A few months ago I was invited to be the guest preacher at a church that was trying its best to make itself relevant, worship-wise. The young host pastor wanted his Sunday morning worship service to be “contemporary,” rather than the well-worn “traditional” service outlined in his denomination’s official worship book.

I hadn’t realized how much a fogy I had become,  until I walked into the retrofitted sanctuary. Scores of years ago, the original church architect had thoughtfully designed the sacred space of that Main Street church, incorporating ancient symbols of cross, table, font, and pulpit. I’m not an architect, but my guess is that light and color, shape and texture, and building materials helped create a visually pleasing, even inspiring, worship center.  Through the years, no doubt, some renovations changed that design, perhaps only subtly, and perhaps guided more by modest budget and a  lay person’s well-meaning, but inept efforts. Still, the focus of the space behind the pulpit and between the choir lofts was an attractive bit of well-crafted woodwork in keeping with the Federal style of the building’s original design. Integral to that design was a large cross on the front wall, a symbol that helped generations of congregations remember the Sabbath celebrations of “little Easters” each week.

By the time I visited that church for the first time, the retrofit had begun. Strewn across the raised platform (stage) where the pulpit had stood were power cords, audio patches, and various technical debris, with no effort to conceal the mess. Erected in the middle of the platform, effectively blocking the focal point cross, was a large square projection screen. And where the sacramental furniture of font and table had stood, there were big black boxes housing the speakers that would project pre-recorded praise music and the voices of the amplified choir, five or six singers holding microphones, and looking as if they were contestants on “American Idol.”

The Communion Table ( I honor it with “caps”) was shoved against the hulk of the old organ console, “out of the way.” I don’t recall ever finding the Baptism Font. The Pulpit (yes, “caps”) was utilized as a catch-all table top for extra mics and cords. The contemporary preacher didn’t need the pulpit, since he didn’t “preach” (in the Biblical sense), but wandered around the front of the sanctuary ad-libbing his sermon, as the Spirit led, I’m sure.

The service had begun informally, much like a Kiwanis meeting, but not as well oiled. The pastor performed in the role of emcee, chatting up the crowd like the local weather guy on TV might if he had been making a guest appearance there. Songs were projected on the screen, with lyrics not quite matching what the praise choir was singing — the verses from the computer software didn’t match the order given to the live musicians. During times when the congregation had no need to watch the screen (no hymn lyrics, no scripture texts, no announcements), there were cute clip-art cartoons projected there just in case what little liturgy remained got boring.

Do I sound as if I had a fun time there that morning? Do I sound as if I am of the old school, liturgically-speaking? Do I sound as if I am nearly 65?  Here’s the irony: I invented “contemporary,” media-mediated worship leadership…in 1969. (Much the way Al Gore invented the Internet.) Call it transformation-oriented worship, or whatever the terminology of the day is. A teacher of mine (Dr. J. A. Ross Mackenzie) called it “lively liturgy” back then. I suppose we may as well have called it “experimental,”  forty years ago. But I was on the exalted cutting edge!

Since I wasn’t a pastor, but an ordained minister working with and through media, I was invited by various pastor-friends to come and do “my thing” at their churches. They knew that if things went stunningly well, their parishioners would thank them for inviting me. If we broke some new ground and someone on the church council suggested that some of our experiment might be adopted locally for further use, all the better.  But if the audio-visual technology of the day got in the way of Sunday worship, my friends could blame it all on me, the radical visiting clergy guy, and promise to never invite me back.

Here’s what I did. First, we hid the technology, so we avoided having all our gadgets block out the psalmist’s view of “how lovely is thy dwelling place, O Lord of hosts.”  The pre-recorded music (often I preached the scriptures as reflected in the hit songs of the day) came from a tape recorder hidden behind the pulpit. I treated the worship space with respect, placing speakers in places where symbols and liturgical furniture weren’t moved or hidden. I used projected slides (in the pre-computer, pre-video projector days), so there were times we needed to erect a screen. It went up when we needed it, and came down when it was simply in the way. Even better, if there were white walls in the front of the church, we projected on the walls, with no screen needed at all. For a Presbytery meeting in a large colonial sanctuary, we made a banner on which to project 35 mm transparencies. It read, “For God so loved the world…” and the “world” was a huge white globe on which projected slides took on new meaning.

We used the projected visuals as part of the call to worship, as background for the singing of hymns, to show where the offering was going, to illustrate scripture readings (no Sunday School art here…we used modern images to re-tell “the old, old story”), and to augment the sermon and its taped rock music. (In the early 1970’s I used the Diana Ross song “Reach Out and Touch” for a sermon on Luke 8:40f, and got an afternoon phone call at home blasting my use of a popular song. The caller tried unsuccessfully to convince me that she would have complained even if the singer weren’t “colored.” It was Richmond, Virginia, I must add.)

I also made certain that I added my media elements to the service order that the church was “used to.”  Rather than throwing out local or denominational or theological traditions, I blended my creativity with the worship elements that guided worshiping “in spirit and in truth.” Without getting in the way of God. That effort was not always successful. At The Old Presbyterian Meeting House in Alexandria, Virginia, the host pastor and I had closed the shutters on the sanctuary windows so the slides would show up well. Just before the service started, ushers re-opened all the shutters, puzzled why anyone had closed them up. The slides were washed out. And, though I had dutifully rehearsed my audio cues and made sure equipment worked in the hour before the service, as I hit the play button for the first audio track the tape player shut off. Again and again. I crouched behind the pulpit, re-threaded the machine, and all was well.

Except for the elder who commented on the way out of church, “Well, you wondered why the church doesn’t use media more often? Now you know.”

These days, the use of electronic media in worship settings remains controversial. I remain appalled at how poorly it is done in retrofitted churches, but I also know that worship can be lively, that a media-oriented culture demands some concessions (pop corn, anyone?), and that the proclamation of the age-old, ever-profound gospel is enhanced by effective imagery and creative audio. So, I shall expound more on this in my next entry. Stay tuned.