or, Against the Technological Church
Up until 4 months ago, my previous job involved running a massive weekly production for a large evangelical church inside of a 150 year old Cathedral. The irony of flooding this ancient stone and wood space with enough sound, light, and video to compete with the local concert venue was lost on me, but the spectacle wasn’t. Each Sunday was another tightly produced show where I was part of a network of churches all centered around one pastoral moment each Sunday. I prided myself on knowing every in and out of each service, constantly improving efficiency, and sacrificed food and sleep to make sure everything worked. How awesome was it that I could say I was part of a distributed church network using incredible technology to join thousands of people together and create services on a professional level and scale. I did this for 4 years, gleefully, and always pointed to the effect we had on the church congregation–read: audience–regardless of naysayers. I may have been a part in a machine, but it was a well working machine that delivered.
However, all machines make noise, it might just take some time before you hear it. There was buzz at the edge of my hearing, like hearing static from a tv from the other side of a house. It was barely perceptible at first, I could push it from my mind or rationalize it away, but it would always be there–a constant presence. Slowly, over many months, this noise crescendoed, rising to become a torrent of sound I couldn’t escape or even sleep through until it pushed everything out and demanded attention. The outside seemed perfectly still, but inside, anywhere I went the noise followed me.
This was the noise of technology as Andrew Sullivan excellently describes in his telling piece on being human in today’s mediated reality. The cacophony of alerts, information, and commoditized entertainment has surrounded every aspect of our mediated lives, choking out the few places left we have solitude and silence. Church, where I first noticed this din, is not immune to this mediated reality. In fact many of the most recognizable churches are proponents of heavily mediated services. Stages, sounds, and screens get bigger, the lights get brighter, routine activities like check-in are difficult to do at scale so they must be digitized. The stage with the pastor and the worship is bold and bright, but the audience is dim. The room where people come to worship usually is referred to as a sanctuary, but is it still today?
Sullivan makes the astute point that the greatest threat to evangelical churches today is distraction. He writes,
“If the churches came to understand that the greatest threat to faith today is not hedonism but distraction, perhaps they might begin to appeal anew to a frazzled digital generation. Christian leaders seem to think that they need more distraction to counter the distraction. Their services have degenerated into emotional spasms, their spaces drowned with light and noise and locked shut throughout the day, when their darkness and silence might actually draw those whose minds and souls have grown web-weary.”
The noise of constant distraction and technological advancement in my place of supposed spiritual refreshment demanded not that I be a complex and contradicting human, but the consumer of a message packaged to reach as many people as possible. This message is carefully honed to my supposed needs, using the same analytics the growth hackers of Silicon valley use to find those moments of silence I might be in and feed me another alert.
What was worse, I was a propagator of this technique. I was taught how to manipulate an environment with sound, video, and light, to create the specific type of emotion needed to get a specific response. Weekly performance reviews made sure my ability to create this environment was increasing and that I could train others to do so too. I mourn now what I became, a master propagator that could change the emotion of a room to get more hands in the air, more people down at the altar, and more individual spiritual experiences. I was comforted by the hum of machinery in the creaky old cathedral, but that comfort wasn’t always turned on. Every sunday morning as the first one in, I often stopped and paused in the dark large room. I didn’t know what stopped me. Perhaps it was the lack of noise, but only of the technical kind. I’d hear the settling of the wooden support arches as gravity pulled them ever closer to the earth. I heard my own quiet breathing made small in the large empty room, and unknown sounds that raised the hair on the back of my next that I never really could place the sources of. The silence was strange enough to get me to pause for a moment, but then I’d go, turn the amp racks on and noise would fill the room for the next 6 or 7 hours.
This was my Sunday. Then, every afternoon it shut down, the building would be closed, and it’d be empty until service next week.
— I mourn now what I became, a master propagator that could change the emotion of a room to get more hands in the air, more people down at the altar, and more individual spiritual experiences. —
But how did it come to this? How did the buildings we call sanctuaries begin to look, sound, and act so similar to every other event center in this world? As both Sullivan and the media ecologist Elizabeth Eisenstein point out, back in the mid 1400s, the printing press had massive implications for the culture around it. The printing press was the first major shift in technology that changed the quantity of scalability of the message communicated. Martin Luther and the reformers used this technology to cement their belief of a correct interpretation of scripture through the use of mass publication. Not only did this belief split the church into protestant and catholic, but the medium of printing allowed a solidifying of beliefs specifically read by certain audiences resulting in protestantism splitting off into numerous denominations almost immediately. Today there are over 40,000 officially recognized protestant denominations. Technology may solve certain problems, but it also causes many others, and after the printing press, the problem of noise increased exponentially.
