Dynamist Blog

Virtual Church

PowerPoint sermons and hymn lyrics, giant video screens, and webcast services have become a normal part of worship in many American churches. The WaPost's Virgil Dickson and Catherine Rampell report on the trend and debates over its merits.

"I think God would be pleased with this," said the Rev. Grainger Browning Jr., pastor of the 10,000-member Ebenezer AME Church in Fort Washington. "I don't think that God would want us to try to evangelize like Jesus did 2,000 years ago."

Or would he? Critics of high-tech churches contend that the big screens, flickering lights and Internet take away from the traditional atmosphere. They also say that some churches are using so much high technology that they look and feel more like entertainment venues than houses of worship.

"I feel like it's too much and it takes over the worship," said the Rev. Dorothy LaPenta, pastor of the 150-member Hope Presbyterian Church in Mitchellville. "People will just be sitting there, their eyes fixated on the screen. They're waiting to be given something instead of participating."

Robert Defazio, 62, a member of her congregation, agrees. "If a minister is worth his salt, he is going to be able to get the message across by what he says, not by what he shows," he said....

"It is a substandard substitute, when you compare it to what God intended," said Michael Hall Sr., pastor of the 125-member New Beginnings Community Ministry Center in Bowie. "How can we break bread? We're not going to have dinner over the computer."

When Protestant reformers stripped Christian ritual of its appeal to all five senses, putting preaching and music at the center of worship, they certainly weren't thinking about digital media. Centuries later, however, the simplified forms of Protestant services are exactly those that transmit easily as bits.

What the Post writers cast as a controversy--and certainly each side think its way is the right way--looks a lot like benign market segmentation. Some people like to worship in a big crowd and to enjoy the many activities possible in a large church. Others want a more intimate setting, where they know all their fellow congregants. The good news is that, unlike 500 years ago, nobody's getting killed over these disagreements about the best form of worship.

On a semi-related historical note, check out Ben Schwarz's fascinating Atlantic review-essay on Eamon Duffy's books on pre-Reformation English worship, The Stripping of the Altars and Marking the Hours.

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