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Technology in Worship

Last week I finished writing a piece for Fuller Seminary's 3x-yearly magazine of theology & commentary, Theology News & Notes. This particular issue's theme is the place of music in worship, and I was asked to contribute a piece on the effect of technology on worship music. My thesis, simply put, is a truism borrowed from the computer industry -- hardware drives software:

As the church seeks to make the most of certain hardware technology – amplification, lyric projection, and looping DJ software, for example – we can expect that our worship software, i.e. the style of our worship itself, will also change. It may expand in potentially wonderful and creatively enculturated new ways, following the leading of the Holy Spirit. Or it may be narrowed in ways that are hip, but historically, and even theologically, suspect.

The article then examines the three aforementioned technologies, pointing out the good and the bad, the helpful and the heinous.

The idea for the piece arose arose out of a seed of an observation about hardware and software and the composition of some contemporary worship songs:

I have begun to see signs that some songs are being composed, perhaps unconsciously, not just to take advantage of the technology, but bounded by its peculiar limitations. The structure of the songs and the shape of the melodies are being molded to fit the size of the screen and the super-sized words projected onto it. Thus, we no longer get lyrical lines of melody and text; we get textual phraselets and melodic motifs -- mere musical fragments, not bearing repetition, but repeated nevertheless. And repeated.

Lest I appear a Luddite here, I hasten to add that in the article I have many good things to say about amplification, projection, and yes, DJ looping software. SplashlogoBut I am concerned that we are less discerning than we might be. I challenge you, for example, to visit this website and find a single theological insight brought to bear on the use of technology in worship. Sigh. There's a lot of work to be done.

I am quite interested in hearing from others who read this blog: what effects on worship style/software do you see as a result of the church's adoption/adaptation of certain hardware technologies?  Do you have examples of really wonderful and fitting uses of technology? 

For example, I have seen pastors use video clips in sermons, sometimes well, sometimes not so much.  But the time I really thought a video clip was used well in a service was when the sanctuary went dark just before the congregational prayer, and we saw a 5 minute home-made video that had been taken the week before by the pastor going to visit some of the elderly folks at the nursing home and a couple of shut-ins.  These people told little bits of their stories, and said what they wanted prayer for.  Some couldn't talk, and then the pastor did a bit of voice-over.  It was a powerful introduction to congregational prayer - reminding us again that we are a body of Christ, united with many others, present and not present, as we gather together to pray.

New Kid on the Blog

Andrewd First, some words of introduction. This will serve not only to let you know something about me - Andrew Donaldson -- but also to introduce some of the subject areas that I am passionate about.

I am Pastoral Musician and Worship Enlivener (more on that title in a moment) at Trafalgar Presbyterian Church in Oakville, Ontario, Canada. I am currently President of the Hymn Society in the US and Canada.   And along with my wife, I am part of Hilariter, an inter-denominational group of singers and players, based in Toronto, Canada, committed to diversity in worship and to exploring the worship resources available from around the world.

I am a lapsed (and recently re-activated) percussionist with a background in choral music, composition and classical guitar. I'm also a student of the renaissance lute.

An unusual background for a church music director, I'll admit - or at least it was when I began directing church music in the early eighties. At my first congregation, Beaches Presbyterian Church in Toronto, we developed a music program that included "traditional" strophic hymns, world music, and original music written by congregational members, including myself.

I had learned the global music from Pablo Sosa, Patrick Matsikenyiri and I-to Loh, among others, at a World Council of Churches Worship conference in the middle eighties. To it, we added some contemporary music, chants from Taizé, and songs from the Iona Community.

Over the course of twenty years, we found that this had transformed several key aspects of our worshipping community.  First, the liturgy had become richer, more varied. From being a service with four hymns, some prayers and a sermon, it offered many ways for young and old, able and disabled, musical and not-so-musical, - the whole worshipping community - to pray, to praise, to lament, to celebrate as a singing community.

Second, the role of the choir had become something different. It could still offer a Tallis motet or a Gibbons verse anthem, but it could also lead the congregation in a Zulu church song, or an African American spiritual. It featured instrumentalists as well as singers: flute, violin, cello, concertina, recorders, percussion, guitar, and many others. It had also grown from being a performing choir into a group of music leaders that nurtured the song of the congregation.

Third, my own role had changed, and for a while we didn't have a name for it. It wasn't until Michael Hawn, from Perkins School of Theology at SMU in Dallas, came to worship with us at Beaches Church in the fall of 2003, that we realized that my role had become that of an “animateur” or an “enlivener”. This is a term proposed by Michael Warren, a Roman Catholic educator, quoted in Dr. Hawn's book “One Bread, One Body” (Alban Institute 2003).

When I moved to my current church just outside of Toronto, we decided that this word “enlivener” should be part of my title. We find that it stimulates ongoing discussion on my role in the music and worship of the community.

I am passionate (in a polite, Canadian sort of way) about nurturing congregational song. I also love exploring ways of bringing scripture to vibrant, dramatic, comforting and disturbing life in worship.  We are also discovering that what we have been doing for twenty years has a new title: The Emerging Church.