Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Hardware Drives Software: Technology & Music in Worship

Last week I finished writing a piece for Fuller Seminary's 3x-yearly magazine of theology & commentary, Theology News & Notes. This particular issue's theme is the place of music in worship, and I was asked to contribute a piece on the effect of technology on worship music. My thesis, simply put, is a truism borrowed from the computer industry -- hardware drives software:

As the church seeks to make the most of certain hardware technology – amplification, lyric projection, and looping DJ software, for example – we can expect that our worship software, i.e. the style of our worship itself, will also change. It may expand in potentially wonderful and creatively enculturated new ways, following the leading of the Holy Spirit. Or it may be narrowed in ways that are hip, but historically, and even theologically, suspect.

The article then examines the three aforementioned technologies, pointing out the good and the bad, the helpful and the heinous.

The idea for the piece arose arose out of a seed of an observation about hardware and software and the composition of some contemporary worship songs:

I have begun to see signs that some songs are being composed, perhaps unconsciously, not just to take advantage of the technology, but bounded by its peculiar limitations. The structure of the songs and the shape of the melodies are being molded to fit the size of the screen and the super-sized words projected onto it. Thus, we no longer get lyrical lines of melody and text; we get textual phraselets and melodic motifs -- mere musical fragments, not bearing repetition, but repeated nevertheless. And repeated.

A good example is the song “My Glorious” by Martin Smith and Steward Garrard....

Lest I appear a Luddite here, I hasten to add that in the article I have many good things to say about amplification, projection, and yes, DJ looping software. But I am concerned that we are less discerning than we might be. I challenge you, for example, to visit this website and find a single theological insight brought to bear on the use of technology in worship. Sigh. There's a lot of work to be done.

I am quite interested in hearing from my fellow WorshipWonks who read this blog: what effects on worship style/software do you see as a result of the church's adoption/adaptation of certain hardware technologies?


Bob K said...

How about using worship to make announcements - before the worship service begins (but, I might hasten to add, after worship begins - if you know what I mean) the screen scrolls a repeating list of announcements about everything from the potluck to the service project, complete with microsoft human beans and other clip art.

Ron Rienstra said...


Yeah - I like this use of projection technology. I would still caution against the use of the beans :)

My preference for congregational announcements is to suggest that unless they can be rather easily "spun" into prayer requests and thus appropriately placed just before the congregational prayer, we shoudl find another mechanism to disseminate that information.

bethany said...

I'm sure you already covered this, but the problem I've encountered with amplification technology is that the band is so loud you can't hear the congregation. It makes worship more performative and less communal. Not that rock concerts aren't communal, but in a different way...

Ron Rienstra said...

Yes - that's a major problem. And there are all the attendant problems that go along with a change in vocal style. We hardly think any more about blending voices with those around us.

Mary said...

And people can't sing because of it. They can't hear themselves sing, they don't know how to sing harmonies, they don't know how to read music.

One result is the descreasing population interested in singing in church and college choirs.

Ron Rienstra said...

All of which, while true and sad to some of us, aren't inherently troubling for Christians. If folks in church are poorer musicians than they were a generation ago, does it necessarily follow that they're poorer Christians? One could make a case for that, but it isn't self-evident.

On the other hand, there are community skills one learns from singing in choir that do lend themselves to Christian formation. We need to carefully tease out what these are, and then nurture them in some new way without merely mourning the loss of the old ways. Or we can just do the old way. But we might be missing something then, too.

Sigh. It's so complicated.

bethany said...

This relates to some of the stuff I'm reading for my mass culture class. There's a theorist named McLuhan whose famous contention is that "the media is the message". I wonder if there is something to this in church as well. I think it indicates that we certainly shouldn't lose our sacraments, and we should be careful about letting them become too mediated.

Mary said...

Augustine: "Those who sing pray twice."

Singing is woven into scripture as a key way in which people worship. Maybe singing well is a discipline that needs to be fostered along with praying well, reading the Bible well, confessing well, preaching well...etc.

I realize I'm very biased as someone who loves to sing and for whom singing is a key part of how I communicate with God and how I keep up the discipline of prayer even when I don't feel like praying.

Ron Rienstra said...


I think you're right on. I just want to be careful what we mean when we say "singing well." There are culturally constructed notions of what that means, and there may be trans-cultural standards of excellence. Generally speaking, the aesthetic elitist is altogether too quick to presume the former is the latter. Then again, the aesthetic philistine doesn't acknowledge or care about the latter.

Phil Smith said...

