Worship in the Digital Age
Len Wilson is a nationally
recognized pioneer in communicating the gospel to digital
His latest book, co-authored
with Jason Moore, is Digital Storytellers: The Art of Communicating
the Gospel in Worship (Abingdon Press, 2002).
Len is also the best-selling
author of The Wired Church: Making Media Ministry (Abingdon
Press, 1999), which church growth guru Lyle Schaller called
"the most important book of the next three years"
on its publication in 1999.
An award-winning digital
artist, Jason Moore continues to establish new styles for
visual imagery in worship that he hopes will help the church
reach the culture we live in.
and member of the worship design team at Ginghamsburg Church
from 1997-2000, Jason brought a fresh approach to the use
of digital media that raised the bar for artistic standards
Jason was the lead designer
for the CD-ROM of the best-selling book, The Wired Church:
Making Media Ministry and has completed projects for such
organizations as The Fuller Institute, Easum Bandy and Associates
and Abingdon Press.
Len and Jason were in
Dallas, Texas, for a conference, and we arranged a meeting
not far from the United ticket counter at the Dallas airport
to talk about the digital age.
HOMILETICS: In your book you speak of significant
paradigm shifts in history such as the development of Roman
roads that facilitated communication and the transmission
of ideas, Gutenberg and his little printing press. Now the
digital age. Are we stuck with this new paradigm whether we
like it or not. Can pastors ignore the digital shift or can
we sputter on and do business as usual?
WILSON: A lot of pastors choose not to. The
average member of a United Methodist church, for example,
is about 70 years old. If pastors are reaching that age group
and don't want to reach anyone else, fine. More power
to them. They'll have a ministry for another 10-20
years before their congregations die.
HOMILETICS: We need to learn the
language of the culture.
MOORE: People out there haven't grown
up on Christianese. We have to meet them where they're at
in order to begin a discipleship process, and that begins
with worship. So pastors have to be students of the culture
in order to reach it.
WILSON: Part of the evangelistic mandate is
to constantly change, and that is hard for anyone to do. We
tend to prefer the horse we rode in on. It's the conflict
between innovation and institutionalism. Part of what has
been happening in the broader sense in past generations culturally
and now the church is dealing with this
is to choose between institutionalism and death and innovation
MOORE: In his book, Unfreezing Moves, Bill Easum
talks about how the church basically has frozen in time and
has a certain style of worship and wants to protect that.
A lot of the churches we deal with have a definition of worship
that works for them slap a label on it and call it
worship and hide it away somewhere where it's unapproachable
and untouchable. You have to tear that label off the box and
create something fresh all the time.
WILSON: There's historical precedence
for that, too. The Gutenberg press, for example, there were
about three generations between the invention of the press
and when Luther nailed his theses on the door of the Wittenberg
church. At the same time, the Roman church was using the new
technology to perpetuate the status quo, the modern-day equivalent
of using television to host round-table theological studies.
They were using the printing press to get out the Latin mass,
whereas others were translating Scripture into local languages.
HOMILETICS: How many churches
are plugged in?
WILSON: We've heard a variety
of stats. Sounds and Communications, a secular magazine, says
that about 75 percent are plugged in some way or other. Some
church-based research says half to two-thirds of churches
are plugged in somewhere on the continuum: either they're
thinking about it, already purchased it, or they're
well into it already.
MOORE: That survey probably includes
projectors and screen, although some churches claiming to
be plugged in are still using overhead projectors.
HOMILETICS: What kind of resistance
do you encounter? What kinds of arguments do you come against?
Is this stuff of the devil, like television was for many Christians
50 years ago?
WILSON: They used to say that. When I
first started speaking about this, there was a lot of that.
You had to provide a lot of justification for this new media.
In the past three years, there is a lot less of that. People
get bored now during the "vision" part of our
presentation, and they want to dive right into technique.
MOORE: Some of the resistance is more
practical: How much does it cost? How much time will it take?
Will we need to add staff? We've seen churches that
have used creative ways to get around the financial questions
and the architecture question: Where will we put the screen?
One church had a cross, and they hung the screen over the
cross with a picture of the cross so that it was almost as
though the screen was see-through.
WILSON: That's transitional stuff.
Eventually people realize that the wooden cross on the wall
is an artistic representation and is no different from a cross
on a screen. But people sanctify stuff and make those things
holy. And they're not. They're just mediums.
MOORE: Maybe 50 years down the road people
will look at the screen in the same sanctified way. "You're
not touching our screen." [laughter] But we don't
think that should happen either. I really think that the church
of the future will look at the screen the same way they look
at altar dressing, books and stuff.
WILSON: It's interesting that
you said that because ultimately I'm not even sure
we're going to be screen-dependent in the future. I
think visuals are going to be around us, more immersive
HOMILETICS: I can't wait
for holographic worship! [laughter]
WILSON: We went to Universal Studios
a few years ago. They have a brand-new theme park there called
Islands of Adventure, opened in 1999. There's a new
show there called Poseidon's Fury. And it's
really interactive: a storyteller, there's sound all
around you, you walk through these immersive experiences.
