Debra Dean Murphy: “PowerPointless: video screens in worship”

by Kim on February 3, 2010

Following on from the recent post citing Richard Lischer on “the gospel of technology” …

Source: The Christian Century

In recent years PowerPoint has become a dominant force in worshiping communities across the theological and liturgical spectrum. In churches smitten with the Microsoft wonder, its power to affect the sensibilities of worshipers and thus to shape congregational identity is almost never discussed.

A tacit assumption is that PowerPoint computer presentations are merely a means to an end, a value-neutral tool used for innocent, perhaps even noble purposes: enlarging text for the hard of seeing; reducing the demand for and thus the production of printed materials; and bringing younger people, who spend much of their lives in front of screens—TV, computer, cell phone, PDA—into worship. But PowerPoint is not value-neutral. As information design analyst Edward Tufte has argued, PowerPoint promotes a kind of cognitive style that routinely disrupts, dominates and trivializes content.

Just as a typical PowerPoint presentation in an IBM boardroom too readily elevates format over content (”chaotic, smarmy and incoherent chartjunk,” according to Tufte), PowerPoint in worship reproduces the same “stacking” of information, the relentless sequentiality that divorces content from context, the disposition toward consumption and commercialism, and the ethos of a sales pitch….

PowerPoint also conditions worshipers to act and react in visceral ways, so that the character of their bodily actions and emotional responses are at times downright Pavlovian. The screen, not the altar or cross, becomes the all-consuming center of attention, an object of intense fixation which triggers predictable reflexes and behaviors. When PowerPoint malfunctions, for instance, people become nervous and lost; they become conditioned to worry that it will malfunction. They find themselves thinking more about the screen and the technician at the soundboard than about the God whom they’ve come to worship and the larger worshiping body of which they are a part.

Indeed, PowerPoint makes worshipers less aware of the persons around them; they engage in less eye contact and other forms of human interaction for fear of missing something on the screen….

To use PowerPoint in worship is to unwittingly set up a competition between what’s projected on the screen and the human voice doing the preaching, praying or singing. And it’s a contest that PowerPoint always wins because, as Richard Lischer has observed, when the brain is asked to listen and watch at the same time, it always quits listening. What PowerPoint enthusiasts see as enhancing the worship experience—projecting pictures of water during a baptism or images of fire and wind on Pentecost—is instead a form of sensory overload that manipulates emotions and stifles imagination. It is difficult to cultivate an awareness and appreciation of ambiguity and mystery in worship when images are projected at strategically timed moments in the liturgy for the purpose of instructing worshipers what to think and feel.

Because PowerPoint has become central to worship in many churches, it is now common to find more technology experts than persons knowledgeable about liturgy involved in planning and leading worship. This is a trend that goes hand in hand with the church’s general infatuation with corporate business models—as evidenced in recent years by the invention of a new breed of minister: the executive pastor armed with an M.Div. and an M.B.A. The co-opting of these models and practices is not an innocent borrowing that leaves the inherent assumptions and biases of the corporate world behind.

And so questions beg to be asked. In regard to the increasing use of PowerPoint in churches of all shapes and sizes it is worth pondering: What understanding of the purpose of worship does it assume? What are the personal and communal tendencies it encourages? What sort of culture does it create? What kind of people does it produce? If Christians believe that the church and the worship it offers to God ought in some ways to counter the norms and practices of the surrounding culture, then what does it mean that after spending so much of our time each week in front of computer monitors, cell phones, and sports bar TVs, we come to church on Sunday and happily position ourselves in front of the biggest screen of all?

To be critical of the prevalence of electronic media in worship is not to be nostalgic or wistful for a time when worship was untainted by modern technology. The church at worship is always historically situated and unavoidably shaped by the realities of time, place and culture. (A pipe organ, after all, is a product of technology.) And in case I seem too much the rigid, humorless Luddite, it is important to say that there may be occasions or circumstances when computer-generated visual aids might be used meaningfully in worship. For instance, prior to the start of a service, projecting scripture verses or art appropriate to the day’s themes may help to settle and center worshipers, discouraging the chatter and fidgeting that often persist up to the start of the service, and encouraging the whole community’s focus on the worship to come…

My aim is not to condemn categorically all uses of technology in worship; that is neither desirable nor possible. But worshipers and worship leaders do need a more sophisticated and thorough understanding of the multiple effects of PowerPoint in worship, and in a great many cases a more judicious and limited use of it is in order.

The first question, then, is not how we can get rid of computers in worship, but, rather, whether we are paying sufficient attention to the ways in which computer technology in worship forms and shapes us. For if faithful Christian discipleship requires that we attend carefully to all aspects of our lives—that we reflect deeply and continually on how we are shaped by what we do (and don’t do)—and if we’re to resist the easy formulas and shallow pieties that distort and trivialize the church’s witness in the world, then ongoing attention to what we do in worship (and how we do it) is vital to such intentional discipleship.

Debra Dean Murphy is director of Christian education at Fuquay-Varina United Methodist Church in suburban Raleigh, North Carolina, and is author of Teaching That Transforms: Worship as the Heart of Christian Education (Brazos).

{ 28 comments… read them below or add one }

1

Jason Goroncy 02.04.10 at 12:25 am

A fantastic piece.

2

Lynne Baab 02.04.10 at 12:41 am

Thanks for this. Edward Tufte’s little book, The Cognitive Style of Powerpoint, should be required reading for everyone who uses PP in church. He is deadly accurate about its shortcomings. I’ve written a few pieces on blogs about visual components in worship, and I’m getting comments from some readers that they are sick of the visual overload that so often happens in worship services. My personal pet peeve: announcements randomly cycling on the projection screen while human beings are making verbal announcements.

3

Pam 02.04.10 at 7:49 am

love me, love my gadgets. Last paragraph of the post gives food for thought. Like the teenagers in our congregation I don’t mind technology. As long as it’s used sparingly - don’t want to go back to holding the hymn books though!

4

Simon 02.04.10 at 8:59 am

I’ll tell you my pet peeve - people referring to PowerPoint as some kind of catch all for anything and everything that might appear on a projected screen. As soon as someone starts conflating PowerPoint with DVD playing etc, I stop reading.

And like Pam, I don’t want to go back to holding a hymn book. People looking up and forwards at a screen rather than face down in a book produce a much better sound.

It’s true that sometimes less is more. I’m frequently involved in leading worship, and preparing AV elements, but I don’t happen to think it’s essential to have something projected for every point being made.

5

Tony Buglass 02.04.10 at 9:32 am

Not to disagree with the main thrust of the piece, but to interject to Pam and Simon that I actually like hymn books. And so do a lot of people. I have my own music copy, so I can use the music if I so choose. I can see all of the words in all of the verses, not just the one which happens to be on the screen at any given point. I can even use words from other texts as prayers if I am so moved. I sing with my head up, and the book held at an appropriate position to enable me to do so. And it doesn’t matter if I’m behind a tall person - well, it would when I’m in the pulpit, but you get my drift…

I have no problem with technology appropriately used. But let’s not forget the value of a much older technology, which is a lot more versatile than often appreciated.

6

Kim 02.04.10 at 11:52 am

Kudos to Tony. Here is what Murphy actually says on technology and hymns in her article:

“When the text of a hymn (or, more likely, a ‘praise song’) is projected onto the big screen, it can only be experienced as fragmentary and incoherent. The narrative arc of a great hymn cannot be communicated when only a few lines of text can be accommodated on each of the 30-some frames it takes to display the entire hymn.”

7

Richard 02.04.10 at 12:27 pm

I like hymnbooks too, and for exactly the reason Murphy gives. When I’m singing, I can scan ahead and see what’s coming. Sometimes I feel the need either to change what’s to be sung, or to go quiet for a moment or two. I can only do that if I’ve got some notice. Just as an example Stuart Townend’s otherwise lovely song has a couple of unsingable lines:
And on that cross as Jesus died
The wrath of God was satisfied

That, I can’t sing. Until recently I’ve simply shut up at that point, but a friend suggested amending that secod line to “The Father’s love was glorified”. Much better.

But besides that, broadly peaking I reckon hymn books are a better ‘technology’ for most churches. Not only can the be used devotionally, as Tony suggests, but they can be carried to another room or even another building without any fuss.

Yay for hymnbooks!