As you know Ron I have been a part of very traditional church services (Yea those cows in glad bovine, rebellious delight) as well as contemporary worship (the cows cows cows are in the corn corn corn). I don't particularly see one as better than the other.

It is tempting, though, with the video screens, CD players, and multi-speaker sound systems, to start substituting prerecorded music and videos during parts of the worship service. This is the part of the trend that I can't stand, that of using backup tracks for songs instead of having "real" music. I worry that music education in schools and elsewhere is on a steady decline, fueled by the attitude that "we can just use the backup track, why learn the song". Maybe we should call this trend "substitutionary involvement".

At a recent service I attended, someone had tried to put together a "scenic" slide show, pictures of sunsets, etc., as a backdrop to the (in this case, traditional) music. Unfortunately they couldn't get the software to work full screen, so through the entire service we had to look at someone's desktop projected on the wall. I felt sorry for the person that spent so much time putting the slide show together (after all, technology can encourage the non-musically gifted to contribute in new ways) but boy was it nothing but a distraction.

KBush said...


Do you think that there is some way that we ("we" being people who think/care/deeply desire theologically sound worship) could shape some of the hardware and computer software that's coming out? One of the biggest complaints about lyric projecting is the fact that no music is projected, which has led me to be a staunch "booker" rather than a "screener." However, at the church that I've been attending recently (1-2 months), they project the music on the screen as well so that even I have almost stopped opening the Psalter - because it's right there. The advantage to this as well is that you don't get "We're singing number #329 to the tune of #568" - and then I can't sing harmony anyway if I don't know the words to #329 well enough to leave the page on #568. If you're projecting music, you can put whatever words you want to on there. Can we, as worship-minded folk, hold the industry more accountable for what they do?
Also, in thinking about using prerecorded music, couldn't that be a benefit in a small congregations that doesn't have the people/musician resources that a Calvin College or other larger places have? Not for congregational singing, of course (blech), but what about for offertories or pre- or post-service music to give the poor organist/pianist a break?
Anyway, just some thoughts.

Ron Rienstra said...

I admit that I'm encouraged by the responses here -- most of these topics are at least touched on in the article I wrote, including Phil's concern with what I call "Karaoke Kirk," and Kristin's comment about projecting music on screen.

As far as screen music (which I like, in theory) -- the problem is that the trend-setting churches that use projection are LARGE churches with LARGE worship spaces. The screens are large, but not sufficiently large to project music at a sufficient size to be read easily by all in the space. Words can be projected that large, but not music. I've been, by the way, to a church that meets in the auditorium at Pepperdine -- seats maybe 500 -- and the ENTIRE front of the church is a screen, upon which they project all the music, in four parts, for all their songs. Hymns, praise songs, everything. They don't use ANY instruments, so the folks have got to sing, and do they ever. But it's pretty overwhelming. It's like an IMAX screen -- I think the treble clef was bigger than Pip.

As far as the karaoke kirk -- though I have some sympathy with the smaller congregation where they don't have the horses to have fabulous music every week, I don't want to burden such churches with the expectations of larger ones. Or any expectations at all that aren't carefully considered.

So, for instance, where is it written that we need to have music (recorded or live) for offerings and preludes and such? I'm not against it, but I want congregations to think about WHY they want to have music in this spot or that -- what liturgical purpose is the music serving? What habits is it inculcating in the congregation? What affections is it ordering? What values or information is it instilling? In what way might it be encouraging an encounter with God?

So, for example, I would far prefer to hear a testimony in church at the offering time rather than a song. Let's hear from a member of the congregation talking about her work at the local homeless shelter, or her visit with her nephew in prison, or some other act that connects our giving gifts to God with our living lives for God.

KBush said...

I didn't even think about that, Ron - we've always had music during the offering ("That's the way we've ALWAYS done it" type thing)...I really like the idea of hearing from a member of the congregation (very reformed - giving in all parts of our lives, not just financially). I think the reason that we have music there is to cover up the silence. Americans don't do well with silence. Ever notice the awkward time after the offertory ends and the deacons are still collecting the last of the offerings? People start shifting in their seats, looking at the musician, looking at the deaons, the dish suddenly gets passed faster (and is invariably dropped by an over-zealous 6-year-old ONLY on the day the offertory ends early)...we as a whole need to be more comfortable with silence. What better time to have a little peace to thank God for blessing us and the church and think about how we can offer ourselves more wholly to God in the coming week?

However, churches should be careful with what they share during the offering. If they share congregational prayer requests, it may look as though they're trying to pay off God! :-)

Music on the screen works where I go - not a large congregation nor a large sanctuary, so the music doesn't have to be garishly huge to be read by those in the back.