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April 22, 2024

The Green Banana

A Case for Clarifying and Amplifying Technology in Worship

I bought my first smartphone when my daughter was roughly four years old. Phones in her world, as she started to notice them, were all flat rectangles with computer screens on one side. But for most of us over the age of five at the time, an old school image would still come to mind if we were asked about phones: a traditional curved handset, with bigger ends where you would hold it up to your ear and your mouth. 

So when my new smartphone screen lit up with an incoming call—remember when people would still call each other?—I thought nothing of the green icon looking like the classic handset. My daughter, however, was confused. In her world of flat rectangle phones, that wasn’t what came to mind when she saw that icon. 

“Daddy?” she said in that sweet little voice. “Why is there a green banana on your phone?!”

The Wonder Of It All!

Technology is amazing, isn’t it? You can purchase a new jet ski on your smartphone while cruising in a metal tube 33,000 feet in the air on a commercial flight somewhere over Cincinnati, before settling in to read the latest digital edition of Reformed Worship on your tablet. People are 3-D printing affordable prosthetic limbs for wounded veterans. Global mission partners can connect directly into a worship service to share a first hand update with live video. 

From written language, to the printing press, to your notes app; from bronze tools, to plowshares, to irrigation systems; from the locomotive, to the Model T, to drone-based deliveries, the wonder of it all is staggering if you actually stop to think about it!

Technological advances are constantly evolving, as my daughter pointed out when she was little. Thus, we constantly need to discern the positives and negatives of new tools. While we’re grateful for the many productive ways technology enhances our lives, we often forget that technology always works back on its users.

Technology’s Double Work

Of course technology is a practical extension of who we are in some way. It’s a new way to work. Prior to the introduction of shovels, digging a hole meant using your hands. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, unless you wanted to dig a really large pit. Digging with your hands could take hours, or days, depending on the size of the hole. Shovels, though, would move the same amount of dirt in a fraction of the time. The greatest benefit offered by new technology is almost always convenience, after all. 

What we sometimes overlook is the way that new tools always affect the user. While the digger-of-holes has significantly more free time on his hands because of his new shovel, he also has something else on his hands from the shovel: blisters (John Dyer, From the Garden to the City, Kregel Publications, 2011). 

That may be a quick and crude example, but it’s illustrative of any new tool we implement. Even if we don’t notice or realize, the use of new technology will shape us in some new way. The introduction of the clock allowed for greater efficiency, but has also increased anxiety for deadlines. People didn’t “church shop” until the automobile became widely affordable. Our mobile devices connect us, and yet also put something between us. Our bodies, hearts, and minds are all formed in new experiences, new habits, and new expectations. 

Healthy / Unhealthy

Being shaped by our technologies isn’t necessarily a bad thing. As worship planners and leaders, though, we get to be thoughtful and faithful in the technologies we implement in the worshiping life of our community. We need to at least be aware that new technologies affect us. And most new tools can have positive and negative effects at the same time. 

We’re trying to be as healthy as possible in our discipleship. So our decisions often rest in the trade-off: what are we gaining? What are we losing? No, even more to the point: who are we becoming? Worship is one of the shared activities that deeply forms us as disciples, and our technology has something to say in that formation.

Clarify / Amplify

To navigate these questions in our church community, we talk about technology in worship with two main goals. Our use of technology should clarify what we’re trying to share together and amplify the good news of the gospel. 

The microphones, what we project onto our screens, the lighting in the space, the way we incorporate video, all should help us clarify our communication and communion together. Just because we can use a new tool, doesn’t always mean that we should. (All things are permissible, but not all things are beneficial, right?). 

For my church, one recent technological implementation that has begged these questions is with our livestream services. Philosophically and theologically, our emphasis is sharing physical space together, as we share in God’s presence together. We know there’s a disconnect over video, and we know some see the convenience of the livestream as more appealing than the “work” of being together. (They’ve told us that directly). In some ways, that means the livestream is muddying up the waters of what we value, rather than bringing clarity.

But we’ve also learned that long-time shut-ins are now able to worship with their church family in real time, even sending in text messages to answer questions during our time together. And that is an enormous win! We’re clarifying our connection to each other, and our shared life together, amplifying our community even across boundaries that have previously kept us apart.

It’s not always a clean answer, is it? For now we’ve decided that these connections are worth the time, effort, cost, and even the potential lack of clarity, because of what is clarified and amplified in this digital space. Perhaps that will change. Either way, we’re trying to be thoughtful and faithful as best we can through what our technology clarifies and amplifies, and how that forms and deforms us as Jesus Followers.

Chris Walker is an ordained minister in the Christian Reformed Church and serves as pastor of worship and the arts at Covenant Life Church in Grand Haven, Michigan, where he has served and worshiped with his family since 2010.