8

kcwc 02.04.10 at 2:14 pm

More for the pro-hymnal crowd:
Some of us can read music, and prefer to harmonize. We can’t all sing the soprano line.
I come from a Lutheran background, and my DH is Methodist; the result is that we sometimes know different words for the same tunes. The hymnal helps us resolve these little controversies. (I find the back material fascinating).
The hymnal makes excellent reading for children who are bored by the sermon.
The hymnal is, in essence, a poetry anthology that contains the history of faith expression. The book itself constructs a grand narrative which merits our attention.
*climbs off of soapbox*

9

Blue, with a hint of amber 02.04.10 at 3:15 pm

I am not sure if the auther is referring to a “big screen” or to Powerpoint.

I agree garish backgrounds flashing around are really distracting.

Powerpoint has lots of uses. Large words are easy to read. In larger auditoriums a video image of the band helps you connect with the way they are shaping worship.

These days, with the number and variety of new songs, hymn books would not be economical for us whatsoever. Not even putting fresh pages in a binder would work when we need 300 of them for a main service and use a collection of about 800 songs & hymns.

Powerpoint during a sermon also helps to put the verses used on the screen which is very helpful for newcomers and guests, who don;t know their way around the bible. That is not a problem if you have pew bibles, but plenty of newer churches don’t.

Suggesstions that hymnals help because it gives you something to do when bored and it means you can read ahead and changed the words don’t add to the argument for me, quite the opposite.

If Christians believe that the church and the worship it offers to God ought in some ways to counter the norms and practices of the surrounding culture, then what does it mean that after spending so much of our time each week in front of computer monitors, cell phones, and sports bar TVs, we come to church on Sunday and happily position ourselves in front of the biggest screen of all?

That is a total red herring. Countering the norms and practices of our culture surely if anything refers to countering the changing morality of the culture which goes against the precedence of biblical understanding. You cannot hold that view for a big screen on a Sunday when you drove your car to the Church, having had a power shower in your double glazed, centrally heated house, and then suggest that technology is is a problem…

10

Richard 02.04.10 at 5:32 pm

>> “Countering the norms and practices of our culture surely if anything refers to countering the changing morality of the culture which goes against the precedence of biblical understanding”

No, it’s much deeper than that. All the technologies you mention — all the technologies we use — shape us in profound ways. Tools transform not just what we can do, but how we think. All our technologies give us cause for reflection, and that’s should be especially true when introducing new technologies into worship.

11

Tim Chesterton 02.04.10 at 5:57 pm

Sooner or later, if we want to cut down on climate change, we’re going to have to start turning things off. Instead, in the church we’re going in the opposite direction - using more and more stuff that needs electricity - while mouthing meaningless platitudes about climate change being so bad. Time to put our money where our mouth is (and yes, I know this has implications for my personal computer and internet use!!!).

These days, with the number and variety of new songs, hymn books would not be economical for us whatsoever. Not even putting fresh pages in a binder would work when we need 300 of them for a main service and use a collection of about 800 songs & hymns.

Come on! There are over 800 hymns in our hymn book (Hymns Old and New) and 160 in our worship song book. At 5 hymns a week, it would take us about twenty years to use them all, so I don’t buy the argument that the hymn book is restricting. “Oh, but it doesn’t have that one hymn I want to use…” Do we think the Holy Spirit can’t work in the service without that one hymn?

Anyway, I’m an Anglican and the altar is the focal point of my worship, the symbol of the presence of Christ among us. If you stick up a power point presentation that immediately becomes the focal point. I don’t like that symbolism.

12

Kim 02.04.10 at 6:22 pm

You cannot hold that view for a big screen on a Sunday when you drove your car to the Church, having had a power shower in your double glazed, centrally heated house, and then suggest that technology is is a problem…

Praise the Lord and pass the greenhouse gas emissions!

Blue, I infer from your comment that you think that technology is value-neutral in worship, which is rather like a liturgical version of “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” You certainly haven’t addressed any of the issues that Murphy and Lischer raise. And when you talk about countering the changing morality of the culture which goes against the precedence of biblical understanding - well, we may be on the same page (or screen) here, but I doubt it. I suspect you do not share my view that worship, fundamentally, is not a lesson in morality but a counter-construal and re-scripting of the world, the narration of an alternative imaginary which is quite subversive of the technopolis that insidiously socialises us and shapes the sensibilities that we bring to church, not for blessing, but for exorcism.

