Technology and the Church
by Derek Schuurman
I have witnessed many changes in churches over the years, much of it driven by technology. The organ has given way to praise bands, the organ pipes now covered by a large screen for projecting text and images. The hymn books and Bibles, although still present in the pews, are used more rarely. Others consult smartphones to lookup Scripture passages or take notes. The occasional video now augments sermons and video clips bring greetings from far-off missionaries. Sermon tapes have given way to MP3s and videos posted on church websites. Items from my church denomination regularly pepper in my e-mail inbox and my social media feeds. But do these new media technologies simply carry the same wine in newer wine skins?
The Christian church is nearly two millennia old, beginning with the birth of the church at the time of Pentecost. Although there are certain constants in Christian worship, such as the preaching of the word and administering the sacraments, worship also reflects the traditions and context in which people live. The style of music, the aesthetics of worship, the language spoken, and church architecture have all been shaped, to one extent or another, by the surrounding culture. Technology, as part of culture, has also shaped the church in significant ways.
To appreciate how technology shapes the church one must recognize that technology is not just about the nuts and bolts of devices and gadgets. Technology is a culture-making activity in which human beings exercise freedom and responsibility.[i] Besides their intended usage, technological artifacts have a bias and shape the world in economic, social, aesthetic, and cultural ways, to name just a few. The media theorist Marshall McLuhan summarized this in his famous aphorism “The medium is the message.” This phrase suggests that media carry more than just content, they bring with them new ways of thinking, working, and communicating. John Culkin summarized McLuhan's saying with the phrase “we shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us.”[ii] As it turns out, our tools not only shape us, they also shape worship and the church.
One significant example is the invention of the printing press in the 15th century. Prior to the printing press, only the clergy had access to the scriptures and most people were illiterate. Many people learned the stories of scripture through the medium of stained glass windows, but the printing press increased literacy and enabled the scriptures to be printed widely. Direct access to the scriptures changed the nature of authority of the clergy; all believers were now recognized as “prophets, priests, and kings.”
The invention of the printing press thus brought far-reaching cultural and social changes, helping launch the protestant Reformation and with it, significant changes to church structure, authority and worship.
It is no surprise that modern technology is also bringing significant changes to the church. One example is the automobile. The car is not just a “medium” for getting from point A to point B, it also has a “message” of sorts. The automobile brings with it personal autonomy and allows us to separate where we live, work, shop and worship. Most modern, suburban churches are surrounded by a large parking lot. Many people in such a congregation do not live in the local neighborhood, driving past several other churches on their way to worship. The automobile enables a consumer mentality: no longer restricted by geography, people choose to worship in settings that suit their personal tastes and preferences.
In recent decades, electronic technology has also shaped worship. The microphone, for instance, is one of the technologies that enables the modern mega-church. Modern sound boards, amplifiers, electronic keyboards, mixers and microphones have also shaped modern worship music. Once again, the content of songs as sung by praise teams and bands is one thing, but this medium has its own bias which shapes congregational singing.[iii] Amplified praise teams and bands that drown out those singing in the pews can actually discourage congregational singing. Taken to an extreme, praise teams amplified and illuminated on front stages risk turning worship into a concert performance.
More recently, the data projector has enabled images, videos and text to be prominently displayed within the worship setting. The use of projectors to display hymns and scripture does bring advantages. Instead of looking down into their song books, people can look up at a screen and project their voices. In addition, churches can use music from many sources and new music can be introduced more easily. Once again, the projector is not only a means of displaying content, but it brings other changes. Displaying scripture on screens leads people to be less inclined to take their own Bibles and follow along. Projecting songs on a screen can reduce musical literacy since the medium tends to exclude the musical notes traditionally found in hymn books. No longer can small children follow along with their parents pointing out the words to a song.[iv] The projector enables images to be projected, hearkening back to the era of stained glass windows. However, when images and videos are used extensively, the importance of the written word begins to decline and congregations can become passive spectators not unlike a movie theater.
The virtual communities and “spaces” which are possible in cyberspace are now bringing new possibilities to worship communities. Virtual worlds, like the one called “Second Life,” allow people to meet and immerse themselves in computer-simulated environments. Already numerous virtual churches have started to emerge, such as St. Pixels, i-church, and the Anglican Cathedral of Second Life. But once again, such a medium comes with a message of its own, namely the notion that a body of believers does not need physical bodies. Brad Kallenberg argues in his book God and Gadgets that human communication requires three conditions: time, place and bodies, things that technology “bewitches us into thinking we can ignore.”[v] Taken to an extreme, such thinking can lead to a new form of gnosticism which diminishes the significance of physical bodies in physical community. This is in contrast to the example of Christ, the Word who became flesh and dwelt among us.
The church ought to reflect its cultural context, including appropriate use of the best cultural and technological gifts available. McLuhan once warned that “the ‘content’ of a medium is like the juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind.”[vi] As we employ various media we need to guard against being distracted and ignoring the messages embedded in various technologies. Considerations surrounding the use of various technologies in church and worship should lead us back to fundamental questions about the purpose of worship and the church. Marva Dawn suggests that “Worship centers on recognizing that ‘great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised’ and on responding to that worthiness by gathering with others to praise God as is His due.”[vii] The media and technology of worship may change, but the message and purpose should remain the same.
The fact is that worship extends to all of life, including all our technological activities. As we shape our tools, we should be mindful to shape them in ways that glorify God. I suspect that technology will be among the “glory and honor of the nations” that will be brought into the new heavens and earth (Rev. 21:26). Until then, may our technology be used responsibly, and together with the church and the rest of creation, may it “declare the glory of God” (Ps. 19).
[i] Stephen V. Monsma, ed., Responsible Technology, Eerdmans, 1986, p. 19.
[ii] John M. Culkin, “A Schoolman’s Guide to Marshall McLuhan,” Saturday Review, March 18, 1967, p. 70.
[iii] See also Jamie Smith “An Open Letter to Praise Bands,” Discipleship in the Present Tense: Reflections on Faith and Culture, Calvin College Press, 2013, p. 153.
[iv] For further discussions on projectors in worship, see Quentin J. Schultze, High-Tech Worship? Using Presentational Technologies Wisely, Baker Books, 2004.
[v] Brad J. Kallenberg, God and Gadgets, Cascade Books, 2011, p. 43.
[vi] Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, McGraw Hill, 1964, p. 18.
[vii] Marva Dawn, How Shall We Worship? Biblical Guidelines for the Worship Wars, Tyndale House Publishers, 2003, p. 49.
Derek C. Schuurman studied electrical engineering and worked in industry for several years prior to entering the academic life. He has taught computer science at Redeemer University College in Hamilton, Ontario and is currently a Visiting Associate Professor of Computer Science at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa.
He is the author of a recent book which explores a Christian perspective of computer technology entitled Shaping a Digital World: Faith, Culture and Computer Technology published by InterVarsity Press.
Interested folks can navigate to the book website located here: