Sunday, 15 February 2009

Worshipping onscreen: a megachurch meditation

Sorry for the long silence – we’ve been in transit to Sydney all week, and I haven’t had much internet access.

This morning, 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.


CJW said...

How true that mere reality is in fact embarrassing in the presence of hyperreality; it shows all production of the hyperreal to be pornographic, and all consumption of it to be voyeuristic. How tamely real is Dalí's dictum that all art is edible, in comparison.

gbroughto said...

Welcome to Sydney, Ben, in all its glory and vanity (which you have seem to found in microcosmos all-by-yourself).

Its been a while since I've been to said megachurch, but what your reflection made me think of was the recent Leonard Cohen gig (I was at the Sydney one) where I struggled with the same issues for different reasons.

In fact it was Cohen's honesty and immediacy that made me look at him directly adn avoid the screen (no, my seats weren't THAT good). But it felt inappropriate having this performer mediate this performance through a large screen.

Ironically, at a service of Christian worship, you felt the opposite impulse!!!

Pastor Joelle said...

At this risk of sounding like one of those unhappy people even God can't help...this is just sad...

Anonymous said...


Not that I don't sympathize with your critique (or is it jeremiad?), even with the underlying anguish. I do. I have lamented the miseries of megachurch myself often enough. But what are we to do about it? Can you posit any alternatives? How would Christians within that culture re-configure it? Do we need new architecture and liturgical furniture? Do we need to simply remove the screens?

(Relatedly, I try to imagine what St Paul would've done in this situation. What would his "Letter to the Sydneyans" read like? Any thoughts?)

Did you watch HBO's short-lived John from Cincinnati? David Milch attempts through that story to redeem technology, especially the technology of camera and screen (As John says, "My Father's word is in Cass' camera!").

The world in which we live is a screened world. And that means a world rife with dangers. Nonetheless, we have to recognize Christ's claim even on this world, don't we?

Austin Eisele said...

I think CJW is right (that this is pornographic), and so is Ben (the question "what are we to do about it is important). It is pornographic because pornography attempts to package and make consumable something that is both more and less than what the image makes of it (sex is more, because of the place it ought to occur in, but less because it is, after all, a bodily function). This "more and less" is extremely important, because that's what all consumption is about: an object is more than what it is because we must have it, but less because once we do, there is always something else to consume, some other new (created) desire to satisfy (this is also true with violent movies - see Michael Haneke's film "Funny Games" for a great critique of this).

The same thing is true of the image in a worship service. In my denomination (the Evangelical Covenant Church) we're in something of a conflict between some of the more traditional elements of the church, and other churches, who not only use the screen at their services, but beam the images to other locations (an Oklahoma church has a branch in Albany, NY). This seems to be another way to make something consumable, and turn worship "experience" into more and less of what it is: more, because normal people get to go each week to a "service" that is built around a hollywood-esque sense of grandiosity; less, because the service is not meant to actually satiate, but to induce a desire for another experience, another encounter with the production, etc. This is an infinite desire, but it is not Gregory of Nyssa's.

On the other hand, what are we to do about it? I think the problem is that, for evangelicals like me (and like-minded evangelicals), and more main-line churches, our tendency is to reject the entire idea of worship as it is currently done. Perhaps we need better theologies of "contemporary" worship, theologies that can make the link between these ways of worshiping and ancient worship. E.g., there is something in common between the hesychastic prayer and certain worship songs that are "endlessly" (as an older woman in my church loves to say) repeated, with certain bodily configurations (like raised hands, etc). What if we were to actually theorize this type of worship in a better way?

That of course is a rather paltry suggestion, but I do think that it is imperative to vigorously argue against this type of commodification of worship. God can obviously work through anything, but it is our duty to attempt to line everything we do up with the new creation inaugarted by Jesus.

Anonymous said...

I wonder if the redemption of technology is the key is perhaps given the approaching season, a fast from technologically driven worship services is in order. I work in a small church in a Canadian city and just left a church of 2000ish for a church of 80ish, for some of these reasons--and more. but starting in my new church i can see that there are no neat solutions to the problem of how technology impacts or dictates the shape of worship service. (Cuz when you dont use it people think you are being anachronistic) Many writers are lamenting this problem, particularly, many of the profs from Regent College in Vancouver (Eugene Peterson, Marva Dawn, Craig Gay).
I will conclude with a favorite Wendell Berry Quote:

"Breath with unconditioned breath, the unconditioned air.
Shun electric wire.
Communicate slowly.
Live a three dimensioned life; stay away from screens."

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Anonymous said...

After Toto pulled back the curtain on the Wizard, and caught him cranking out fire, smoke and mirrors, the Wizard tried one more bluff before he was leveled by Dorothy's scathing admonishment.

The he confessed to the camera: I'm not a bad man, just a very bad wizard.

I don't think there is anything malevolent about life in Oz; just some very bad acting.

Anonymous said...

I think it's about the interior bland walls and such. No one would think of using a projector and screen inside Sainte-Chapelle in Paris.


Brad East said...

I recently wrote about this subject from a slightly different vantage point, namely how it affects communal memory of hymn lyrics. A preacher in the same tradition built off that, reflecting on how it feels to preach to people tuned out looking at a screen. It seems to be a common experience, and I am wondering with James what a "redemption of technology" might look like concretely.

Thanks, as always, for your valuable thoughts.

Joanna said...

Nothing to say about the significance of the screen, Ben, because I couldn't get past your description of the sermon. A church teaching that there are people outside the reach of God's redeeming grace and 'we' should avoid those people? I'm dumbstruck.

Brian Lugioyo said...

Ben, 2 mega churches in the OC - I won't name names - have signs on their main sanctuary that say "Adults Only - Children are welcome at Children Church" - Church has become such a production for the screen both in the sanctuary and in the living room that a crying child will not be tolerated. It brings down the polished production.

Brian Lugioyo said...

The OC is Orange County, California...

CJW said...

Icons (whether on church walls or screens) bear images. Poor ones are fodder for idolatry, good ones are fodder for imagination: not that they bear an image well, but they encourage us to bear the imago well.

In this way (with apologies to Augustine) worship is not something we produce (create) or consume, but given, and in the giving that consumes (transforms us).

chris said...

I agree wholeheartedly. Does anyone even remember Marshall McLuhan anymore? Who needs God when we can see ourselves on the big screen?

Anonymous said...

'redemption of technology' - much too abstract, pulpits are technology, buildings are technology. At stake here is specific technology and some appalling theology. What is needed is ecclesiology which doesn't separate form and content and give form to the consumer culture to define. Worship must surely be the locus for the formation of a new social order, not some pornographic self-absorbed private spiritual consumption

Anonymous said...

Yes, Christianity is captivated by culture and its trends. But was there any day in long history of Christian faith that it did not flirt with surrounding culture-reality-social life?
I think it is inevitable. Now, I'm not defending what that megachurch is doing. A church that teaches about how people cut off from God's help needs to scrutinize her theology.
However, how about generation that grew up watching TV, movie, reading scandal-hunting news papers and was surrounded by mass-media where busyness of life is a virtue?

Anonymous said...

You know, I just had an idea.

I'm going to make an app for the IPHONE so you can watch your favorite church service on the IPHONE from anywhere you'd like on the planet. And, for an additional $4.95 per sermon, you can have it streamed to your IPHONE, even after the sermon is over!

Ha! Who needs projectors, computers and power point, when you have an IPHONE?!??!

Oh, and if you shake the IPHONE, you get a random bit of inspiriational scripture for the day. (All references to apples have been deleted, though.)

I'm still figuring out how to do the whole Liturgy of the Eucharist to work. That's kinda tricky on an IPHONE. ;)


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Anonymous said...

Pure Barnum and Bailey.

Crass and vulgar "religious" consumerism rules-OK. Nothing more than an extension of the fake (TV) media-constructed mind.

Do you think that Jesus or any Divinely Realized Spiritual Teacher from any Tradition would be found anywhere near such a circus?

Real Spiritual Intelligence is tacit, silent and wordless. And is communicated in silence directly to the feeling-heart.

KelinciHutan said...

