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Projection Screens in Churches: Musings on the Sign and the Thing Signified

by Carson T. Clark on July 15, 2010

It has long been my practice that the first thing I do when I walk into a church sanctuary or chapel is scan the walls for projection screens. Though my preferences have changed rather markedly over the years, I’ve found such screens to be good indicators of what’s to come. When I was a child and a teenager their presence excited me. They signaled a church that had departed from dead tradition, monotonous hymns, and a church culture geared for the elderly. A projector was a welcomed sight. It suggested that the innate boredom of a church service would be mitigated. I was able to let my guard down and be a little more comfortable. Now in my mid-20s, when I catch sight of one I shudder, following by an immediate bracing for a couple hours of pure annoyance.

My wick for low church worship forms has been completely burned up. 25 years of low church evangelicalism will do that, especially when one’s adolescent years were spent within Pentecostalism–evangelicalism’s more potent and concentrated form. I’m weary of singers who awkwardly stand on a stage as though they were performing a concert, people-centered songs that emphasize people’s experience in worshiping rather than the God who is being worshiped, “special music” that guilts people into giving money, preachers who mislead people as they rant and rave with half-truths and use youtube clips in a ploy to be culturally relevant, altar calls that emotionally manipulate people into psychological frenzies, evangelistic spiels that miss the point that a Sunday morning worship service is for believers, architecture and decor that are so utilitarian as to lack almost any aesthetic/artistic value that both points to God and reflects His creative nature, rambling prayers that are just, well, supposed to be, just, like, more sincere because they are just, you know, just spontaneous, and, most of all, the pep rally feel where it seems the implicit purpose is to pump the Christians up on some sort of church camp-like high in order to defeat the devil in the upcoming week’s football game of life. Such things long-ago chafed my soul to the point of… well, I don’t know what is past exasperation, but whatever it is that’s where I’m at. Any suggestions for the word?

By contrast, I’m desperate for high church services. I long for contemplative saturation in God’s Word, communal recitation of creeds as was the norm for the first 18 centuries of Church history, sacramental worship that unites Christians in the Eucharist and reminds believers of Christ’s redeeming death, and an overall atmosphere that confronts the excesses of our hyperactive culture and, instead, offers a sense of peace, serenity, mediation, calm, and overall sense of “otherness.” These things relieve my angst and provide spiritual peace. You’ll hear no denial from me that I’m still regularly bored in such environments, but when given the choice between boredom and annoyance I’ll go with the former every time.

Is it possible that a high church worship service would use a projector screen effectively? Yeah, I suppose. But I’m not sure I’d want them to. I’m down with Christianity Unplugged.

  • Dave McLennan

    Seems to me that Anglicanism offers something that should be really attractive to a barren, secular culture. Rather than an embarrassment to shy away from, ‘high’ worship, with all its connectedness to the past and its implicit message that ‘there really is more to life than me and my entertainment’ is arguably our best evangelistic weapon. And that’s on top of it making for wonderful and respectful worship.

    I reckon any half-competent marketing specialist could tap a rich vein here. Instead though, most evangelicals view traditional worship as like having a dead albatross around their neck. In ditching it, they lose their best asset which, even from a crass marketing perspective, is dumb.

    Typically, I can’t imagine that I’m wrong. But virtually every other evangelical Anglican I know (at least here in Sydney) seems to think it self-evidently ain’t so. What to do?

    I look to you, friend, with baited breath, to provide the answer. Thanks again for another stimulating post.

    God bless.

    • Carson T. Clark

      Ya know, as much as anything I think it’s just a response to the cultural presupposition that new = better. Can’t speak to how prevalent that is in Australia, but here it’s one of the dominant cultural impulses–seems to drive the entire economy and society. So to look back at the old–history, tradition, etc.–with value truly is counter-cultural. Especially for people who didn’t grow up in the Anglican tradition, I think they almost see it as a point of embarrassment or awkwardness. Of course, that’s probably better than the snobbish condescension that one often finds among cradle Episcopalians here, anyway.