And one part of it is that they're projecting images
on waterfalls while the storyteller is connecting with the
images on the waterfalls. So when we talk about digital worship,
eventually we want people to get away from the idea of a 3
by 4 screen in front of them, to think more immersively so
that images and actions, stories, metaphors are happening
all around them throughout the experience.
MOORE: People are sometimes shocked to
hear us say that digital age worship is not necessarily screen-dependent.
Digital age is different from digital technology. Digital
culture is different from digital technology. Your worship
experience can have digital age components without having
a screen. So metaphor, story, smell, taste and touch are more
important than a fabric screen hanging on the wall, or a 300,000
HOMILETICS: So is preaching dead?
WILSON: I've heard it said that
preaching is dead in the digital age that no one
wants to listen to an orator for 20-30 minutes. While it is
true that the "lecture" in the academic sense
no longer holds as much of a place in our culture, preaching
is far from dead. It has mutated. Look at the stand-up scene:
The newest thing is called "Def Poetry," a combination
of stand-up comedy, poetry readings, rap and oratory. So preaching
is alive and well, just not boring, monotone manuscript reading.
Now we need music, rhyme, images, and most of all, passion.
HOMILETICS: Let's talk
about the small church and the digital age. To pull this off
the way you describe it, wouldn't a church almost need
someone like you to handle this? not to speak of
cost and other factors that might seem prohibitive for a small
WILSON: We were at a large church at
Ginghamsburg, and there was the perception early on that this
was a large church phenomenon. But as Wired Church came out
in the late '90s, we saw that the large percentage
of people are in small to medium-sized churches. That's
where a lot of innovation is happening. Perhaps it's
because institutionally people have less to lose in a small
church. We don't think it's a large church phenomenon
whatsoever. Sometimes from an institutional perspective, vision
is hindered in a large church environment. The pastor may
be innovative, but the culture of the large church itself
may be very institutional.
MOORE: I'm volunteering right
now at a church of about 80-100 that meets in the YMCA, and
we set up the screen, projector and stage every week, and
size has no bearing on that at all.
HOMILETICS: Because they've
WILSON: Not to shamelessly plug our books,
but that's part of the reason we do what we do, and
why we wrote the books to provide professional level
resources for churches who don't have a professional
HOMILETICS: Okay, so I'm
sold. How do I sell this to my congregation?
WILSON: One of my favorite stories is
about a church in Oregon a few years ago. The pastor wanted
to get more involved in digital worship. So he rolled out
some TVs for the sermon, hooked it up to a VCR which he put
by the pulpit, and at the right point, hit "play."
He didn't do anything for about six weeks. Then he
did it again and waited for about four weeks. Soon lay persons
came to him and said, "Hey, we want more of this."
So it was sort of a grass-roots movement. Too many churches
buy $100,000 worth of equipment, have one big glorious grand
opening and they crash and burn. Instead of letting the ideas
drive the technology and not the other way around.
HOMILETICS: So go slow?
WILSON: Not slow, but strategic.
MOORE: There are acceptable times to
experiment and do something different, like Christmas or Easter,
or something with a youth Sunday. Adults love to see kids
excited about their faith. So if the kids are using the media,
they are affected positively. The other thing I'd say
is to practice, practice, practice. You don't get a
second chance to make a first impression. If the first time
is a bomb, then you've done damage from which you may
never recover. You just feed the naysayers' argument
if you mess up.
HOMILETICS: Do some pastors abuse,
or misuse, the technology?
WILSON: One time we were speaking at
a church, and the media person was really excited to show
us what he had produced for the previous week's sermon.
So he pulled up his Power Point file and showed us 75 slides
for the pastor's sermon, and every sentence was flying
across the screen. [laughter].
MOORE: Often, the screen is underused.
It's used primarily for Scripture or song lyrics. This
is a sad misuse of the resources of the church. Basically
you have a big bulletin board up on the screen, functioning
as a hymnal replacement or Bible replacement not even
a replacement; it's just a repeat. The Bible or hymnal
is in front of you or you can look at the screen.
HOMILETICS: So what should they
MOORE: They should be doing artistic
metaphorical, story-based imagery. Just a week ago at the
church I am serving, the reading was about Philip and the
Ethiopian eunuch, and they were traveling on the road. Rather
than put the words on the screen, I did a rendition of a road
with a city off in the distance, a desert, cloudy sky. Afterward,
people came to me. "That was so neat. I could picture
myself on that road." That is more memorable than sticking
a bunch of text on the screen. An image puts people in that
place and makes it a memorable experience.
WILSON: In the movie theater business,
you see a movie and you go out afterward and talk about it.
But if the church ran the movie theater business they'd
have someone come down after the movie was over, and sit on
a stool and explain to the audience what they just saw
instead of allowing them to be immersed in the experience.
MOORE: Or, the church would put each
line of the script up on the screen as the lines are spoken!
Using the screen like that makes the screen tiresome.
HOMILETICS: Is digital technology
in worship just another component of Worship Lite?
