Technology in Worship: Friend or Foe?
By: Sherri Gragg
The Rev. Kate Walker, Deer Park UMC, is searching for ways to make church more interactive and technology is paving the way. Two large screens flank the front of the sanctuary, drawing the congregation’s eyes upward during worship, where they conveniently find song lyrics and sermon visuals including Mentimeter, a new cutting-edge interactive presentation software. A company representative told us that Walker is one a small number of pastors in the USA to use this Swedish developed communications technology in worship.
A short 20-mile drive away, Holy Family UMC embraces an alternative philosophy of technology. Although the church is active on Instagram and Twitter, and has a modern and beautiful website, Sunday mornings take a decidedly different approach to utilizing technology during worship. Instead of screens, worshippers hold detailed and carefully designed bulletins that go far beyond announcements and the order of service. “We decided to produce a handheld bulletin that put everything they'd need to know to fully, actively, and consciously participate in the Liturgy,” the Rev. Jacob Breeze said.
Hospitality is the Goal
Holy Family UMC thoughtfully considered every detail of their worship bulletin from content, to font size and layout with their guests in mind. The goal is hospitality. Visitors find not only the order of service, but helpful instructions on how to fully participate including a special FAQ section that answers common concerns so that guests feel more comfortable. Breeze says Holy Family wants to “break down barriers” that limit first-time visitors from taking part in worship.
In his personal experience, he has found screens a distraction. “Screens typically made me wonder, ‘How many slides are coming today?’ Or as soon as a slide was slow or fast it kills the vibe. With a bulletin each worshipper follows along at their own pace.”
He is quick to assert, however, that the extent to which a church incorporates technology in worship is neither right nor wrong but a matter of church culture and preference. “I don’t care if you use screens or bulletins as long as whatever you use, you do so because you decided this particular tool will best help you serve first-time visitors,” he said.
Know Your People
Walker agrees. “Everything you do, technology or not, is contextual,” she said. “What works for a high church service may not work in a contemporary environment. You have to know your people.”
At Deer Park UMC, Walker has found her contemporary service is especially excited about a new interactive software program she has introduced- Mentimeter. After experiencing the technology in other formats, Walker was eager to see how it would boost interactivity during her sermon. Mentimeter is simple to use. The only requirement for the people in the pews is to have a tech device, such as cell phone, with them. The pastor then provides a code which allows everyone to join the conversation. “We decided to use it on a Thursday,” Walker said, “and it ran fine the next Sunday.” In a recent sermon series, “What’s Up with That? Tough Questions of Faith,” Walker utilized Mentimeter to encourage congregants to not only submit their questions concerning faith, but to help participate in providing answers for others.
Walker says Mentimeter has generated a lot of energy during Sunday worship. The congregation, particularly younger members, are more engaged with the content. An additional benefit is that it allows those participating at home through live stream to feel more of a part of the service.
Technology can be distracting, even addictive. Most Americans can relate to the experience of sitting down to scroll through their phones for “a moment” only to look up and realize they have been lost in memes and GIFs for far longer than they intended. Walker insists the issue is not the technology itself, but our intentions in using it. It is essential, she says, to take time to truthfully consider the “why” behind our use of it.
“Anytime you choose something as a distraction, that is what it will be,” she said, “Part of the reason we have picked up technology and will keep doing it is the realization that we have to reach multiple generations. You can fight the battle all you want, but teens will have a phone in their hands. If we try to eliminate technology completely, we are sending them a dangerous message- ‘Church is not interested in this thing that is a huge part of your life.’ If we want them to engage, we will have to be in that relevant space with it.”