Technology is not neutral, it is biased and has an agenda. Writing in the 1960s, the french sociologist and catholic layman, Jacques Ellul, went against his french philosophical contemporaries in his book The Technological Society. He argues that with the continued proliferation of technology, technique–the steps used to accomplish a task–had transcended the physical process to become man’s endless activity. The goal was no longer a means to an ends, but always means to another means. Another activity, another app, another conversion funnel, all noise only with the purpose of keeping the user around so they can be fed more noise to keep fulfilling more KPIs.
This book was my first peek at the cult of technique most everyone in this world subscribes to. As I became more aware of this noise/technique, I became more fearful of what it was doing to me. I couldn’t focus. I had consume more content to keep up on my job, I had to know everything that was going on in the expanding tech world and then communicate it out to be a source of knowledge. My phone was my constant companion and I both hated and loved that little rectangle of glass, and all the distractions it provided me. I like to say I stopped attending church 2 years ago, right when I went on staff. Suddenly every service was a game of how can I make the technology given to me work well and look from a high level to survey all that was going on in the service. I was so distracted by keeping track of everything I had to jettison the two things needed for my spiritual filling, worship and the sermon. I was doing the work and excelling but after 2 years it took its toll. I had been feeling an emptiness for sometime then one night I couldn’t get any sleep. My mind was racing far more than any night I had experienced. It felt like rivers of facts were flowing through my mind but there was such an emptiness in me that I didn’t know what to do with it. I had fears, sorrows, angst, and anger I didn’t know what to do with. The noise seemed determined to push them out. I knew I had to find some place open at the dawn.
I went to the one place the noise seemed to fade away, an actual Catholic Cathedral. I went very early during mass and sat in the pew in silence, the only light being a few candles. The candle light barely illuminated the pillars snaking up the walls while the entire ceiling lay in darkness, slowly being illuminated as the sun rose. The room felt too big and vaulted for the noise to fill and it blissfully ebbed as the sound of the liturgy carried on. My phone was off back in my dorm and I was suddenly alone with my thoughts, emotions, and humanity. I felt my walls fall as there was no more noise holding them up. I was alone and tiny yet I was in the embrace of a massive building that almost involuntarily pointed me upward to a place I couldn’t even see. I finally wept after being in the building of a church for 2 years but never worshipping there.
— The room felt too big and vaulted for the noise to fill —
I left my church and staff position exactly a month later, finding myself at an Anglican church on the north side of Chicago. There I experienced a routine liturgy for the first time; a repeated vocal expression with very intentional words and silences. You can breath, you can be healed from your frazzled digital life, and there doesn’t need to be a soft pad playing every time someone stops talking. I could be silent and weep, I could be silent and be confused. I could be silent and not feel anything. But then we come forward as a congregation every week and meet Jesus within the reverent mystery of the Eucharist, fully human, fully in need of restoration from our manic lives.
I didn’t leave the church because I lost my faith, though I stopped worshipping. I left the consumer church that catered to my every need, but never let me feel human and tried to distract me from my distraction. I worshipped the technology the church brought in. I came to a church whose liturgical practices haven’t really changed since the founding of the church 2000 years ago. I’m not advocating becoming a luddite, machines are not the issue, man’s use of technique is and ignoring that is ignoring the world and people around us. We have a mic for our rector’s sermon recordings and we have enough of a sound system to hear the guitar in the small high school we meet in. We don’t need any other technology. The goal is to come and be healed, then go out into the world to help bring healing to others. That can’t be boiled down to a series of 5 easy steps. People are messy, complex, and a lot of times really hard to love. The church is called to love the unlovable and that can’t be reduced to a few KPIs.
I am still frazzled and overwhelmed when I enter into a production heavy church building. I want the building that takes away my wifi, welcomes me to a room of fellow believers and nonbelievers all saying the same chant. For a while I don’t think I’ll even be able to walk into a technological church without anxiety, but I gather I’m not the only young web-weary believer looking for a very simple definition of church. I don’t want the church to ‘be cool’ and I don’t want to church to send one message to as many people as possible. I want the church I am in to speak to its congregation, to be different, to make a statement and say, while the rest of the world is manic with noise this is the one place you can find quiet sanctuary.