In the past 500 years, the dance of technological advancement and church music has moved worship from a spectacle to participatory to a spectacle again. What will be the technology that brings it back?
The Upswing of Congregational Singing
The image of church music has changed a lot over the years, mostly thanks to shifts in technology.
Before the Reformation, people listened as cantors and professionals sang in Latin (a language they did not know) and the priest interpreted the words. Music was a spectacle as the people just listened. After the Reformation put the worship experience in the common language and the new technology of the Gutenberg printing press began churning out hymns in the people’s language, then participation in worship skyrocketed.
Another shift came from the early Methodists. In the time of John and Charles Wesley, singing was a dignified thing done inside church walls in Pre-Revolutionary War England. From their field preaching and the way how they were criticized for being “rowdy” you know that meant they sung outside. These participatory hymns were highly important because they taught theology and Christian tenets to common folk who were mostly illiterate.
There’s some areas that I likely missed–I’m not an informed music commentator. But it seems to me that in the span of a few hundred years, music in worship went from an observed spectacle to a full and essential participation in worship, thanks to a happy marriage between technology and hymnody.
The Pendulum swings back…
Today, there’s some concern that worship is reverting back to spectacle and away from congregational/choral singing. Church For Men articulates the most recent bit of the history and points their finger squarely at uncritical use of Powerpoint:
About 20 years ago a new technological advance – the computer controlled projection screen – entered America’s sanctuaries. Suddenly churches could project song lyrics for all to see. Hymnals became obsolete. No longer were Christians limited to 1,000 songs handed down by our elders. At first, churches simply projected the songs everyone knew – hymns and a few simple praise songs that had come out of the Jesus Movement. People sang robustly.
But that began to change about ten years ago. Worship leaders realized they could project anything on that screen. So they brought in new songs each week. They drew from the radio, the Internet, and Worship conferences. Some began composing their own songs, performing them during worship, and selling them on CD after church.
In short order we went from 250 songs everyone knows to 250,000+ songs nobody knows…Songs get switched out so frequently that it’s impossible to learn them. People can’t sing songs they’ve never heard. And with no musical notes to follow, how is a person supposed to pick up the tune?
And so the church has returned to the 14th century. Worshippers stand mute as professional-caliber musicians play complex instruments, sung in an obscure language. Martin Luther is turning over in his grave.
The move from common-knowledge hymns to ever-shifting Top 40 Christian Contemporary songs (with less systematic theological teaching–with some exceptions) changed us back from participation to spectacle. The number of big band & worship leaders continue to rise as hymnals and church choirs are falling fast. This is not a commentary on the value of a particular style of worship (ie. worship wars circa 2002) but on the effects of shifts in worship music.
I’d like to caution, though, that I do wonder if the technology or the music leadership choices is more to blame? Having the screens project the words causes people to face and sing forward (thus louder), rather than looking down to the hymnal and trying to read music. So is it the technology or the temptation to not use familiar hymns that is to blame for a downturn in congregational singing? I would argue the latter.
Regardless, for those of us that value participatory hymnody, what is the solution?
Music as Immersion or Accompaniment?
As my own local church sees more young adults participating in worship, I actually think another technology is helping young adults find more draw to participatory hymnody: the Smartphone. Why? You carry your music with you, a soundtrack you are immersed in when you move. I occasionally listen to my Awesome 1990s Alternative mix as I walk and mass-transit from home to church. With the music seemingly coming behind me from my earbuds, I feel more immersed than I did in the actual 1990s with the big stereos. I sing along and pay more attention to the lyrics now–gosh, some of that music was terrible.
The way I consume media on my smartphone now is not accompaniment but immersion. Likewise, the shift in worship must come–as Dan Wilt articulates here–away from seeing technology as accompaniment, as that which draws the focus outward. Technology rather becomes that which immerses us and draws us inward and upward. For some it is the thousands of pipes in an old well-cared-for pipe organ. For some it is wisely chosen images projected on a screen causing visual reflection for the sermon or the hymn. For some it is the architecture of a building with high walls, exposed-wood ceilings, or stained glass. For the best, it is a combination of all three (visual, audio, kinesthetic) in tasteful, intentional ways.
Dan Wilt concludes:
Today, however, many of the Worship Immersion Culture ilk are excited to re-integrate a variety of more participatory worship experiences, from singing together, to experiencing beauty together, to weekly communion, to responsive prayers, to the passing of the peace, and much more.
They don’t need the music to accomplish all things participatory in the conventional sense of the word. They can be surrounded by the music in one moment, and breaking the bread together with a few shared words in the next. In fact, the aesthetics of the building, the type of art adorning the building, the fellowship spaces (cafe areas, etc.), and the missional spaces (food distribution areas, etc.) matter to them as much as the music. Buildings, for the Worship Immersion Culture, matter beyond their function.
My claim is that the smartphone–its immersive ability when it comes to absorbing media, not its distracting features–actually helps mimic and draw out the immersive experience that describes the worship above. If our iPod generation is used to experiencing music in that way, it is actually better for traditional hymnody and worship experience, which does the same type of music experience in a deep architectural space. Many evangelical worship services are beginning to do the same thing: though we sometimes pick on Asbury UMC in Tulsa here at HX, their new worship setup is phenomenal.
Consume or Be Consumed?
The way how we consume media has shifted significantly since the Napster days about 15 years ago: what can we learn from it for our worship experiences? While we can moan about how many bad choices and unwise uses of technology in churches have caused a decline in the use of choirs and hymnals, we can also embrace how media consumption habits (influenced by smartphones) can actually bring back an appreciation of the best aspects of hymnody and worship experience, encourage congregational singing (when it is paired with wise choices of music and implementation of technology), and embrace the best mix of presentational and participatory music in the worship experience.
I’m excited for the next few decades as we seek to undo the damage done by uncritical use of technology and worship design. I believe it is possible by careful use of technology (and appropriation of media consumption habits) to move the pendulum back to congregational singing, immersive worship, and hymnody that teaches the head as much as it incites the heart.
This is just a run-through of some thoughts on technology and worship I’ve been kicking around and I thought I would finally throw the spaghetti against the wall and see what sticks.