Tune It Up: Integrating Media into Worship

In Uncategorizedby tfwm

(The Following is an excerpt from Chapter 6 of Wilson and Moore’s book, Digital Storytellers: The Art of Communicating the Gospel in Worship.)

Jason: In high school I played bass guitar in the jazz band. Sometimes the complicated riffs would throw me, and I’d get lost in the music. It wasn’t more than a few seconds after losing my place that the band director would tell us all to stop. He’d look me in the eye and say, “You dropped out! When the bottom goes, the music dies.”

It wasn’t that I was more important than anyone else; it was that each member of the band had an equally important job to do. We were all playing equally important instruments that when brought together made beautiful music.

In our view, digital media functions are much like one of the instruments in the band. Each of the components of worship has a different part to play to make the melodies and harmonies work. For instance, if you leave out the prayer in worship, one of the instruments is missing, and the music dies. Leave out the sermon, music or digital media, and the same thing happens.

Len: Unfortunately some churches write their “jazz piece” without incorporating media and then try to tack it on at the end. Have you ever heard someone try to play a lead solo over music that wasn’t written with a solo in mind? It sounds like a muddy mess. When composers write music, they must specifically compose breaks for lead solos, so when a sax or guitar takes off, it sounds like it fits. When we plan all other aspects of worship we must incorporate media from the beginning. It has to be written into the jazz of worship. Throwing sermon points or a video clip at a media minister on Sunday morning creates a muddy mess.

We should strive as digital age worship planners to give equal attention to all of the instruments of worship. The results of these efforts will make music that plays in perfect sync with melodies and harmonies that will touch the hearts of all who hear it.
Here are some ways to compose your worship service with the instrument of media…

Jason: Transitioning from one portion of worship to the next can be critical to the effectiveness of the experience. Communication studies have shown that once you’ve lost the attention of your audience it can take twenty minutes to get it back. Thus if you lose them after praise and worship, and your thirty-minute sermon follows, you may only have their attention for the last 10 minutes. Effective use of media can fill the potential holes in worship.

I liken postmodern worship to the old “pass the egg” game I played when I was in youth ministry. The game goes like this. There are two teams lined up next to each other with each team member holding a spoon. The egg has to be passed from one end of the line to the other without dropping it. The first team to get the egg to the other end wins. This should be a delicate process, but in the spirit of the game the floor is covered with scrambled eggs.

The worship moment is much like that egg for the individuals who fill our sanctuaries. When the stage is bare between elements, or someone is fumbling with a microphone, or the sound system is turned off while the band is trying to play, the egg hits the floor. A projected image (or images) on a video screen can help make the songs, sermon, and various other elements more meaningful, and also cover those egg-drop experiences.

This does not mean that there aren’t any pauses or quiet times in worship. In fact we advocate time to reflect on various pieces in worship. Using graphics and animation during some of the pauses in worship is a great way to use your video screen. A main worship graphic can be the primary graphic displayed throughout a worship experience. Think of it as a default screen that can fill the visual “holes” in worship. There is no need for your screen to be blank at any time. The “default graphic” can provide smooth transitions between elements in worship. For example, when the call to worship has finished and the musicians are on their way to their instruments, put the graphic on screen to divert the attention of your congregation as this transition takes place.

Integrate the metaphor throughout
Making the move to metaphorical presentation of the Gospel means finding ways to make the metaphor work throughout the entire worship experience. The metaphor is glue to make the Gospel message stick in the minds of worshipers. It is also the glue that makes the various elements of worship work as one. The metaphor cannot be effective if limited to the screen. This means that the worship leader’s language; the pastor’s message, the songs, and so on, must all reflect the metaphor. Of course, the metaphor must be strictly rooted in scripture.

Here are a few questions that will help you integrate the theme and metaphor:
a) Do the songs reflect the theme/metaphor?
b) How can the altar space be used to further communicate the theme/metaphor?
c) Are there any smells associated with the theme/metaphor?
d) Are there any objects that a worshiper can take with them to remember the experience?
e) Are there ways to alter sermon points, prayers, and other spoken words to make the metaphor work?
f) Can lighting be used to further integrate the theme/metaphor?
g) Can you sum up the experience in a few sentences?

Be more holistic
Len: Worship planners and leaders must become more holistic in their approach to both media in worship and worship itself. They must begin to see media as both communication and communion. As the print age became more sophisticated, it distinguished roles such as reporter, layout designer, and press operator, or as power struggles dictated, the idea people and the production people. Recent technological changes have collapsed these boundaries and brought the communication industry to an era of integration, much like the era when Shakespeare hung out in the pressroom.

Someone might say, “Well, what about the film industry, which is highly specialized?” The answer is that the real trend in film isn’t found in Hollywood and unions, (whose structural system was built fifty years ago) it’s in the democratization of digital production that is occurring everywhere. Through the iMac and the like, a whole new breed of independent filmmakers is being created.

