How To Be A Luddite Iconoclast

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I am convinced that one of the favorite pastimes for American Christianity is fear and self-loathing, and it is never afforded a better opportunity than when the Pew polling data on the state of religion in America comes out.

Then come the predicable laments from some quarters about how the culture is packing up the hand basket to take a picnic to Hell, the rationalizations from other quarters about how the ones who are leaving and who have left were never really there to begin with and so the decline of Christianity in America has its silver linings, and of course the opinion pieces about What Millennials Really Want, along with tactical means of compelling them to darken the doors of our churches.

Apparently- so the data leads some to think- an emerging trend for those millennials who are going to church is that they tend towards the liturgical and the ancient, which, it would seem from what I read, is meant to correspond to the meaningful and the authentic. This, naturally, is contrasted with the worshiptaintment of used-to-be contemporary churches- especially megachurches- which presumably value showmanship over real-ness.

And so in many of the articles and blogs I read and forums I frequent I have come across this sort of question: given the trend of what sorts of churches and worship seem to be reaching the few millennials who are in church, what are our churches going to do in response?

This could burgeon (as it nearly always does!) into a lengthy post, but one aspect I have found interesting is how the question relates to the use of technology in worship. I have critiqued modern worship services on similar fronts on a number of occasions, but in some respect it has always been from a distance. While I have been deeply involved in music, worship planning, preaching and production in the past, none of those form my current career, and in that respect the critique comes easily. But to offer a more fully fleshed out critique of technology in worship cuts to what is essentially my bread and butter, since my livelihood is at present predicated on the use of digital technology in worship.

Now, I must confess to feeling a bit double-minded here. I have always been fascinated by the worship and liturgy of the ancient church; here in these digital pages I have tried to bring some of the most ancient Christian thought to light. (That reminds me- I need to do some more church father paraphrases!) I would like nothing more than to have more and more modern Christians rediscover their historical Christian heritage and pedigree and be fully submerged into its ethos and praxis (and no doubt I could stand to so more myself).

I’ll also be honest here: if I had my choice and my way (and it’s no doubt good that I do not), I’d probably be inclined do the 21st century rendition of iconoclasm and strip the digital altars bare, tear out the projectors, start my own wax farm and fill the churches with candles. In my dizziest daydreams I’d also probably smash all the guitars and drums and basically any instrument I could get my hands on and, *ahem*,  permanently“redact” all the modern songs (and by this I mean anything written more than 200 years after Palestrina) into oblivion and have only Gregorian chant.

To be fair, in deference to the patrimony of Western musicology I’d allow it to be polyphonic.

Levity aside, the question remains: Does technology have a place in worship? And if so, what is the right formula for getting the unchurched into our churches?

Technology is a uniquely human concept and experience, since it implies the rational application of knowledge in some way. In this broader sense to be human is to be a technological creature, and thus it is something we simply cannot escape, even in our worship. And since we (in the modern world, at least) tend to conflate the new and the shiny with the good and the true, it is quite easy to justify the use of any technology in worship.

And the justification probably seems legitimate. After all, if we are technological creatures, and given that technology shapes and molds society in innumerable ways, shouldn’t we be striving to utilize it effectively to promulgate the Gospel and lead people to know Jesus?

Thus, we run into a paradox of sorts with the question of what Millennials Really Want Out of Church, or what any one in a modern technological society is drawn to in church, for while the society and the generation we seek to reach is utterly steeped in technology and technological innovation, it seems (so the research purports) that the spiritual longings or preferences want for something entirely different.

And so we are back to the question about finding the right mix of technology and ancient practice to reach a new generation. Do we deck out our sanctuaries with as much technology as we can cram in there, do we tear out all the projectors and lights and read Latin texts by candlelight (yes!), or is the right formula somewhere in between?

As a parallel, the worship evangelism movement was a fairly strong one for awhile and was seen in many respects as a way forward to reach its generation. To have worship (read: music and technological presentation) that was relevant to its generation yet thoroughly saturated with authenticity and passion was believed to be a means of attracting its generation to worship and thus, by means of aesthetics, to knowledge and over of God.