I recently went to Gardendale First Baptist in Gardendale, Alabama. It's a suburb of Birmingham (Gardendale, that is) and GFB is small for a mega-church, but I would put it in that category (last Sunday they had 3,752 people attend morning services). And while I was disturbed by the budget meeting that was plonked down in the middle of the worship service, I can not say how happy I was to hear the pastor preach a Biblical, doctrinally sound message that emphasized Christian responsibility and right action in our relationships. And I know any number of people from the church who are not only genuine Christians but people whose faith I very much admire.

My point is, mega-churches are not evil innately any more than anything else in the world is (arguably, that's a lot, but that's another discussion). Jesus did preach to crowds of thousands twice that I can think of. The Holy Spirit is there, too, even with the worship screens. There are a lot of mega-churches focused more on business than on worship, but they aren't all so horrible.

Anonymous said...


yes, how sad . . . Os Guinness has a good little book on Mega Churches called: Dining With the Devil: The Megachurch Movement Flirts With Modernity.

Brian, I attended a "mega-church" in the OC (years back now --- I am no longer affiliated with that movement, I've Reformed a bit since then); I'm curious which 2 you're referencing (I never saw a sign like that, but it would be in line with their "rules" on children in the adult service). I'll mention the senior pastor's name, instead of the church's name; Chuck Smith?

Anonymous said...

Ironic that we vent about mega screens whilst looking at micro ones. The luddites are against both of course but screens in the study or in the sanctuary can become the focus and the object or the means to communicate and gather. These tools do seem to magnify our own biases and prejudices. Yet the fallacy of making the building, the structure, the technology and the denomination the main thing should be self evident. The heart is what determines the worshipper and there are as many passive or automatonic spectators to the liturgies of the ancient practices as there are to the contemporary ones...Large simply means large. Consumerism or spectator worship are found in churches across the board. Stainedglass enhanced glorious architecture can become the worshipped rather than that which inspires hearts heavenwood. These petty criticisms muddy the waters. The real questions are about direction, mission and the active theology of any particular local church.

Dancin' said...

As I read your description of this "worship service" I found all my ecclesiological nightmares coming true. I felt as though you were describing a Music Venue and somewhat expected there to be mention of pyro-techniques, or even some crowd surfing. What you described in this post represents many of the things that grieve my heart about the cultural of Evangelical church. A obsession with entertaining and performing for the congregation. Worship tends to be a performance to be enjoyed, rather than an audience with God that we are invited to participate in.

I do not think megachurches are inherently "evil." I do think that they face challenges regarding authenticity and temptation to perform to a greater degree than some of us. All that said, I long for the day that,regardless of size, we are able to be The Church. I know "just be The Church" is a loaded phrase, and I hope that my decision not to unpack that phrase is not misunderstood, as naivety. I think unpacking that phrase is a tome in itself.

Anonymous said...

Hey, Ben, I think R. S. Thomas must have been at the same service:

They copy the image
of themselves projected on their smooth
screens to the accompaniment of inane
(from "Gone")

Actually, Thomas was referring to the simple television. Not only would he have been horrified by megachurch worship, he'd have considered it idolatrous.

The "machine" is Thomas' synecdoche for technology, and Thomas returns to it again and again in his poetry, as machines becomes more complex and pervasive through global consumer capitalism, and above all (with McLuhan and Postman), because they get inside our heads and colonise the spirit - and because they can't be disinvented.

The machine is
our winter, smooth
as ice glassing
over the soul's surface.
(from "Winter")

"Smooth" (again) - a word often repeated in techno-critique in Thomas' poetry - and quite descriptive of ecclesio-technology, don't you think?

I can't resist one more citation:

The tins marched to the music
Of the conveyor belt. A billion
Mouths opened. Production,
Production, the wheels

Whistled. Among the forests
Of metal the one human
Sound was the lament of
The poets for deciduous language.
(from "Postscript")

James K.A. Smith said...

For an analogous consideration of how the big screen or jumbotron can transform an entire culture of practice, see the recent Sports Illustrated piece on the role that big screens now play in sport:

chris e said...

In many ways i sympathise deeply with everything Ben says, I've been to this churches branch in another city and what he describes is quite familiar to me.

But I'd like to pose the following questions:

What is the answer to the problem of a church that outgrows its building?

Do we mandate a maximum scale? Because the 'problem' of megachurches have ever been with us - imagine worshipping in the Hagia Sophia in its heyday.