  • Henry Neufeld

    While I don’t particularly mind not having a screen, high church + high tech could describe the service I attend primarily, ICON at First UMC in Pensacola. We follow a largely high church liturgy and celebrate the Eucharist weekly, but we have a “contemporary” band leading worship. They do use a mix that includes more traditional music as well. Though I’m past 50, the average age of those who attend is well below mine; I’d guess in the 30s.

    So while I like the elements of the liturgy and the weekly Eucharist, the application of technology doesn’t bother me at all.

    I’ve found that many people my age seem to prefer the opposite of what they grew up with. Like you, I grew up with the evangelical low-church style, and I really like ICON. My wife grew up Catholic, and while she accepts ICON, she’s impatient with the more formal elements.

    • Carson T. Clark

      It’s always interesting to me that people seem to polarize on their adolescent worship experiences. They either *love* them or *hate* them. Rarely, it seems, are people ambivalent or dispassionate about this issue.

      Just to be clear, in much of life I distinguish between the objective value of a thing and the subjective value I place on it. For example, I recognize that Shakespeare has indescribable objective value. His works beautifully capture the human condition like few others, there’s tremendous aestheticism, etc. The truth, however, is that I don’t like it. (I’m sure a good part of that has to do with my learning disability–lack of phonological awareness.) Yet, subjectively, I absolutely love the movie Dumb & Dumber, which I readily acknowledge has little objective value. Applied to church worship practices, I don’t think everything is relative but I’m also upfront that just ‘cuz I don’t like a particular style doesn’t mean it doesn’t have value or isn’t useful. Personally, I just don’t like technology in my worship. I like stripping it down–no projectors, electric guitars, etc. Yet I recognize that through them many, many people are working God. One I’m saying is that for me, where I am on my faith journey, I can’t stand that stuff…. I hope that distinction I’m trying to make is clear. I’m trying to affirm things I don’t like while not backing down from my own dislike of it.

  • Greg Jeffers

    I am with you. I feel exactly the same way.

  • Kim Larsen

    Preach it my brother! Can I get an amen?!

    Sorry. had to.

  • Matthew Brench

    It’s always interesting to me that people seem to polarize on their adolescent worship experiences. They either *love* them or *hate* them. Rarely, it seems, are people ambivalent or dispassionate about this issue.

    Aren’t you glad you met me… 😛 I’m pretty okay with my childhood church home, the classic New England congregational church in a small town in Eastern-Central Mass. I know full well what I like and don’t like about that place, and the low-church-ness (no Sacramental concepts whatsoever, no tangible connection to the rest of the Church, no oversight besides local laymen, let alone Apostolic succession) of it is certainly a key issue for me. But their order of service, balance between modern songs & classic hymns, and general worship tenor was pretty decent. I say ‘decent’ in comparison to the carefully-crafted liturgies of the Catholic traditions; it always seemed quite superior to other churches I visited.

    Anyway, the point of that ramble was to get to the projector screen. The way they used it was usually great, and perhaps is worth pointing out in a forum such as this.
    + Song lyrics for the modern songs, of course, were put up, usually with cheesy background pictures. I find this distracting in worship, because the pictures are usually pretty ‘fluffy’ images (not that beautiful landscapes don’t point me to worship the Creator, but it’s too much of a non-sequitur for me).
    + Hymn lyrics often go up too, which is understandable when the vast majority of people today are music illiterate. Looking at the hymnal is nearly pointless for those who can’t read music. But sometimes the hymn’s lyrics are typed up wrong, or copied from a website with different verses than the hymnals, which causes horrible confusion on those occasions. Not a necessary thing, if you ask me.
    + Sermon notes, outlines, and visuals go up too. I think only once or twice did I see a video as part of that – the pastor there wasn’t very tech-savvy – but it wasn’t bad. The key to it, though, was not whether he was or was not trying to be hip, but his style of preaching.

