The following post comes from the blog of illuminator, VJ, and Praxis speaker Stephen Proctor. The original post can be found here
When people ask me what I do for a living, I tell them that it’s kind of like…
“POWERPOINT ON STEROIDS.” =)
For the last 12 years, I have made a career out of running the slides.
And during this time, I evolved from a “SpaceBar Monkey” into a “visual worship leader”… a curator of images who arranges beauty in time & space in order to create an environment & tell a story.
Projection is my paintbrush, & the screen is my canvas.
In the last decade, production technology has progressed like we’ve never imagined. And it’s found a home in many of our churches.
Despite the fact that most art & imagery have been excommunicated from the Protestant church, since the modern worship movement, evangelicals have become fascinated (if not a little obsessed) with the use of technology in worship, particularly in the area of projection.
Evangelical churches have been using projection & visual media for a myriad of reasons, mainly to make the worship service more “exciting” & “attractive” & “relevant”. (These words always make me twitch a little.) Our big productions have served as an amplifier for our “creative” expressions of worship.
It’s all been fun to be a part of, but after a dozen years, my soul has become weary.
My eyes are tired.
The noise has just become too much.
And while I’m all about raucous celebration, I believe we have lost the art of reverent reflection. We have very little sense of “sacred space.” Very rarely do I find a worship environment that slows you down & stirs up aprophetic imagination.
The art of sacred space isn’t just about creating a nice aesthetic…although that is always nice. (like all those wood palettes & Edison bulbs we see everywhere.) It’s also about telling a Story.
… a “visual liturgy” if you will.
We have a verbal liturgy for our ears & voices, but what about a visual liturgy for our eyes?
If our bodies are sacramental, then how are we forming ourselves through what we see? And if we are feeding the eyes of our community, shouldn’t we serve more than eye candy as the main course?
Unfortunately, modern worship has borrowed the liturgy of the rock concert, which forms worshipers into fans & critics.
When the worship leader and the Object of our worship occupy the same visual space, the worshipper is easily confused — consciously or subconsciously — about Who the Center truly is. – Glenn Packiam
By default, the posture of entertainment encourages consumerism instead of consecration. In a sense, we never got away from the use of icons & images; we just substituted the art for the celebrity.
As Lisa Gungor wrote in her song Shiny Buildings, “Art & architecture purposed all to point Something Else… slowly turning into stages where we’re pointing to ourselves.”
We’ve traded the Meal for the microphone. We’ve lost the sacrament & gained the stage.
And we’ve packaged this new entertainment liturgy & sold it at conferences & in exhibit halls. And it makes A LOT of money. (Trust me, I know.) No wonder our houses of worship feel more like a showroom instead of a sanctuary.
The environment you meet in WILL, over time, shape the way you worship. Or as I like to say “Lex Videndi, Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi.”
“We shape our environment, then our environment shapes us.” Frank Lloyd Wright
My friend & fellow liturgist Glenn Packiam put it this way: our visuals need to line up with our verbals.We desperately need a stronger, healthier visual liturgy… from our media to stage design to lighting to the entire posture of the room. We need to embrace a Christ-centered visual language of beauty & space.
We’ve seen this practiced historically through the building of cathedrals, but hardly anyone is doing that these days… especially not in the evangelical world.
To quote & paraphrase Ian Cron from his book “Chasing Francis”,
“Medievals built huge, ornate churches so that people walking into them would feel like they’d left one world and entered another reality – the kingdom of God. Think of what happens to your senses when you come in those doors. Stained-glass windows, frescoes and paintings, dimmed lights, flickering candles, the smell of incense, vaults and arches pulling your spirit upward, angels soaring on the ceilings. God sneaks up on you through the architecture.
Augustine said the human mind was particularly delighted when truth was presented to it indirectly, like in symbols and sacred space. Unfortunately, most churches today are designed without any sense of the iconic because moderns like straightforward, unambiguous communication. We want ‘worship centers’ where hominess is more important than holiness.
