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Live and near: preaching as performance A review article in three parts

by

Christopher Burkett

Christopher Burkett is Editor of The Preacher.

Part One

Pandemic hangovers

Many congregations responded with alacrity to the threat to worship the pandemic presented. Prohibitions on gathering led to a huge variety of ‘ways around’ being church together being rapidly implemented. Online worship, telephone conference gatherings, chain-letter prayer bulletins, and chatroom groups, to name just some of the responses, proliferated. These usually locally devised strategies kept the idea of gathering together for worship alive in dark times. Indeed, arguably, without such imaginative actions many congregations would have simply ceased to exist. The use of technology by a relatively few, relatively inexpert. local enthusiasts saved the day. I wonder, however, whether the hangover of those times isn’t now reinforcing the damaging challenge to worship the pandemic responses were meant to allay.

A few examples by way of what I mean:

SOFTWARE WORRIES

Online worship was often established via a local church leader’s personal computer and internet connection. Frequently this meant that the environment from which the act of worship was streamed was a church office or a clergy study and the software used was primarily that familiar in those environments. In other words, the overall ‘feel’ of what was streamed was that of a business presentation or perhaps of an academic lecture – a linear progression of words interspersed with jokes or illustrations, mainly controlled by one talking head, a commonplace in commercial or college settings. And the drawbacks were those familiar in the poor use of presentation software – over reliance on stock images, too many words on the screen, attention-draining dwelling on too few screens, mismatch of screen shot and speaker, poor verbal logic due to over-reliance on screen shots, etc. etc. Perhaps, as a temporary stopgap, these things can be accommodated, but where this methodology has become a post-pandemic permanent feature of the local church, worship is in danger of becoming a sales pitch or a lecture. The cues from the office environment may have gone, but the consumerist or didactic ambience of the software usage remains.

TEXT LINES

Or, to make a more theological point, think about the use of the text of Scripture in many gatherings. It is now commonplace for the text to be projected onto a screen for all to see. Sometimes those who read the text aloud themselves read from the screen causing absolute confusion as to where the worshipper’s attention is to be directed. In one congregation I know, worshippers are encouraged to turn west to face the Gospel reader but then the projected words are for most people present behind them! Nodding heads make it apparent that at this point most don’t know what to do with Scripture – and that is the serious issue.

Projecting the words for all to read suggests that whatever is heard, in reading or sermon, is entirely subservient to what is printed, whether on a page in a book or projected. For the first Christians, and for generations of our Christians forebears, if that had been the case they could not have existed as people of faith. As Saint Paul so pointedly puts it, ‘faith comes from what is heard’ (Romans 10.17) which has its source in the Word incarnate – Christ. From the beginning (literally [Genesis 1, John 1] and metaphorically) God voiced creation into being, and in Christ voiced salvific grace into being. Whether through the voicing of Scripture read in the first gathered assemblies or the voicing of faithful preachers and teachers witnessing to those Scriptures in the centuries since, this has always been the case. How could it be otherwise when machine-made paper to enable books to be widely and cheaply available only dates from 1799? Encountering the Gospel is a face-to-face, oral to aural experience above all else. Technology that obscures that fact obscures Christ incarnate.

MEDIA NAIVETY

Finally, by way of example, consider the technology itself. Lots of local churches are more internet-savvy since the pandemic but are the strategies they are taking up too complacent about the technology divide in our society? Not everyone has or can afford a smart phone or a personal computer. Where the streaming of worship continues, a domestic or office setting has often been replaced with the interior of a church building where issues of scale and distance figure in ways very different to that of a ‘talking head’ in a small room. Now the complexities become ones familiar to traditional broadcasting organisations; keeping things dynamic requires lots of views from lots of angles. And achieving a sense of intimacy and relevance mediated by the technology needs very particular and specialised skills. To minds trained by cinema and TV, it is easy for the inevitable limitations of streamed services to appear flat, remote, lacking in pace and far from engaging. In times of emergency, a certain rough and ready quality is a signifier of resolution and determination, but after the emergency has passed that same quality can seem banal.

MISSED QUESTION

To address these kinds of issues some congregations have adopted an eavesdropping tone to their streaming as if those viewing over the internet are only incidentally part of the action. If this goes some way towards meeting the quality issue, it only worsens the divided nature of focus and attention: whose purposes does this worship serve? Is it for those who are physically present, or is it for those who will stream it maybe days (or even months/years) after it happened? Should those leading it, address only those present? Are participants taking part in an act of worship or has the event morphed into something else? Who is asking the question and what might the answers be?

These are some of the issues that strike me as I think over my preaching and worship experience through the pandemic and up to now. On the one hand, I am thankful for the usable and easy technology that I’ve been blessed in using. On the other, I am troubled that that technology is used uncritically and in ways that make easy, and perhaps even dangerous, assumptions about appropriateness. Could it be that we are unaware of the profound shifts we are promoting?

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