Now, to be clear, I do not intend aesthetics here to be pejorative by any means, but am rather employing it in its technical sense; that is, that which describes or presents the beautiful. And in many respects I am sympathetic to aesthetics-as-evangelism. After all, the beautiful is a universal, and thus convertible with the true and the good. As such, an encounter with the beautiful is essentially an encounter with the true and good, all of which coalesce in God himself. And how could leading people to encounter God through aesthetics be considered a bad thing?

In a similar manner, the aesthetics of technology operate under the same conditions, and in some ways on just as a deep of a level, since we are technological creatures. Unfortunately, just as music can become all performance, so technology can become all diversion.

All that has been said here is probably non-controversial, but the question of the appropriate utilization of technology still remains unanswered. And in some respects that is intentional on my part, for a simple reason:

It is the wrong question.

In response to the purported preferences of any generation, it can be tempting to want to craft one’s worship services accordingly. And on some level it is probably innocuous enough as a desire. But the reason the question posed is the wrong question actually has nothing to do with the medium, but rather with the intent. That is, precisely why are we utilizing any particular medium in our worship?

Or are we even asking this question at all?

I would suggest that one major shift in modern worship services from that of previous generations is that- especially in larger, outreach focused churches- we tend to execute our worship services principally as evangelism opportunities. Whereas in previous generations the execution (however well or poorly done) was principally aimed at performing its liturgical function as part of worship, in the modern West the liturgical function is often principally aimed at outreach, however that actually gets parsed in the end.

Now, I am not saying that this intent is necessarily wrong, nor that worship and evangelism are somehow mutually exclusive aims. But it is here that the question actually starts to go wrong. For what tends to happen is that in our outreach/evangelism focus, instead of primarily focusing our techniques and tactical uses of technology on worshiping God well, we end up looking for techniques and tactics that will draw people to church, or lead them to Christ, or whatever other church-isms we like to use.

We in modern America are especially prone to fad-ism, which often means that we tend to chase after the new simply because it is new, or the cool simply because it is cool, without ever asking much about it beyond that. I don’t mean to paint the modern American church with such a broad (and therefore necessarily inaccurate) brush, but I think we really have to begin to ask serious questions about our worship and how we use technology, because it seems like we haven’t really been asking how we can use technology to worship God well.

And my argument here isn’t that technology is a bad thing or that certain utilizations of it necessarily have no place in church. far from it. Rather, I’m wondering if most of the modern church has even bothered to seriously ponder these questions at all:

What role does technology really have to play in our worship?

Why, exactly, are we using it?

Is it really to further glorify God or be more effective at outreach?

Is it our way of chasing the never attainable relevance we have prized for so long?

Is it just a default mode we have fallen into because its there and can be used?

A perhaps deeper problem- which is completely distinct from the technological question but nevertheless connected to it- is that for quite some time now we have- if we are really honest with ourselves- essentially given up on expecting the Holy Spirit to draw people to God, instead presuming to bear that mantle of responsibility ourselves. Now, I doubt any would actually outright acknowledge this, and I certainly won’t presume on anyone’s intentions, but in the practical out-workings of our churches and our evangelism and our worship we seem to pretty much outright state this.

This is where the tactical takes on preeminence, and we have become very good at crafting worship services that utilize technology in a way that appeals to people aesthetically, and sometimes even existentially. In some respects our technique is often flawless (and other times spectacularly not!).

But the difficulty arises in that the tactical preeminence with which we utilize technology and other such mediums seems to tacitly assume a very wrong-headed understanding of human nature. After all, do we really think that people’s lives are going to be transformed because of our worship technique, however that is cashed out? Is the depth of the human person so shallow that it can be substantially changed because of our tactical or technological prowess? Do we presume sin to be something so innocuous that it can be overcome with more education or subjugated by practical advice to have a better life from the Bible?

I sometimes wonder if in the name of glorifying God we have essentially crowded up our worship spaces and worship services so much that there is actually no room left for God any more.

I of course over-exggaerate to make a point. Technology has its place for technological creatures, to be sure. But we probably need to comes to grips with the fact that there are aspects of the human person that technology and its tactical utilization simply cannot touch.

