Worship Goes Big-Screen and Hi-Fi, With Direct-Deposit Tithing

David Faulks at Reid Temple, which has a state-of-the-art audio studio and a video production room that uses professional-grade equipment.
David Faulks at Reid Temple, which has a state-of-the-art audio studio and a video production room that uses professional-grade equipment. (James M. Thresher -- The Washington Post)
By Virgil Dickson and Catherine Rampell
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, September 25, 2007

At First Baptist Church of Glenarden in Prince George's County, parishioners who don't make it to church on time are directed to an overflow room to watch the Sunday service on a huge projection screen. If they can't make it to church at all, they can catch the service online, anytime.

The Church at Severn Run in Anne Arundel County has a wireless network in its cafe that lets parents work and peruse the Internet while waiting for their children to finish Sunday school. And at McLean Bible Church in Northern Virginia, fancy lighting, rock music and occasional applause spice up spirited sermons.

The stepped-up use of technology has changed the way people worship in a way that some parishioners and experts like and others don't.

"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.

Statistics bear out the high-tech trend. Last year, churches spent $8.1 billion on audio and projection equipment, according to Texas-based TFCinfo, an audiovisual market research firm. Today, 80 percent of churches integrate elaborate video and audio systems as well as an array of online materials into their worship services, and at least a dozen magazines cater to the high-tech pious.

Sixty percent of churches have a Web site, and more than half send e-mail blasts to their congregants, according to TFCinfo. Houses of worship often offer downloads of their services, and some send families recordings of special services involving their children. Central Synagogue in Manhattan mails CDs of bar and bat mitzvahs to its members, said Executive Director Livia Thompson.

Scholars and religious leaders say churches are ramping up their use of technology for a variety of reasons. Often, the leaders say, churches purchase sophisticated sound systems to accommodate elderly congregants. Projection devices are popular, too, for older people and those who find it easier to read lyrics and Scriptures on a screen rather than from a hymnal or Bible.

But mostly, leaders are hoping that all the high-tech equipment will help lure more people to their pews and make their places of worship more interactive and user-friendly.

"Introduce a projection screen, Web sites, podcasts and an e-mail newsletter, and the church grows," said Scott Thumma, a sociology professor at the Hartford Institute for Religion Research in Connecticut, which studies trends in American churches. "This is not church like your grandparents did it. This has something to say about life today."

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