    It’s the preaching style that makes or breaks the use of power point, in my opinion. Preachers who are focused on “evangelizing an audience” and “proclaiming the gospel” are inevitably going to use audio/visual resources to illicit peoples’ emotions and consciences to “make a commitment” to Jesus. Preachers who are focused on lecturing on the biblical text(s) will use audio/visual resources to emphasize their main bullet points, display block quotes they want to read, and show pictures of the places or people they may happen to talk about or quote. The former style is probably more popular these days, and what you’re reacting against. The latter style is pretty dry and although may increase comprehension, does little to combat boredom. A more dynamic middle ground, I suspect, would be ideal.

    Just think of all the small Anglican church plants who don’t have their own buildings and won’t be able to afford it for a while yet. Although this could run the risk of insane cheesiness, wouldn’t it be awesome to be able to project “stained-glass windows,” icons, and other traditional visuals that can be used in worship? Especially if the preacher actually makes use of them in the course of a sermon.

  • Mike Barden

    I grew up Lutheran, and to this day (I am 43) I still think liturgy is boring and silly. My wife is outright post-traumatic in the presence of high church tradition. I attend a church with electric guitars (i play) and a screen. Why? It makes sense to me and it’s consistent with my relationship with God. That said, I’m not trying to one-up because I don’t think my preferences are better than yours. I just think these things are more rooted in personality and culture more than anything else.

  • FrChris Larimer

    Matthew: What you are describing is exactly what we do at Holy Apostles. We meet in a converted store front, so adding iconography is easy. I have so many stained-glass images on my hard-drive I sometimes have trouble sorting them!

    We display the hymns on a screen simply because, when we started, we were a church in a box. Lugging around 50+ hymnals seemed excessively wearying and we didn’t have the money to buy them. (That’s nearly $1,000 while a screen and projector come in under $500!)

    I use the visuals a lot in my childrens sermon. I normally have visuals for every reading, and for the collect. I shy away from cheezy backgrounds. Simple monochromatic backgrounds work well…and I change them out with the liturgical colors. I have started to insert some texts (longer passages of Scripture and – last week – bullet points). So far, I’ve had lots of positive feedback.

    But we are a traditional church in most every sense. I’m using the screens to add to our visual elements since we don’t have a traditional building. When it comes time to construct a building, I imagine it will also have screens and projectors. But their use will change – more to announcements and to welcome stuff that runs on auto during gathering times. And, probably, for sermon enhancement.

  • Jim

    Google ad on the bottom of your post is classic!

    Live Church Streaming
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  • Lynn

    My church, a southern Baptist church, is contemplating a screen, projector, etc for the sanctuary. A committee has been formed to explore the possibility, and to gather opinons from the church members. They will report back at the next conference, where decisions like these are made. That is when the members’ voices are heard, although you may be outvoted at any time, depending on the subject at hand.

    Our church does need to grow. We have suffered in a variety of ways in the last couple of years, and we have just received our new pastor, after being without one for a year. It is HE who wants the screen and such. You should have heard the low gasps and seen the looks when it was first brought up. I would say that our congregation is able to seat about 250, comfortably. Our choir right now has a membership of approx. 16 in it. It is not a large church, and it is beautiful inside. Putting up a screen would cover up the gorgeous woodwork behind the pulpit and choir loft, that was painstakingly restored years ago.

    I don’t think our church is big enough for a screen, and frankly, I don’t want to read the lyrics to hymns on a screen, or read scripture on it, either. Our pastor does an outline to his sermon, and I have a feeling he wants projection for that, among goodness knows what else.

    I like the traditions of the older hymns, and the more traditional style service. With the possibility of the screen, I foresee our services becoming contemporary…with the congregation standing up and looking up at the screen while praise song lyrics are projected. And, I foresee older members leaving…even middle aged ones, like me.

    You don’t have to have a screen to reach out to more youth, to get the message across, to bring more to Christ’s Fold. It won’t enhance my worship experience. I may seriously look at going to another church if the motion passes.

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