The temptation arises partially because of the sheer effectiveness of technology (especially of the modern variety) to solve problems and effect widespread change. And so the jump from its utility in the material realm to its potential utility in the spiritual realm is not one that seems very great, and often times I think it is one we elide without ever considering it at all.

But here we are once again back at the tactical level, not really asking the questions of technology (or any medium used in worship) that we really should be. I mentioned above that we are prone to fad-ism, and this comes to bear upon the ways we form and structure our worship. The difficulty with the question for how we relate to Millenials is that our penchant for fad-ism is actually technologically agnostic.

We can be just as fad-ish in our embrace of technology as in the eschewing of it.

I also mentioned earlier that I am all for ancient Christian worship practices, and I would really love more churches to embrace them. However, it is perhaps telling (and reinforcing for my argument, conveniently enough!) that my first inclination as I was writing the previous sentence was to state it as “I am a fan of ancient Christian worship practices.”

In my own experiences I have often treated all things modern and all things ancient from within the same fad-ish squint, which is really regrettable. I have utilized prayers and songs and environments and such not as ways to worship God well, or even to reach others, but rather to cater to my sense of some mystique inherent within, that ugly streak of fad-ism that perhaps infects us all.

And this should be a source of great and everlasting shame, for the patrimony of western Christian religiosity is vast and rich, an unending spring from which to draw. Too often I have treated it more like a candy store than a sacred vessel full of unimaginable treasures.

So yes, let’s absolutely embrace ancient Christian worship practices and allow the past to inform the present and the future. Let’s also utilize technology well to proclaim and promulgate the Gospel. But as we do so, we need to continually ask ourselves why we are doing so. To merely appropriate the ancient to cater to purported tastes, to capture some mystique, or because vintage-y things are cool is a completely misguided approach to eschewing technology. By the same token, cramming our churches full of the latest toys because that’s what’s new or because that’s what’s cool or whatever else is just as muddle-headed.

I won’t pretend to draw the line of what technology should be used and what shouldn’t, because I think ultimately it’s not a good question. The real question isn’t how much or how little, but rather how well we are using it to worship God. Ultimately I think we need to come to realize that our duty to worship God (the first commandment) comes first, and that our worship- while it may have evangelistic effects- is not primarily an evangelistic effort.

Our use of technology should primarily be to worship God well, an expression that flows from a heart that truly seeks to adore him in every conceivable facet of existence and being, including the technological outpouring of our nature as humans.

I will leave with an example. In the late Middle Ages tremendous architectural wonders were constructed, dotting Europe far and wide. In many ways the cathedrals drew on the tradition of Western architectural techniques from centuries prior, but also employed new developments. One little known aspect of Medieval architecture is that many cathedrals actually functioned as solar observatories.

With some of the technological developments in the cosmological sciences, astronomical records that had often been amended over centuries soon became supplanted by new and better charts of the heavenly bodies, which had the effect of making time-telling- especially of the calendar- more precise. In some respects this seems rather mundane, but it also represented a technological step towards a liturgical and theological goal: determining the correct date of Easter from year to year.

For centuries Christians had painstakingly sought to more accurately determine the dating of Easter, which was always somewhat tricky because the ancients didn’t have a precise knowledge of the length of a day or a year, which meant calendar creep would set in from time to time, meaning that calendars had to be adjusted routinely to keep from eventually having Easter occur at the same time as Christmas.

But as the technological means for determining the circumference of the earth, the length of the day and year, etc., grew more exact and thus could give more precise dates, so the dating of Easter could be tabulated with more accuracy and confidence.

Since cathedrals were often one of the tallest structures available, they provided the means to create the devices and measuring lines need to calculate the movement of the sun more precisely. And until other technological advances rendered this form of solar measurement obsolete, the church and technology were often married wonderfully in a manner that was not only spurred on by religious devotion and scientific inquiry, but that also provided its own unique aesthetic flair.

We can worship God well with technology, and technology can even enhance aesthetics and help lead us into the true and the good, but we have to be always asking why. We cannot be content to merely adopt the ancient as a way to tap into some unmet experiential need nor be tossed by the waves of the novel in the name of relevance. Otherwise we simply repeat the mistakes of our predecessors, subsuming what should be an integral part of the human experience to our own proclivities or metrics.

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Jason Watson

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