Congregations Liven Sunday Worship with New Media: Part 1

By Len Wilson and Jason Moore

Some United Methodist churches claim technology is transforming their congregations, fueling growth and strengthening their church communities. But how pervasive is it, and is it a fad or something that is an enduring part of our worship landscape? What are the theological considerations? Is it only for large churches with resources? And if new media is introduced in worship, what form does it take, exactly? UMC.org will answer these questions with a two-part series beginning this month.

(UMCom) -- Church use of new media - technology such as projection systems and computers - has been a growing worship phenomenon in the past five years. Congregations across the globe are using new media on a weekly basis, and it is having a profound effect on their ministries. Whereas community-style churches have been using this kind of worship for a generation or more, interest in its use has spread throughout mainline denominations, including The United Methodist Church. Some claim the technology is transforming their churches, fueling growth and strengthening their church communities. But how pervasive is it, and is it a fad or something that is an enduring part of our worship landscape? What are the theological considerations? Is it only for large churches with resources? And if new media is introduced in worship, what form does it take, exactly?

UMC.org will answer these questions with a two-part series beginning this month. We will start by exploring just how many churches have added new media to their services, for what reasons and the effects. Next month, we will address this trend’s theological implications.

In the last five years, many churches have moved from the "thinking about it" category to "have it, want to do it better." There is much more anecdotal than statistical information on the matter, but recent research conducted by Stephen Koster at Michigan State University has shown a sharp increase in the use of what he calls "visual media technology" in worship, from 16 percent of Christian churches in the United States in 2000 to more than 50 percent in 2003. Even more churches are seriously considering adding the technology to their services.

There are many examples illustrating how the use of new media has led to growth. Often, these are seeker-oriented, mega-church models. Fellowship Church of Grapevine, Texas, a congregation with roots in the Southern Baptist Convention, began in a small office complex with about 150 in attendance in 1990. Almost from the beginning, the congregation has used media as an integral part of its weekly worship experience. In the first year alone, it had to move into a new 750-seat facility, and attendance quickly grew to more than 3,000. The congregation now has more than 18,000 in attendance each week. Every worship service is designed with video, graphics, lighting, drama, cutting-edge music and relevant preaching in mind. One of the core purposes is to reach out to people who do not attend church.

But while new media has been closely associated with non-denominational churches and the "praise and worship" movement, this also is changing rapidly. The use of screens is now occurring in churches of all traditions and with worship styles as varied as "contemporary," "traditional," and "postmodern."

At Community Church in Jackson Heights, N.Y., Dr. Ronald Tompkins, a United Methodist pastor, also has experienced the fruits of sharing the message through new media. His church has four primary language groups that come together to experience worship in a community of 150 language groups. The screen has helped that congregation break down the barriers that speaking different languages creates. The congregation creates what Tompkins has called "wordless worship" by using imagery to make biblical connections. Art and technology help the church transcend the boundaries that exist in its complex situation.

More churches of all sizes and styles have discovered that the use of new media is much more than a fad, or even a trend, but a fundamental way in which our culture communicates - as powerful as the printing press has been to the modern era.

This is not only a large church phenomenon. Whether urban or rural, small and medium-sized churches across the country are approaching worship design with new media in mind. New developments include a further drop in the price of technology and the rise of ministries that produce new media resources and training for churches who can’t afford a dedicated media staff position.

Kent Wilson is pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in Willard, Ohio. He began incorporating media into worship in 1998 on a weekly basis. Based on his congregation’s success at integrating media in a small church, Wilson has become a sought-after seminar leader across Ohio, where he leads conferences and workshops incorporating examples of his own congregation’s weekly worship productions.

Some argue that new media somehow hinders the ability to form community in worship. The exact opposite is true. The screen allows us to join together in experiences that may not be possible through any other form. Using the personal story of someone in the congregation as a testimony video can help us connect with them, and with others around us. Videos like that create a forum for sharing.

Read part two of this series next month on UMC.org.

Len Wilson and Jason Moore are partners in Midnight Oil Productions, which offers seminars and other resources on mixing digital technology and worship.

This article was developed by UMC.org, a ministry of United Methodist Communications.



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