I've had an unusually-busy summer as a United Methodist lay speaker, and it's struck me how much technology has affected even churches.
I'm amazed at how many churches, even small-membership, rural churches, now have some sort of screen system -- either a digital projector or flat-screen televisions, depending on how the church is laid out and how large the sanctuary is. The screens are used for announcements as people gather, and then during the service they're used to display hymn lyrics, Bible verses, illustrations to complement the sermon, "Welcome to [name of church]" messages, and what have you.
As with any change, this one has had its supporters and its opponents over the years. I recall reading, many years ago, a laundry list of objections from centuries past about how the use of sheet music or hymnals was going to be the end of religion as we know it, how it was just a money-making scheme designed to take advantage of the church, how it would take focus away from the meaning of the service, and so on.
Some of those same arguments are made against the use of screens in church. I found a passionate blog post at realrealityzone.com stating the blogger's opposition to this type of technology:
"Instead of the focal point of the service being the pulpit and the altar and the baptismal font -- the places where the Word is proclaimed and the gifts of God are distributed -- the focal point is the big screen at the front of the sanctuary. Instead of drawing people's attention to the place where God comes down to us, the screen draws people's attention to the things we are doing. If there is a way to not make the screen the focal point, I would be very interested to hear how that could be done."
I recall reading a more academic treatment of the topic, which was also skeptical of the trend towards screens and its impact on reverent worship, but I couldn't track it down while writing this column.
Even so, it looks like the toothpaste is out of the tube. This change has already happened, and there's little chance of undoing it. A new generation has grown up with TV and computer screens as a part of life, and naturally expects information that way.
I spoke at a large church in Tullahoma last month, and I saw what may be the next step down the road. The choir director and assistant choir director at that church, instead of carrying hymnals, carry iPads with hymnals loaded onto them. They could quickly call up any hymn, or the choir's special music. The choir members still used traditional hymnals, as did the congregation.
The church of which I'm a member has a somewhat condescending message in the bulletin each week prohibiting texting, tweeting or use of personal electronic devices. But imagine, a few years down the road, that most people own some sort of tablet. I can easily see a company marketing software that will let you bring your personal tablet into the sanctuary and automatically use it to display the proper hymn or responsive reading or scripture passage. Will that also open the door to other uses of the device? Will people use Twitter to give their reactions to the sermon even as it's being preached? Will they look up additional information on some topic mentioned by the preacher? Some of that may go on at some churches today, given the proliferation of smartphones.
Technology changes so many aspects of our life, and -- for better or worse -- it may also be changing the way we worship.
--John I. Carney is city editor of the Times-Gazette and covers county government. He is also the author of the self-published novel "Soapstone." His personal web site is lakeneuron.com.