Worship Goes Big-Screen and Hi-Fi, With Direct-Deposit Tithing
Technology Raises Fears of a Lost Reverence

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."

During a recent sermon at St. Paul's Collegiate Church in Storrs, Conn., worshipers sent text messages to the cellphone of the lead pastor, Benjamin Dubow, the substance of which he then integrated into his sermon.

"Prayer is supposed to be a conversation," Dubow said. "We did this to help people engage in the conversation live during the service."

Carl Reeder, technology director at Reid Temple AME Church in Prince George's, said high-tech equipment is a priority at his house of worship. The 6,000-member Glenn Dale church has a state-of-the-art audio studio and a video production room that use the same equipment that major television stations use. Sixteen volunteer producers, directors and electricians operate the equipment for the church and reproduce its worship services on CDs and DVDs.

"It takes a lot of skilled people to make it all happen," Reeder said of the work that goes into putting on a Sunday service.

Still, Reeder said his church is mindful of its mission. "We don't want the technology to take over worshiping God," he said. "If you misuse the technology, you lose focus."

Loss of focus is not a concern at Glenarden Church of Christ, where technology is limited, on purpose. But Pastor Johnnie Barton has admitted to using a visual aid. "Occasionally I may use a whiteboard," Barton said. "Sometimes it's helpful to explain things."

James B. Twitchell, an English professor at the University of Florida, also cautions against having too much technology in church.

"One of the problems is that with video technology, you don't watch the pastor, you watch the screen, where he appears like a movie star 20 times bigger than reality," said Twitchell, author of the book "Shopping for God: How Christianity Went From In Your Heart to In Your Face."

Thanks to technology, Twitchell added, even the old practice of writing a check or slipping cash into an envelope and dropping it into the tithing bowl is disappearing. "These churches use direct deposit, so there is none of that reaching into your pocket to get your money out," he said.

There are other concerns about high-tech churches. Quentin Schultze, a communications professor at Calvin College in Michigan and author of the book "High-Tech Worship? Using Presentational Technologies Wisely," contends that if not used properly, the fancy lighting and audio systems can distract from the reasons for going to church.

"The congregation has to understand what worship is: dialogue," Schultze said. "If technology is used as a crutch to create entertainment, that turns the congregation into consumers, and that's deadly from a spiritual standpoint."

If churches are not careful, Schultze added, they could drive away worshipers.

LaPenta said the members of her church are mindful of the potential turnoff. She said her church recently received a donated projector, which members use for presentations during Bible study and business meetings. But LaPenta said her congregation is wary of making the projector a regular part of the Sunday service.

"I think if you have that as a criteria, you are shaping worship around the media as opposed to media and worship," LaPenta said.

Browning, the Ebenezer pastor, said he is not worried about losing worshipers. His concern, he said, is staying relevant in an age when Americans are constantly being stimulated by BlackBerrys, video games and high-definition television. "In the mind-set of the congregation, they may not think we are being current," he said.

Those who find the projection screens, elaborate lighting and booming audio too much can always stay home and go online, where they will find a growing number of religious sites, many of them operated by churches.

The 12,000-member McLean Bible Church, for example, is planning to launch an Internet "campus" featuring video services with music and messages and an online offering. The campus will have chat rooms where people will be able to connect before and after two Sunday services.

"We believe in the local church, and at the same time we believe in leveraging technology so that we can have maximum impact," said Michael Hurt, director of community campus development for McLean Bible Church.

Again, critics wonder about the Internet church.

"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."

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