technology and worship: initial reflections

I’m participating in AMBS’s conversation on technology and worship. I have to put together a paper. Below are my initial reflections as I work towards something of substance. I would appreciate any critical engagement. Am I going in a helpful direction? Should I turn around while I still can? Thanks.


Why not start with Karl Barth? In his essay, “Church and Culture” (in Theology and Church, London: SCM, 1962), Barth disallows any uncritical approval of culture, nor does take a consistent stand against culture. As usual, Barth makes things complicated. On the one side of the dialectic, Barth takes up the ax of John the Baptist: “Christian preaching…has met every culture, however supposedly rich and mature, with ultimate sharp skepticism” (quoted in T.J. Gorringe, Furthering Humanity: A Theology of Culture, p. 18). But later in that same essay Barth has no patience for a spiritualism that ignores our cultural milieu. There is no room, Barth writes, “for a basic blindness to the possibility that culture may be revelatory, that it can be filled with promise.” The seeds of God’s kingdom proliferate throughout the world. Barth pursues the same line of thinking in Church Dogmatics IV/3, where he claims that if “all things are created in and through Jesus” (Colossians 1:16-17), then, as Prof. Peter Dula puts it, “there is nowhere, not even the mouth of an ass, that we cannot expect to find words reflecting the light of the Word” (Peter Dula, “A Theology of Interfaith Bridge Building,” p. 164 in Borders and Bridges: Mennonite Witness in a Religiously Diverse World). Barth goes on to call these diverse worldly witnesses to God’s kingdom “secular parables” (CD IV/3, p. 115). The earth and human culture resound with echoes of the one Word of God which speaks into existence the kingdom of God. Therefore we must pay attention to the places we inhabit, the cultures that permeate us. “The Church,” he writes, “will be alert for the signs which, perhaps in many cultural achievements, announce that the kingdom approaches” (20). The kingdom does come. The question Barth poses to the church is whether she is ready to receive it, however strange it may appear.

It’s a strange possibility to consider how the pieces of culture called ‘technology’ may display God’s kingdom, if only parabolically. Barth won’t let us rule out an abstract category like “technology” without serious engagement in particular technological machineries–he calls them “cultural achievements.” Nor will he take up every new sophisticated invention as a chance for the kingdom to make headway. There’s nothing wrong with a healthy dose of skepticism.

In The Hidden Power of Electronic Culture (Zondervan, 2005), pastor Shane Hipps critically considers the place of technologies in worship. He carefully steers clear of many church leaders who welcome any and every form of technology as the panacea for dying churches. Blindly welcoming technology into church life turns worship into another capitalist commodity. We then become one show among many where Christians can find “new experiences to consume” (15). In Modernity, writes Hipps, “churches heeded consumer demands and sough to reinvent church. They either had to compete in the consumer marketplace on the consumer’s terms or face extinction. In the spirit of modernity, these churches reincarnated themselves as highly competent vendors of religious programs and services” (99). But the answer, according to Hipps, is not a reactionary turn against all forms of technology. “I’m not arguing for some Luddite strategy of literally destroying media” (65). Instead, we carefully and communally discern how modern technologies can aid us as we embody the good news of Christ. In Hipps’ words, “We learn to understand the power of our technologies to shape us, thereby regaining power over them” (122).

Pastor Hipps considers how the internet feeds off our desire for community. “Our electronic media has rekindled our interest in community and made us aware of our total interdependence on one another” (121). Hipps quotes Marshall McLuhan to this extent: “The new electronic interdependence recreates the world in the image of a global village” (103). The internet has shown us how we are connected to the rest of the world. We inhabit a global village. While the internet displays our interdependence, it also offers us cheap community, a simulacra of intimacy. “In our quest for meaningful connections we encounter convenient decoys–the always-appealing cotton candy communities of the virtual world” (121).