WILSON: Some churches have made worship
shallow. We don't understand why contemporary worship
means no Bible. There will be 30 minutes of worship, and then
a message, but the congregation isn't involved in the
MOORE: Some fear grows out of seeker
worship and the notion that the Bible offends seekers. But
it's not the Bible that offends seekers, it's
the presentation of the Bible that offends seekers. We need
to redeem the culture, not rip off the culture. We've
seen "Who Wants to be a Churchionaire?" or something.
If people walk out of the church and all they remember is
a television show, we've failed.
WILSON: These same folks might have criticized
Jesus, too, because he chose not to do ministry in the temple
but out on the street using the parable model, where he was
basically telling stories. Mark 4 is a great example of this,
because Jesus has this long story about the sower, and the
disciples came to him afterward privately and asked him to
deconstruct the story for them privately. Then, the Bible
says that Jesus went out and continued to teach in parables.
So he was committed to the story form, and some people might
consider that shallow because it didn't include the
MOORE: One of the things we heard at
Ginghamsburg is that we thought the metaphor was more important
than Scripture. Sometimes we might have given them reason
to think that, because if you don't do the hard work
of making a metaphor work and be rooted in Scripture, then
you really do a disservice to Scripture.
WILSON: It's odd for people to
say that, because in many ways Scripture is metaphor. The
Word of God is represented metaphorically throughout Scripture:
The Holy Spirit is a dove, God is a burning bush, and so on.
You have to understand the concept of metaphor in story. There
are different types of metaphors. There's the ornamental
metaphor that is something to hang your text on: three points
and some illustrations. Then there's the overarching
metaphor. To better understand this, think about a story motif,
like in Forrest Gump, the box of chocolates, or the feather.
So those are sort of overarching motifs that are present in
the story. It's a better way to understand metaphor
than the hermeneutical way we were taught in seminary. On
top of that there's the story level. We prefer not
to take a proof text and do commentary on that, but take instead
a biblical story and recast that in contemporary ways.
MOORE: Integration is really important.
When you take a metaphor, you can't expect most of
the service to focus on the metaphor, and the pastor comes
in and preaches on something totally different. Or, refer
to the metaphor only at the very beginning. The metaphor must
become the story that weaves throughout the entire service
from beginning to end. One experience we designed at Lumicon
is called "Good to Go," and it's about
Peter's story where Jesus asks him after the resurrection,
"Do you love me?" after Peter had returned to
his day job. The metaphor we used was the astronauts leaving
the confines of earth and stepping on the moon. We led worship
with this metaphor once, and the person who started worship
told about where he was when Armstrong landed on the moon.
The congregation sort of leaned in to each other to tell their
story. Throughout the worship experience we had clips from
Apollo 13. The problem in this service when we did it recently
was the pastor never referred back to the astronauts. He didn't
help bring people along, some missed opportunities there to
take a great message and make it spectacular
HOMILETICS: You know pastors!
They just don't get it. [laughter]
MOORE: No, he was usually really good
HOMILETICS: Have you had to preach
Sunday after Sunday after Sunday?
MOORE: I've had to come up with
graphics every Sunday that's hard!
HOMILETICS: I'm not overly
fond of the word "contemporary."
WILSON: For most people "contemporary"
means non-fifties liturgy, so "contemporary"
is anything else. For some people contemporary means Kum Bah
Yah and guitars.
MOORE: The root of "contemporary"
is "temporary," suggesting that it's
always changing. It's not a defined thing. So it can
mean acoustic guitars and Kum Bah Yah to monk chants and pipe
organs with a beat in the background.
HOMILETICS: Speaking of pipe organs,
what does a person do who prefers pipe organs, and the stained
glass, the liturgy, the Latin mass? Are they left out in the
MOORE: Sometimes churches attempt to
be all things to all people. They really shouldn't.
There is a place for traditional worship. It doesn't
speak to me, but it speaks to my mom. Sometimes she gets a
little distracted by all the media. Sometimes we've
seen churches attempt to do blended worship, and it can really
become a mess. It's better to split it up, or you'll
end up alienating both groups.
HOMILETICS: There's something
that's vaguely Western, middle-class, bourgeois about
these trends. Surely, the Dalit Christians in India aren't
too stressed about worship styles and the like. But we Americans
have to have worship the way we like it, or we're out
WILSON: You have to minister in the culture
in which you live. So we don't apologize for that.
We live in the United States. It's interesting, though,
that what we're talking about in some ways is more
Eastern, in terms of being exposed to the mystery of God's
presence. And we do get e-mails we got one from a
pastor in Russia a couple days ago interested in
what we're doing.
HOMILETICS: Final word?
WILSON: The one thing is to work with
a team. Don't do preaching like you've always
done it and meet with the music leader on Saturday afternoon
and see what they're going to do, everyone doing their
own thing. Relinquish control and begin to meet with whole
groups of people and allow synergy to develop. Design worship
with all the players involved.
MOORE: The team-based approach is crucial.
Basically it's a call to be the body of Christ. My
pastor tells me that my gifts as an artist are as important
as his as the preacher. I might suggest some music for worship;
the musicians might suggest some graphics. It doesn't
mean I have my realm and I get to control that. But we always
take ownership of it as a team. That's a very important
component for working in a digital age culture and designing
worship for the digital age.