Friday, 7 August 2020  
  HOMILETICS INTERVIEW: Len Wilson and Jason Moore  

Worship in the Digital Age

Len Wilson is a nationally recognized pioneer in communicating the gospel to digital culture.

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.

As animator/illustrator 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 in worship.

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 and life.

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 lumens projector.

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 church.

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 got you!

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 level staff.

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 be doing?

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 Word.

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 deconstruction.

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 at it.

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 cold?

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 the door.

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.




Len Wilson

Jason Moore



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