Probably Hipps’ best technological criticism comes into play when he describes the egalitarian nature of church and recent developments in shareware and collaberative technologies. His guide is Marshal McLuhan who writes, “Christianity–in a centralized, administrative, bureaucratic form–is certainly irrelavent…. We must get rid of the hierarachy if we want participation” (125). Hipps welcomes the organization structure displayed in our electronic age. “This shift toward information diffusion and the subsequent diffusion of power are providing us with a helpful corrective to the long history of centralized, top-down authority in the church” (130). This is an example where techonology can help us relearn what it means to be a faithful church. Apparently some streams of technological culture turn out to be Barth’s secular parables of the kingdom.  “Electronic culture is helping us recover a biblical vision for more collaborative and egalitarian leadership models” (143). Church is a non-hierarchical, highly participatory community. Thus decision-making through consensus is the decisive practice that displays this power-sharing organization. But, as Hipps notes, our media culture forms us to be impatient people who value instant results. Thus we have hard work ahead of us in our churches as we try to cultivate virtues and practices of patience that make space for the hard work of communal intimacy. A patient church that takes time to listen to the weakest voices in our midst is a counter-(media)cultural church.

What I appreciate about Hipps’ book is the way he turns a conversation about electronic culture into a argument about the shape of a faithful church–a clever move. Questions about technology and media become unimportant. For Pastor Hipps, what matters is the way we exercise ecclesial authority and how we welcome and listen to friends and enemies. What is missing in his critical engagement is any sustained socio-economic discussion. But he is not uniquely culpable for this blindness. It’s quite typical for church leaders to ignore the question of class when they discuss worship styles, communication technologies, and cultural relevance. To be fair to Hipps, at least he does mention in passing the economic factors of techonological relevance: “Extensive resources are being sunk into editing equipment, audio systems, video projectors, light shows, and more. there is no other period in church history when relevance has cost so much time and money” (154). Hipps does put spending practices on the table. But, at the beginning of the book he tells a story that puts the question of economics on the back burner: “We wondered were the money would come from? Would the screen be obtrusive?…. These were all valid and important quesitons, but we began to believe these were not the most important questions for us to ask” (21). But the only reason why economic issues don’t take center stage is because we don’t worship with needy people. We are sufficiently priviledged so as to ignore issues of cost in our discussions of technology. We can critically use new technologies in our church because we don’t have more important items on which to spend our money. Technological upgrades are a possibility for us because we lack the prophetic presence of the poor.

In Simple Spirituality (IVP, 2008), Chris Heuertz challenges our churches to think how we’ve created cultures of worship that are inhospitable to the poor. “[T]he church…isolates the poor” (72). The poor have their place in the world, and we have ours. Heuertz asks, “Do our multi-million-dollar sanctuaries in North America send the same message?” Even if they did stumble into our worship services, could we hear their silent cries over the perfectly amplified music and the crystal clear voice of the preacher on his cordless mic? “As the statistics of poverty grow, the church only sings louder so as not to hear the staggering numbers and the cries of the victims” (71). Our state of the art worship tends toward immorality because we use it to cushion ourselves against what Heuertz calls “the prophetic presence of the poor” (82). Our churches look and feel different when we worship alongside someone who doesn’t know where they will sleep that night, or a parent who has to prostitute themselves so they can put food on the table. How much does that cordless microphone cost, anyhow? Heuertz can’t help but think about economic realities: “my waste was offensive…. My poor friends became a prophetic presence” (83). “We would often invite local friends (many of them extremely poor) to join us, their presence a constant reminder not to waste” (86). Thus the cost of technology isn’t important to those who don’t have the prophetic presence of the poor. And if we lack their presence, we aren’t living into Christ’s mission: “to preach good news to the poor” (Luke 4).

Comments (4)

  1. Jonny

    Well done, Isaac. I know you were probably looking for constructive criticism or something more helpful, but I found your piece well-written and insightful. Thanks for posting it.

    In answer to your question, I think you’re going in a good direction, but I’m curious where you’re going to end up. Are you ending with this, or is there something more constructive or prescriptive to come?

  2. IsaacV (Post author)

    Hey Jonny, thanks. It’s helpful to know that I may be going in the right direction. I appreciate the affirmation.

    Yes, this is only a first step at thinking through technology and worship. I engage Shane Hipps’ book because it’s typical of the good stuff out there. Let me be clear: Hipps’ book is good because it provides churches with helpful ways of thinking about incorporation of electronic media, and he asks us to think through the hidden powers that come with technologies (it would have been to his advantage to discuss the language of “powers”–both from NT’s perspective, and from Foucault’s work). So, I start with him because he’s typical of the good stuff out there. He’s not an enemy; he’s an ally. But he lets us down (and, more importantly, he lets down the poor) when he refuses to make economics central to the discussion.

    Now I have to think through a constructive move. I have some ideas. But I am open to any ideas you may have.


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