Btw, “pew Bibles” - there is another invention of the liturgical devil! ( And I’ll bet we’re talking the NIV, right?) How about just concentrating and listening to the text being read (cf. Romans 10:17)? Otherwise the reader is there just to help each worshipper in his isolation to follow the bouncing ball through the page. If people find such focus difficult, it’s probably because they have the attention span of a gnat. And why do you suppose that is? It couldn’t have something to do with, er, technology, could it? Pew Bibles should be banned - except for the hearing-impaired.

13

Kim 02.04.10 at 6:23 pm

Thanks, Tim, for making my comment redundant! ;)

14

Pam 02.05.10 at 7:06 am

ok I get it - hands off (or rather hands on) the hymn books!!

15

Paul 02.05.10 at 7:36 am

After reading this I’ve decided just to read my story on Sunday and not experiemnt with using images to “add” something. I was in two minds, because perhaps me sitting reading wasn’t enough - enough for what I wonder? It’s also huge distracion using a screen in our building, we have to move it when we want it, and move it away again.

16

fat prophet 02.05.10 at 7:38 am

A good solid case of the for’s and against’s here with many good points being put on both sides. Can I please sit on the fence so to speak?
There are I believe merits in using hymn books and in using projection equipment and we should really bear in mind that not everyone uses power point - personally if I want to use a visual presentation it will be prepared on my Apple lap top and will certainly not be power point!
I think there is always a case for having a balance with these things - if I do use a presentation because I want to perhaps use a different hymn or sing the Psalm using the collection of Psalms written by Martin E Leckebusch then this method can be very useful and cuts down on waste paper (although there will always be a few printed copies available).
I note the comments about the numbers of hymns in the hymn book but as a musician and worshipper I would have to say that if we tried to work our way through the hymn book from cover to cover there are some hymns that are impossible to sing and some that are absolutely dire - surely one of the purpose of our weekly worship is to give us a faith lift - not easy when all the hymns have a funereal aspect.
From an observational perspective I have to say that one of our churches has and uses most of the time projection equipment and I believe the singing at that church has improved as people now look up at the screen and sing upwards rather than looking down at their hymn books and singing to the floor. (I note Tony’s comments about holding the book up but many seem to find that difficult.

17

Tony Buglass 02.05.10 at 9:23 am

Projection is a useful tool. There are times when visuals can enhance a service. There are other times when they get in the way, and the simple point of focus is all that is necessary. Paul’s comment about simply reading the story did call up the image of Ronnie Corbett in his big saggy chair - on a TV screen. (I’m sure you’re not at all like Ronnie C, Paul, but you see my point.) The problem is the temptation to use one (admittedly versatile) tool for everything - like the number of apps available for computers, which are simply not necessary, and can usually be done perfectly well the “old” way. Just because you can project something doesn’t mean you should. Simplicity can often be much more effective than sophisticated or clever.

The problem with a hymn book is the fixed contents. Having over 800 hymns doesn’t mean you can or will ever use them all. It does mean you have a chance for some to become well-known, and perhaps become loved resources for members of the congregation, tools they can appropriate themselves in worship or prayer. Years ago, when OHP was the radical new thing, I remember a woman from a progressive technology-equipped church saying she wished they did have a hymnbook, because they spent all their time learning new stuff, and rarely sang anything twice. She had no favourites any more. By all means have a supplementary collection, but don’t neglect the value of a core collection.

18

tortoise 02.05.10 at 9:24 am

Just as our use of projection software should not be uncritical, so also our use of hymn books.

With projection (whether powerpoint, video or whatever), the burden of care is upon the preacher/worship leader to ensure that it is used judiciously and in a manner that enhances rather than overloading or trivialising. But with hymnals, the burden of care falls upon every person holding a book.

It’s all very well to say that having the whole text offers the facility to read ahead, to take in the whole narrative arc of the hymn, to harmonise appropriately, to adopt a good head-up singing posture…. but to what extent does this reflect what actually happens when you give people the book?