Lastly, if we believe in the goodness as well as the falleness of creation can we truely automatically blame technology? I'd suggest respectfully that any doctrine of creation that has a place for the arts but no place for the sciences is a defunct one.

Matt Jenson said...

Fascinating diagnoses from Ben and the commenters. This is significant food for thought, and is (annoyingly) moving me to consider taking some Lenten steps. Also fascinating that we have so little clue what to do about it all.

Anonymous said...

WoW, just disturbing on so many levels...I think U2 was ahead of the curve in the early 90's
"Welcome to ZooTV, y'all" :)

Anonymous said...

Wait, so does this mean that the congregants of this church are amongst the people whom God cannot help??

I want to know all the ten kinds... I have a feeling I have been engaging in a lot of bad 'investments'.

::aaron g:: said...

Picking up on James K.A. Smith's comment: maybe onscreen worship should have slow motion and replays. And if you don't like what's going on, you can - in NFL style - throw a red hankie and challenge the whole thing.

Jonathan said...

Without getting into criticism (or defence) of this particular church, megachurches or various uses of screens, I will say that I was intrigued by the assertion "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."

This statement seems to be saying a lot about the visual aspect of human interaction. In what way is using a screen different from, say, using a microphone?

Anonymous said...

I've ordered my iPhone. Can't wait to to shake it up! and how cool that I don't have to go to worship with other people!

Iain Stephenson said...


Get your complaint about mega church and this one sounds like a winner. Not so sure i follow your critique of the use of tv screens. There are a tool and can be used well or not. It seems that your experience was not. But in my local Anglican place (i don't attend it) they have crazy pillars that obscure the view, so use a screen to make stuff visible. It works well. So to say they are wrong or pornographic might be an oversimplification and over statement.

Dawn said...

Ben, I agree with almost everything you said - but one caveat. You seem to have a problem with projecting the hymn lyrics onto screens - would you prefer the congregation to spend the singing in one-to-one communion with their hymnbooks?

Ben Myers said...

Hi GWW: Yes, I agree — for congregational singing, I think screens are better than hymn books.

My point here, though, was that the screen in this church superimposed the lyrics over the image of worshipping faces — so that you could participate only by devoting all your attention to the onscreen images.

OKC Herbivore said...

Hey Ben-thanks for your thoughtful parsing of this particular church-tech experience. I am part of a discussion right now on tying the Church calendar to many places in US "Evangelical Protestantism" that have developed much along the lines of the church you are describing.

How technology becomes the grammar of our worship is a whole other rabbit hole to dive into, but in a personal and reflective way, I am stuck on the moral force of how we perceive lo-fi worship and hi-fi worship, as it is. Among most Christians who tend toward contemplative worship, or those who study/moonlight theology, or whole other kinds, among this kind of person the lo-fi tends to resonate as a bit more "authentic."

Perhaps it is our innate rooting for the underdog, or maybe even something as strong as the Church recognizing its early beginnings, and always wanting to keep track of the days done in homes and often under much duress in the Roman Empire. This resonance is preservative, at least in keeping us un-reliant on innovation in our technology, and reliant on innovation in our imagination and exegesis.

Yet as I say that, I wonder if our work in textual criticism points to the other side of the coin, namely, we do trust technology enough to allow for retroactive consideration of Scripture, noticing how "lo-fi" scribes misheard this or that dipthong, or revised this or that word for difficulty...

Your label at the bottom of the post blares like a little red siren: "liturgy." Indeed if this is a kind of liturgy, the hyper-visual, hyper-real ("Even Better Than The Real Thing") worship acts, then it does indeed require some tough thought, and arrest if it proves harmful.

RJ Fox said...

Ah, The Wizard of OZ ....

Anonymous said...

Re. The Ten Kinds of People God Can't Help

Perhaps the real point is knowing when to get out of the way and let God do His thing.

Unknown said...

I can't see how someone would actually preach on not reaching out to all people. This is contrary to what Christ Himself did - going to the woman at the well and to a Samaritan who were the most despised, befriending a former prostitute (Mary Magdalene), healing the sick and the lame and the blind who were the outcasts of society, going to the home of a hated tax collector and making one of them his disciple...

This is contrary to what I read about the bloggers' message.

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