Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Formational Questions for Worship: Breaking Bread, PowerPoint, and the Christian Practice of Downloading

A few questions that have been rolling around my head over the past year relating to issues of theology, worship, practices, and formation:

1) What are the implications, theological and formational, of pre-broken individual pieces of communion bread ("bite size Eucharist") for the Lord's Supper?

2) What are the implications, theological and formational, of pre-filled individual mini-cups of wine (or "fruit of the vine") for the Lord's Supper?

3) What are the implications, theological and formational, of using PowerPoint for hymns, Scripture, and sermons?

For every decision in the life of Christians, individual and communal, I think it is necessary to ask both facets of each question above:

First, what does this practice/belief/decision/structure communicate theologically? And second, how does it form us?

The first question seeks to ground all things in theology. More to the point, it ensures that we remember that everything is grounded in theology; sometimes we simply have not yet named it. That can be good -- for example, I don't know how many churches have worked out a "theology of signing up to cook meals for sick/suffering/mourning families," but it is undoubtedly one of the most profound practices of churches today. On the other hand, it can be bad -- for example, when we make decisions based on capitalist business practices ("They need to go," or "Well, that's just the real world") and not on the gospel.

The second question reminds us that even when decisions are made with good intentions, or have a worthy goal in mind, or are grounded in excellent readings of the Bible, they still might form us in unhealthy or even ugly ways. An example -- for me of late, at least -- is the use of PowerPoint in worship. I applaud churches who have jumped on board with the fact that Christians cannot live in some idyllic past, but live contextually -- and our context is the technological centerpoint of civilization. To walk into a church devoid or ignorant of computers (and their derivative technologies) is to walk into the past; that is, to walk into a place that is not our context.

But here is where questions of formation are so important. Has anyone else noticed the way in which congregations (and here I speak out of my direct experience with a cappella churches of Christ) don't seem to be remembering the words to newer songs? Start any pre-90s song without a book or slide and everyone joins in; start a newer song and everyone seems to trail off. If I am not the only one noticing this trend, I think the culprit is clear.

We are utterly dependent on PowerPoint slides.

Think about it. Mike Cope wonderfully refers to the way in which we "download" the words of Scripture and worship into our core, to the point that they are a part of us. Thus there are passages or songs, once begun, that we can join in without thinking -- not mindlessly, but from a deeper part of our selves than cognitive memory. The words have been downloaded into our souls.

My experience with PowerPoint -- confirmed through observation of others -- is that we become mindlessly dependent on the screen. The screen goes black, or the transition is too slow ... and our voices fade away. And when the correct slide is up, where are we looking? Around, or down, or "up to God," or at the worship leader? No, we are all staring at the same spot on the projector screen. Nothing is being downloaded because it doesn't need to be; the words, seemingly omnipresent, are always provided. When there were books, one of the reasons for memorizing the words was simple: who wants to be staring down at a book all the time? PowerPoint slides seduce us into thinking we are "facing up" (or facing God!), when we are really just staring at another computer screen telling us what to do. In this case, it is to sing these words at this time. And if they disappear, we look around, unsure what to do.

Now, these are just my ruminations. I don't necessarily mean to imply that PowerPoint need be cast out of the sanctuary. I am just wondering how we might creatively address the lack of soul-downloading going on in worship.

I look forward to hearing if your experiences have been similar to mine, and what solutions you can imagine. Similarly, let me know what y'all think about my (intentionally unaddressed) reflections on the Lord's Supper. See you in the comments.

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