Sadly, experience suggests that the bulk of the hymnal-holding congregation will be heads-down as if they’ve never seen the hymn before, with those who can read music doggedly following their line without regard to whether the organist is using a different harmony (although note that I’m quite prepared to accommodate a notion of Welsh exceptionalism in regard to hymn-singing!).

Which leads on to the question of pew Bibles. Kim’s point about ‘following the bouncing ball’ is aptly put, but again is symptomatic of a good resource carelessly used. For if hymnals offer the opportunity to read ahead or around, to follow a godly whim or a stirring of the Spirit that points us also to other pages, then how much more may the Bible offer such scope for richly dispersed hermeneutics.

It’s not what you use, it’s the way that you use it. Or perhaps, to quote a mantra from my days at theological college, “It doesn’t matter what you do, as long as you know why you’re doing it.”

19

Blue, with a hint of amber 02.05.10 at 9:55 am

As I said early on, I don’t really like images on powerpoint during worship. I think they look tacky, and they do nothing for our disability act audit which requires larger song words on a plain background.

Having said that, the idea that they are somehow manipulative of what the person should focus on and therefore feel at that particular time is an interesting one. Could the same not be said for stained glass windows or banners, except for the timing element? Even the architecture of some of our buildings. Is space / light not used in the design to evoke specific responses?

Sooner or later, if we want to cut down on climate change, we’re going to have to start turning things off.

I don’t disagree with that. I disagree with all the things we keep on, while singling out other things to switch off. I also think there is a strong case for green energy production. If the projector is powered by solar, is that ok?!! I don’t think any of us have an accurate idea of the cradle to grave energy production and carbon cost of printing 300 hymn books, replacing them every so often, with production of and then using a projector once a week during that time, which leaves us in a weak position.

Come on! There are over 800 hymns in our hymn book (Hymns Old and New) and 160 in our worship song book. At 5 hymns a week, it would take us about twenty years to use them all, so I don’t buy the argument that the hymn book is restricting.

We have about 6 songs written by members of our congregation. They are not in hymn books. The teenagers all go off to a summer camp and come back having been encouraged by 3-4 new songs. I am not going to say to them on their return we will sing them in March 2011 when we update the hymn books. There are often new songs which seem to gather something of what God is saying to the Church at a particular time. The sorts that appear on a Spring Harvest or Soul Survivor CD. I want to grasp hold of those songs, not wait for them to be few years old before we use them. It is a completely different view of the use songs, which requires a different technological solution. I am also not comfortable with having the number / type of songs we use restricted by a pubisher. We have songs translated into English that were originally worship songs in Sudan, South Africa and other countries, which would never make a British songbook, which is dominated by British and American songs.

Anyway, I’m an Anglican and the altar is the focal point of my worship, the symbol of the presence of Christ among us. If you stick up a power point presentation that immediately becomes the focal point.

Interesting point, and not one I really think of. I have never been a member of a Church that has had one so it is not really on my radar. Would a non churched visitor to your church understand the significance of the altar? If not, could it only serve the purpose of blessing those already in the faith while putting an obstacle to the understanding of the unbeliever? Just a question, not a viewpoint. But if I wouldn’t understand that significance for you, would they?

I suspect you do not share my view that worship, fundamentally, is not a lesson in morality but a counter-construal and re-scripting of the world, the narration of an alternative imaginary which is quite subversive of the technopolis that insidiously socialises us and shapes the sensibilities that we bring to church, not for blessing, but for exorcism

No I doubt I share that fully, although I see it’s merit.

20

Richard 02.05.10 at 12:40 pm

>>“Would a non churched visitor to your church understand the significance of the altar? If not, could it only serve the purpose of blessing those already in the faith while putting an obstacle to the understanding of the unbeliever?”

They wouldn’t understand on a first visit, no. But to an extent, all symbolism has to be learned, doesn’t it? All cultures are full of symbols and language that only mean something when you’re in. Part of the evangelical task is helping people to understand and appreciate the symbols. And the symbols we put in the central place really do matter because they are a part of what shapes us.

21

Richard 02.05.10 at 12:41 pm

[PS Can I just say that it is conversations like this one that are the real buzz of blogging for me. Thanks]

22

Blue, with a hint of amber 02.05.10 at 1:45 pm

And the symbols we put in the central place really do matter because they are a part of what shapes us.

and so the real question is how “symbolic” do people feel the screen is.

