Stacy and I work to remind eachother every service to close our eyes when singing (since we both focus better that way).

    Also, I have so many thoughts on the Lord's Supper/Communion/Eucharist. But for now, I just recommend John Mark Hicks and his book on it, since it is theologically and biblically informed, and written specifically for our movement.

  2. I returned to my home church this past Sunday, led singing, and during the break time one of the older ladies in the church asked me why the projector wasn't on. (The real reason is that we don't have anyone organizing the media side of worship, and the person who used to run the projector has left for college.) She mentioned that her eyes were not good enough to read the words in the book, and she didn't know all of the words well enough from memory. Strangely enough, I sung very few songs that one might call "new."
    I totally agree with the concern, however. In my preaching class, the professor mentioned how PowerPoint can change the experience from participatory to observational. Like sitting in front of a TV, we feel less inclined to reflect if we have something to watch.

  3. Chris, welcome to the blog! Didn't know you were reading. And thanks for the comments: it's always helpful to be reminded of the positive aspects of something like PowerPoint -- namely, older people can read bigger words easier.

    I like the naming of this phenomenon as "from participatory to observational," which is interesting since "new media" and technology are supposed to invite greater experiential/participatory dynamics, rather than less.

    Garrett, what are your brief thoughts on Eucharist for churches of Christ (since I haven't read Hicks' book). What I mean is, for churches so rooted in individuals cups and unleavened bread (even if we do break it), as well as internal/eyes-closed personal time, what are concrete strategies for the average church to break the mold?

  4. Immediate ideas:
    -Instead of silence or a mellow song during communion, sing a joyful song or encourage people to talk with those sitting next to them.
    -Encourage small groups to take communion together in their homes in the context of a meal.
    -Instead of talking about communion for "communion comments," talk about Jesus, his church, his cross, his resurrection.

    Thats all I can think of for now, and those are pretty simplistic, but thats all I can think of for now. I guess I would suggest anything that would make it more joyful, more communal, and more in the context of a meal. Sometimes, when the entire church is gathered, it is not possible to have communion in the context of a meal. However, you can make the experience one of joy and communion, rather than mellow and individualistic. I guess the goal is to grow in any of those areas in whatever way you can.

  5. I couldn't agree more with your conclusions based on our common experiences with PowerPoint. If a congregation of a thousand were singing "Jesus Loves Me" and the words were on the screen, we'd all --- every one of us --- be staring at the screen. Not because we don't know the words to "Jesus Loves Me." Of course, we do! But because when a screen is on, we look at it. We're conditioned to look at it. If we're at a restaurant and there's a TV up in the corner, we'll look at it instead of each other, even if it's an infomercial. It's what we do.
    As a preacher I've noticed that I can't make eye contact with anybody during an invitation song. Forget it. Smile at someone? Wink at somebody? Encourage someone? Acknowledge a tough time someone may be experiencing? No chance! Everybody's looking at the screen.
    The answer is not closing our eyes while we sing. That forms and promotes more individualistic practices. Turning off the screens every now and then and looking at each other; acknowledging the Body of Christ; that's the answer. Unfortunately, our churches are spending so much money on the leading technology, the constant cry is to use it more.
    Thank you for your thoughtful post.

  6. Allan,

    Thanks for the comment. I agree, eye-closing can't be the answer, if only because instead of looking at no one we end up looking at...no one, literally. I think at the very least, in the context of PowerPoint-using congregations, closing one's eyes while singing can at least help the temptation to blankly stare up and read off the words.

    I truly wonder how we could combat this, other than simply "blanking" the screen every so often? Could we have songs, or Sundays, where we simply don't use the screen or PowerPoint at all? Could we have "screen-less" Sunday worship? What if everybody liked it that much more! I'm sure that's idealistic, but we ought to do something.

    I hadn't even thought about what it must be like as a preacher, with no one looking at you in the eye. Thanks for your insight.