Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Megachurch worship: supersize me!

Earlier in the year I posted this piece about a visit to Hillsong. I’m reposting it here, since the Pentecostal theologian Shane Clifton has written a response which I’ll be posting tomorrow.

Recently, out of curiosity, I went along to a service at a famous Sydney megachurch. It was quite an experience. They had it all: the hustle and bustle of important people; the man with a torch and walkie-talkie who met us at the door and briskly ushered us to our seats; the dimly lit auditorium with its brightly coloured stage; the use of words like “vision” and “awesome”; the advertising segments (last week’s sermon was available on DVD for only $14.95); the slick businessmen with their Rolexes and their glamorous wives; the exuberant music performed by handsome musicians and voluptuous singers (I confessed to my wife that I had committed adultery in my heart all the way through “All I Need Is You”); the give-your-life-to-Jesus altar call; and throughout all this, the ubiquity of what Peter Berger has called “the Protestant smile.”

There were no limits to the professionalism of this worship service. There was even a bit of product placement: the lobby was adorned with a lovely suite of iMacs; and the sermon was delivered from behind a lectern with an open MacBook on top, its illuminated Apple icon gleaming at the cameras. (It was like watching BBC television – I was waiting for someone to arrive at any moment in a shining new Audi.)

As for the preaching, it was motivating and highly inspirational: the sermon’s title (sorry, I’m not kidding) was “Ten Kinds of People That God Can’t Help.” The main idea was that you should “invest” your time in positive happy friends, instead of making bad investments in friendships with hopeless, unhappy people: “Why are you trying to help people like that when even God can’t help them?” The sermon’s best one-liner: “The Bible isn’t a book about God’s love for man; it’s a book about man’s love for God.”

But for me, the most interesting aspect of the service was the dominance of the screen. Every moment of the service, from start to finish, was broadcast on to huge screens around the auditorium. When the pastor spoke, he would address one of the many cameras. When the worship-leader spoke to the congregation, he would speak into the camera. Even the heartfelt altar call at the end of the service was addressed to the camera. During the worship songs, the screens would be filled with the faces of those gorgeously happy singers and musicians; then a camera would pan across the crowd of raised hands before cutting back to a shot of the worship-leader’s face, full of adoration and passionate sincerity.

What made this so interesting was that the songs’ lyrics were also superimposed over these images; so if you wanted to join in singing, you had no choice but to turn your face away from the altar (if there had been an altar), away from the congregation, even away from the flesh-and-blood performers on stage. In short, participation in worship was possible only through the mediation of the screen. The entire worship service was orchestrated primarily as an event of the screen, so that one could take part only by turning towards the screen and participating in its projected images of worship.

The Protestant reformers used to complain that the Roman Catholic priest was “doing worship” for the whole congregation, standing in their place and performing everything on their behalf – and a similar complaint is often made about today’s Pentecostal megachurches. But I think the function of the screen raises a much more interesting problem: not merely that the congregation is worshipping vicariously through the onstage performers, but that the entire worship event is actually taking place onscreen.

At this morning’s service, even the worship leader himself was not a direct participant in the worship event – the real worshipping subject was his onscreen image. The flesh-and-blood performer participates in this worship only indirectly, through a vicarious participation in his own projected image – a larger-than-life image which becomes the bearer of transcendence. Similarly, the congregation is involved in worship only vicariously, through the mediation of the screen. This is an instance in which the screen comes to possess more ontological depth than the flesh-and-blood world itself; the projected image becomes “more real” than reality.

Visitors to Manhattan are often struck by the uncanny familiarity of their surroundings: the city has been so frequently and so meticulously presented onscreen that the “real” physical environment seems a remarkable copy of the much-more-real world of the screen. “Oh look,” tourists exclaim: “It’s just like in The Godfather!”

In the same way, towards the end of the church service I glanced down from the vast screen, and for a moment I glimpsed the flesh-and-blood pastor speaking passionately into the camera. It was strange to see the man standing there like this: a miniature version – touchingly flimsy and remote and insubstantial – of the real preacher whom I’d been watching on the screen. I felt embarrassed to have seen him like this – like the embarrassment of visitors at a hospital, who don’t know where to look – so I quickly averted my eyes, and returned my gaze to the big reassuring smile on the screen high above.

For more on contemporary worship, see also The Pornographer’s Dream.

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