Sounds of church

Posted Oct 19, 2011 | New Media Project


By Monica A. Coleman

A couple of years into my career as a minister, I learned a short phrase about the sounds of church from another minister. There’s an awkward space of time at the beginning of a sermon when the preacher indicates the biblical passage from which the sermon will draw and the time it takes for people to flip to that passage in their individual Bibles. As funny filler, I learned to say the following words:

“Preachers say that there are three great sounds of the church: the sound of a baby crying, the sound of a check being torn from a checkbook, and the flipping of the pages of a Bible.”

Most congregants have found the passage by the time I finish this phrase, and it helps those who can’t put their fingers on the passage in less than ten seconds feel better about the time it really does take to get there. And we all laugh a bit on the way there.

Moments later, everyone is on the same page in our respective biblical texts, and the sermonic moment continues.

I’m now realizing that new media is changing the sounds of the church. As more ministers and lay people read the Bible on smartphones and tablets, the less I hear the flipping of Bible pages. With the lyrics of songs projected onto screens around the sanctuary, the flipping of hymnal pages ceases as well. As more people make financial contributions through the church website with their credit cards, debit cards, or automatic withdrawal, the less one hears checks being torn from checkbooks.

While there is now near-silent tapping on screens, QWERTY keyboards, or a laptop mouse, I’m fascinated by how the great sounds of the church are still great.

The sounds of babies, checks and Bible pages are not truly “great sounds.” Rather they represent three qualities of a great church: generations, sustenance, and study. Oddly enough, new media can facilitate these things just as well.

Through online Bible studies, communication with small group members through email and social media websites, and Bible apps (to name a few), church members still study the words of God. Some churches find that the regular use of new media actually draws in the generation of people often absent in churches—teens and young adults. As Generation Y and Millennials come to church, they bring older family members who want to know why young so-and-so is actually going to church. And I am one of those people who never takes cash or checks to church but tithes online when paying my bills.

I’m impressed at how new media can foster family, provision, and biblical literacy just as well—and sometimes more effectively—than “old media.” I hope that some sounds of the church will stand the test of time: singing, preaching, crying babies. But I’m okay if I have to retire my sermonic phrase for the feel of mobile devices and online accounts. I’m okay if touch steps in for sound. Even then, we’re engaging our senses in and for church.

Monica A. Coleman, a research fellow for the New Media Project, serves as Associate Professor of Constructive Theology and African American Religions and Co-Director of the Center for Process Studies at Claremont School of Theology and Associate Professor of Religion at Claremont Graduate University in southern California.

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1 Comment

  1. 1 Anonymous 31 Jan
    You are giving a sermon at a church where people are moving into or have moved into the 21st century. In the Episcopal tradition, we don't flip to the Biblical verse or to the page containing the hymns. Our priest gives the sermon based on a textural scripture, but it is not read out loud by the congregation as is done in the AME church.
    Our hymns, though printed in, "Lift Every Voice and Sing," and the bulletin are mostly from memory.
    I'm reminded of my short time in the AME congregation where congregants volunteered to read the scripture out loud. Then the minister would begin the sermon. They also had a worship and praise just prior to worship service which was initiated by the stewards.
    Amazing the differences, but we are still on the same page in other ways.



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