When Production Restricts Presence

9 Dec

I’ve mulled writing this post for some time as I know it won’t be popular with a lot of hipster Christians. Let me say first that I’m not against using media during church services. I think there are great uses of video within a congregational gathering. I’ve been inspired and moved by suplemental media during a service. However, I think as a whole, our use of media and technology during worship, preaching and teaching should be kept to a minimum.

We come to a sanctuary to worship Jesus with brothers and sisters in Christ. He should be the sole focus of our gathering. Worship should never be about the lighting, band or media. It should be about our response to God for who He is and what he’s done for us. Certainly we must endeavor to create an atmosphere where people are willing to corporately worship God. But, if attention is drawn to the ambiance and media instead of Jesus, the purpose of the gathering has failed.

It goes without saying that we live in a world of short attention spans. The onslaught of social media permeating our culture is daily trimming those attention spans to even shorter lengths. Hundreds if not thousands of tweets, posts, photos, videos, etc… are ingested at a high rate of speed daily. What one tweets or posts is quickly sucked under the current of other data coming down the media river. It’s hard to pay attention for any given length of time to any one piece of information these days.

YouTube HotSpots analytics engine has revealed over and over that its users have extremely short attention spans insomuch that effective videos are between 1-3 minutes tops. Informational videos are said to cap a users attention at five minutes. If a viewer is not engaged in the first five seconds, they leave. You cannot walk into a restaurant where diners aren’t consumed in their smart phones leaving their co-diners to sit in silence. We live in an age of series and mini series because an entire story line doesn’t make the cut of our attention spans anymore. I know because I work as a developer for a very large entertainment company.

We, the church, are called to be counter-culture, a peculiar people. We are not called to assimilate the mindset of this world. There is a conspiracy to cause the church’s minds to be so full of information and moving data that it cannot focus on truth and evangelism. Yes, this is a conspiracy theory. I believe Satan uses media, though seemingly benign, to distract us from the Word of God and our purpose. I’m a firm believe that we have far too much production in our churches and not enough presence of God.

Production never supplements Presence. Production can create euphoric ambiances, but can never take the place of a genuine move of God. When production distracts from Presence, it’s wrong. The thing about production is that it has to be better next time. A viewer will get bored more rapidly the second go-around. Smart light configurations and moving images behind song lyrics become quickly outdated to the attention span of congregants. It’s hard to stop the snowball effect when you are simply entertaining with a bigger and better production every week.

What happens when we project a video in front of a congregation? The same thing that happens when they watch a YouTube video or sit down to view a Netflix selection. The subconscious goes from engagement with the surroundings to a mode of disengagement. We watch movies because we like to ‘veg’. Nothing is left to the imagination. All of the visual and audio are provided and so the mind has little left to process.

Compare that to having that same congregation read a passage of Scripture together. No preconceived image or audio is passing their senses, and the Word is processed and indexed. The latter technically is more powerful and enduring than the former as it causes people to create their own images and audio in their mind. This is why books are always better than the movie. No video producer can ever match the imagery we create within our own minds. When use video often to communicate the Word, it might be emotionally effective at the moment, but has little long-term benefit of comprehension.

I have attended churches with million dollar media systems of lights, tv cameras, etc… and I found it was difficult for me to get anything out of the service. In one instance I found myself counting all of the smart lights that were installed, 42 to be exact. The moving lights and fancy videos kept me from paying attention to my preparation to hear and receive the Word.

So many people ask me about how they can improve their media experience in their services. They are somewhat shell-shocked when I tell them to do less and not more. I start asking simple questions to reveal intent.

  • What is the motivation for wanting to splash colors across the walls?
  • Why do we need 20′ screens in a 500 person auditorium when we could use something smaller?
  • What’s the benefit of shining moving light patterns on the wall?
  • What value does the congregation receive when we play them a clip we downloaded from YouTube or a worship video site every week?
  • Why do you want screens in every corner of your facility when the purpose is to come together in a service?
  • Does incorporating social media into your service give greater attention to the Word?

There are many more questions I ask the inquiring minds, but this gives you a snapshot.

Stop and ponder why we need or want these things in our churches. Is it because we need to supplement a lack of Presence? Are we trying to get the approval of those visiting by having a cool factor? Do we think that a metric of growth is our collection of media and ‘worship’ tools (toys)? Does God need our creation of ambiance for him to move in our services? Do these enhancements draw people closer to Christ or could the extra money be spent in evangelism efforts?

In no way am I saying that media and technical functionality is wrong. It’s amoral – neither right or wrong. It only becomes wrong when we have the wrong intent when we use it. If any of the above questions about the use of media in your church reveal a fleshly intent (pride, materialism, etc…) or a cover for spiritual deficiency, it’s wrong.

I have traveled worldwide and have been in services in many third-world countries. I saw a powerful move of God in a house in Haiti in an extremely poor part of town. I preached standing on a dirt floor and flies circling overhead and landing on me my notes. The stench of the latrine out the window was sometimes overpowering, but God moved without modern media.
Another instance I remember is in South Andros Island, Bahamas where I was preaching and the salt spray of the ocean hitting the rocks below would come through an open window and hit me on the face. Mosquitos were biting. The music department was comprised of one man with two hand cymbals and the clapping of our congregation. There wasn’t even electricity in the building and we experienced a genuine move of God.
I am convinced that we can have powerful moves of God without the additions of media from the past 10-15 years. The Word stands by itself. Presence should be our sole desire. We should never settle for the emotionalism of production. The church should be the one place our attention spans are protected and lengthened by our love and value of the Word of God and his Presence. I leave you with one passage of Scripture from the Old Testament that illustrates what we should strive for in our inattentive culture. Let’s be counter-culture and pair down our distractive technology and media so the Word and His Presence can be greater than our productions.

Nehemiah 8:1-3

1 Now all the people gathered together as one man in the open square that was in front of the Water Gate; and they told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses, which the Lord had commanded Israel.
2 So Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly of men and women and all who could hear with understanding on the first day of the seventh month.
3 Then he read from it in the open square that was in front of the Water Gate from morning until midday, before the men and women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law.

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