I can concur with that. The fact we are embracing a modern technological advance within our worship is actually part of our symbolism. It is a statement to the visitor.

In our case it is actuallly “symbolic” that we don’t have some of the symbols associated with other Church traditions.

Which is why I have found this discussion fascinating and thought provoking.

23

Richard 02.05.10 at 2:03 pm

>> “and so the real question is how “symbolic” do people feel the screen is”

I disagree. The real question is what the screen does in fact symbolize.

24

tortoise 02.05.10 at 2:39 pm

>> “and so the real question is how “symbolic” do people feel the screen is”

> I disagree. The real question is what the screen does in fact symbolize.

You’re making an epistemological assumption there, Richard. Do we discern “what the screen does in fact symbolize” with reference to architect’s intention, or congregation’s assumption, or commentator’s assertion? There’s a form of reader-response criticism inevitably at play here, I suggest - in which case it seems impossible to adduce objectively a referent for such a symbol as the screen in the church.

I’m all for the idea that the screen is not value-neutral, but I’m not sure appeals to objectivity will get us very far.

25

Richard 02.05.10 at 3:29 pm

You’re probably right.

Yes.

But I’d still want to say that the importance of the ’screen as symbol’ is bigger than how the people feel about it. Just because a group regard the screen as a value-neutral channel, doesn’t make it so. In fact, our inability (or unwillingness) to reflect on the symbolism of the stuff we surround ourselves with probably makes it all the more dangerous.

But you’re right that I have no grounds for appealing to objectivity.

26

Tim Chesterton 02.05.10 at 4:55 pm

Well - I go to sleep and wake up eight hours later and the comments have exploded! Sometimes time zones are not my friend!

I have a couple of things to say (well - more than a couple!).

First, altar as symbol. No, the unchurched coming in probably don’t get it right away; we have to explain it. But then, I don’t see Sunday morning as an evangelistic event, I see it as the worship of the people of God, who then go out and live the message and share the good news. Most of the evangelism that happens in our congregation gets done relationally, by me and by others.

About the power of that symbol I’m absolutely convinced. The altar symbolises the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross, which we hold up before people every week in the Eucharist. Nothing delivers the Cross to people like the Eucharist. It makes the reconciling love of God - and the call to walk the way of the Cross ourselves - central to our worship.

About hymns being unsingable and overly funereal, I think in fact the opposite is true in much modern worship music - much of it is annoyingly bubbly. This morning, when I was praying the morning Office, we prayed Psalm 69. Is there a modern worship hymn like Psalm 69? I can’t think of one. About 50% of the psalms are laments. About 50% of our congregation, on any given Sunday, are carrying heavy burdens when they come to church, and they need to be able to sing laments. Usually, we don’t give them hymns to sing in which they can be honest about those burdens before God. Instead, we ask them to sing about how joyful they feel because Jesus has made them happy for ever (that, by the way, is why I always like to have a psalm as a corporate prayer on Sundays: at least people can pray the psalm honestly).

About powerpoints and digital projectors, I’m not entirely opposed to them. Our church recently bought one, and I used it in a Christian Basics class last night. But I have already noticed one down-side to it. If I’m giving a talk in which the bullet-points are projected onto the screen by my digital projector, what if the Holy Spirit leads me to depart from the script? It’s not impossible to do that, but people who are into the groove of following along on the screen will immediately feel disoriented by it.

I suspect a lot of this has to do with the different atmosphere between smaller and larger churches. Our average Sunday attendance is 82. We’re not a ‘big production’ church.

Thanks for the discussion, all!

27

Richard 02.05.10 at 4:58 pm

>>“Sometimes time zones are not my friend!”

Yes, but isn’t trans-continental conversation exciting!

28

Kim 02.05.10 at 7:37 pm

There are now evangelical church leaders who realise that they made a big mistake in their relentless drive to make the church” relevant”, not least by removing symbols in the sanctuary (sic) sanctioned by centuries of Christian tradition. The penny has dropped that in thinning and flattening liturgical spaces such that they become more or less identical to secular spaces (from cafés to auditoria), not only is a rather ridiculous image projected (sic!) - second-rate imitation - but also and an essential witness of the communio sanctorum is lost.

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