The holistic approach applies both to skill sets as individuals, and to teams in service of the worship experience. We need not support superhero pastors who want to add digital to their skill repertoire, but rather we support empowering environments where consensus is the force that creates digital art for revealing God.

Artists of any age are holistic. They are good at the mechanics of form as well as expression. Michelangelo invented new techniques when working on the Sistine Chapel project because the project, in all its complexities, demanded a degree of craftsmanship that had previously not existed. Guy Kawaski, the Apple marketing guru, wrote Rules for Revolutionaries in which he uses the phrase “Evangineer” to describe a person that has a burning desire to change the world and the technical knowledge to accomplish it.

It is a bad idea to separate the technical group from the creative group. Some members of the community seem more interested in widgets, and other members in ideas. To truly be effective, a digital age minister must go through the painful work of learning both. I don’t mean to the point of mastery, as each of us are gifted in unique ways. Teams that work are teams that understand enough about each other’s gifts, skills, and interests in order to both communicate and empathize.

Pastors should broaden their self-conception from preacher to producer. Being a producer means one allows a team to co-construct the basic ideas of worship. This requires a great degree of control relinquishment. Give up some control. Don’t worry about not getting credit or losing the most visible aspect of your job. Realize that good worship reflects good leadership. Broaden your self-definition to include not only preaching skills but also leadership ability.

What about creating space for some bad stuff to happen? Yes, this could happen. But the essence of the team is in the core theology of the priesthood of all believers: each of us, through the work of the Holy Spirit, is able to encounter the Word of God. When people want to go crazy with their imaginations, allow them to be creative while holding them to core standards already present in the congregation, such as the mission of the church.

Sharing ownership of the worship planning function doesn’t negate the preaching function or the role of teaching in worship. Both of these remain extremely vital in our digital world. Preaching is critical to discipleship, but the three-point sermon with illustrations may not be. Try approaching your sermons more like storytelling experiences. At the same time, take broader ownership of the entire worship service. Don’t rely on the music person any more than the music person should rely on you. Work together.

Jason: Sooner or later many pastors become concerned that they will lose control. Although it shouldn’t matter, credit becomes an issue. If a pastor works with a team, then it may seem as if their role is less then it once was. The pastor, however, might be perceived as the master planner who has reconceived worship for this age. All of the successes are attributed to the pastor. I look at it much like a baseball team. The pitcher is credited with the win, even though the whole team contributed in various ways.

Len: Everyone on the team needs to exegete culture as much as one might do with scripture. To exegete means to reach in and extract the truth. Pastors are trained to do this with Scripture but not culture, though this flaw is slowly disappearing in many seminaries. We must learn how to extract truth from popular culture for the sake of completing the final step of the exegetical process, to put the truth of the Gospel back into the culture. Because we live in our current time and space, we must both pull out and push in truth with culture.

To truly exegete culture is a difficult, ongoing struggle. Culture is temporal and constantly changing. One cannot achieve a particular culture so much as one might achieve a particular moment in cultural history, which to be defined must be pointed toward a past cultural moment. This leaves the church in a position where it is never able to understand or relate to the culture of the present, which of course is what Jesus calls the church to do when it is commanded to promote the Kingdom of God. So we are not called to merely achieve or conquer a particular cultural language, but to stay in continual interaction with it for the purposes of communicating the language of the Gospel, which is both now and in the future, imminent and transcendent.

Allow the canvas for digital art to encompass the entire worship space, and not merely the drama stage or video screen.

Jason: When churches move in digital directions they often see the video screen as the canvas. The screen is an important part of painting worship, but it should by no means be understood as the sum of digital age worship. There are so many ways to paint the picture, and sometimes the screen is not even needed to transform the moment. We often encourage churches to start without installing a screen at first.

Using smell and touch as part of the experience can also make worship more effective for this culture. We’ve had coffee brewing, Jambalaya cooking, incense burning, and we’ve even sprayed perfume on bulletins to engage the sense of smell. We’ve given out paper etch-a-sketches, shells, rocks, and pennies to give people a tactile experience of the word. The possibilities are broader than cinema when it comes to the canvas of worship.

Len: Some tips:
a) Position your screen for maximum viewing. If possible, middle is best.
b) Use lighting to illuminate the speaker, but not to blind or focus on the congregation.
c) Have stereo sound.
d) Create a flat, open public speaking space, perhaps even an “in the round” structure with a runway, similar to the fashion show runway.
e) Incorporate a combination of natural and artificial light, but don’t let the natural light hit the stage or screen areas, only the worship seats.
f) Position the seats in such a way that will facilitate interaction. Don’t make two rows of seats that all face forward! Create semi-circles, or even circles.
g) Have space that can be altered to create various types of atmosphere, depending on the needs of each worship experience. This could be like a film set or theater stage, but don’t let it appear to be stark when unused, and not overly industrial or built primarily for elaborate, thematic production. The space needs to have the ability to be organic on its own, without an expensive set.