Poised for my family’s first trip to Disney World, I find myself thinking about the Simpsons
’ mockup of Epcot Center: “It was built in 1974 to say how awesome things would be in 1987.” I’m sure they’ve updated Futureworld a little, but the secret to Disney, as with any marketing empire, is that successful cannot be about technology alone. Technology becomes dated too quickly. It has to be about service—making those who turn up feel they are treated like kings and queens (and, in this case, princes and princesses).
I think, by contrast, of my parish, Boone United Methodist, where, try though we might, we cannot seem to get the sound right. We have very capable minds who understand audio technology, companies we call in with dedicated and affordable services, reliable hourly people. But we also have a 65-foot high ceiling, and a building that comprises four different rooms (a balcony, under the balcony, the main part of the sanctuary, and the stage). Computers have to time the sound differently for different parts of the room. If it works, it’s fine; if it doesn’t, as on this day, it’s a disaster. Don’t think visitors don’t notice. All the same, how they’re treated will matter more. We can explain a missing sound geek, but not discourtesy, lack of hospitality, inattention to the Word preached and praised, and to its intersection with their particular lives.
Will Willimon preached at our church recently and made a technological reference. When he was a student at Yale Divinity School , the New Haven shopping mall called the school and asked for a seasonal display of some sort. Willimon and friends responded with the best of 60s-era technology: a slide show on a film projector. It threw up images of carnage and mayhem from Vietnam, Palestine, and civil warring rural Africa, while a boom box played recordings of the cheery Christmas hymn “Good Christian Friends Rejoice.” Why that one? “Christ was born for this,” the refrain has it, “Christ was born for this.” The aforementioned head of the mall called the Divinity School back quickly with threats, and the display was taken down. Members of my church weren’t sure what to make of this illustration. One told me later she didn’t know until its reality sunk in: Christ was born in the midst of our madness, not in some nicer and less violent place. Willimon preached without PowerPoint at our church. “People have ruined my sermons by spraying up random images behind me,” he explained. I realized I’ve become spoiled and do lean on visuals, in addition to the preached Word from the pulpit.
Today in church I found myself texting. This is not usually to be recommended by a berobed preacher in a traditional service! iPhones and tablets are not common fare in our worship as they are in some other settings (though they’re increasingly present in Sunday School). I’d received a text from a parishioner who is normally present in that service. He was at the bedside of his dying grandfather. “What are some biblical texts I might read him?” he asked. I texted some back, wondering who was seeing me who might think I was playing “Chess with Friends” or texting about the Duke game. It was pastoral care, the right sort of thing to be doing in a robe in Sunday in church no less, but it still felt odd.
I guess where I’m going with these wanderings is that technology gives us more of us. More of what makes us human. It can make for awkwardness, glory, insensitivity, ecstasy. Or it can just make us bored. It extends our reach—and that’s both a good and potentially dangerous thing. It’s not a savior, not inherently sinful; it’s a tool, and like all tools it both forms and malforms. It does create and change expectations. Will someone text in public? During a private conversation? In worship? Those things matter. What matters more is how we take it up into worship, offer it to God, receive it back from God, and serve God’s purposes in the world with (or without) it. Jason Byassee, a research fellow for the New Media Project, is Senior Pastor of Boone United Methodist Church in Boone, NC and a Fellow in Theology and Leadership at Leadership Education at Duke Divinity School. The New Media Project is a research project helping religious leaders become theologically savvy about technology. To request permission to repost this content, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.