It seems that most church architecture today focuses on the utilitarian more than anything else. We want our architects to load us up with all the technological goodies that you’d find in a world-class performing arts center.
But what we’ve ended up asking for is ‘Lights, camera, action!’ rather than ‘Father, Son & Holy Ghost.'”
––– EVERYTHING SPEAKS. –––
Now I don’t think every church needs to go build a big ornate building. But how can we reclaim a sense of sacred space where we currently gather? And how can we use technology & creativity in subtle yet immersive ways that bring back a sense of awe & wonder like the cathedrals of old?
“A building together with its furnishings and arrangement of space is a physical expression of a particular congregation’s attitude toward worship” – Robert Webber
At my church, we have a saying: “Creativity must be the SUBTLE amplification of our worship.”Subtlety is key. Immersive environments should slow you down & stir your imagination, not create more noise.
It’s also important to note that when I’m talking about a new visual liturgy, I am not talking about STYLE.
This is not a new way of saying “Get those drums & electric guitars out of here! That’s the devil’s music!” (visual translation: “Get rid of those flashing lights & fog machines!”) What I’m talking about is POSTURE & FORM. Rock is the style, & the concert is the form. This is what needs to change… not the style. Although, I would argue that not all styles are conducive for certain postures of worship. But that’s another conversation. =)
Another way of thinking about this is having dinner with your family. It doesn’t really matter what food you are eating (unless it’s constant junk food), but it does matter whether you gather around the table or the TV. Or think about when you are all in the same room but everyone is on their iPhone. Practice this posture consistently over time, & we become “alone together.” Form matters, people.
Michael Rudzena from Trinity Grace in NYC shared a comment by one of his parishioners: “The service felt sacred. It drew me in. It didn’t feel like a rock concert or a pep rally. It made me quiet my soul and then allowed me to engage the presence of God.”
This is my hope when curating sacred space.
There’s nothing wrong with production technology, only how you use it in certain contexts. But from what I’ve seen in the past few years (and I have seen a LOT), the popular way production is used is not the healthiest. We need to recalibrate the layout our worship services from the stage back to the Table.
Please, don’t take this as me bashing the Church. I LOVE the Bride of Christ! She is a Garden of Resurrection! But even gardens need to have the weeds pulled out. So if anything, take this critique of performance-driven worship as weed-pulling. It’s messy, dirty business… but I am deeply convicted about this stuff. I also realize that I am not talking to every single church out there. But one thing I’ve learned in the industry is that what is new & popular with the early adopters today will be mainstream for the rest tomorrow.
But I also have hope! I have also seen a lot of things that give me a sense that things are headed back in the right direction!
Like the illuminators & stained glass artists of old, there is a generation of production artists, prophets, & priests that is rising up to recover the practice of sacred space. … to bring back a visual theology for our eyes… to illuminate our blank & barren worship centers … to recalibrate the big productions so that they shine a light on the beauty of the Word & Sacraments.
…and by doing so in a way that keeps Christ, not our creativity, the center of our visual worship.
This article is based on a message I gave to the PRAXIS Conference in Tulsa. PRAXIS is a new multi-denominational gathering of academics, artists, & authors focused on reclaiming the historical church’s priority on liturgy, art & sacred space into the modern day evangelical context. And it’s one of the best conferences I’ve ever been to.
Here are some helpful resources that can provide a deeper understanding & context for the issue’s addressed in this article:
“What Does the Visual Layout of Our Worship Services Say?” by Glenn Packiam
“Rock Concerts & Worship Services” by Thomas McKenzie
“Chasing Francis: a pilgrim’s tale” by Ian Morgan Cron
“Desiring the Kingdom” (how the cultural liturgies have shaped modern worship) by James K.A. Smith
Photo Credits: Kimberly Richards & Daniel Ebersole via Unsplash.com