Refuge

I was recently on vacation, and attended another LCMS congregation in a different state. There were screens. Lots of them. Front of the church. Back of the church. Sides. narthex. Screens, screens, screens.

What was on the screens? Words. The words of the liturgy, the readings from scripture, the hymns. They used page 151. It was what you would call a “liturgical” service, as far as it goes. But the liturgy and hymns were posted on the screens. Hymnals mostly stayed in the racks. But there was one thing that – although I can’t prove it scientifically – seemed overwhelmingly obvious to me anecdotally.

No one sang. The organ played beautifully. It filled the space with sound. And the people sort of mumbled along. It was… disappointing. At my own parish, without stellar acoustics, a pipe organ, trained singers, or a choir to lead us, we have at least as much volume as this church – with its high ceilings, powerful organ, young energetic crowds – could muster. They have all the advantages. But we out-sing them. Lutherans are known as the singing church. To go to a Lutheran church with  so little singing was like getting suger-free rock candy, or vegetables with the nutrients removed so you can just enjoy the flavor without all that pesky nutrition.

As the service wore on, I started watching. The people were staring at the screens above. But they seemed content to barely mumble the words. Few opened their mouths. And interestingly, the open mouths I did see were face down in a hymnal. There were a few who refused to give in to the spirit of the age, who steadfastly insisted that they wanted to read it from a book – these were the ones who sang. And they were mostly older. Many children were in church that day. But they weren’t being taught the church’s song. They were staring mindlessly at the screens. Their brains were entirely disengaged from their bodies as they absorbed – with no thought or reflection at all – whatever passed in front of their eyes in the lighted tablets hanging on the wall.

One other observation from that service: those who did look up and open their mouths had their throats at a terrible angle for singing. Sure, you don’t want to look at your toes – that will kill the volume as you collapse the natural resonators in your chest and throat. But if you strain your throat too high, you pinch the windpipe and vocal cords. What sound does emerge is weak and thready. It also makes singing uncomfortable. It takes too much energy to force the air out. And so, you learn to be silent. Which is what the screens naturally teach the people anyway. You can teach someone to hold the hymnbook up properly, and sing aloud. You can’t move the screen down. It naturally and irrevocably teaches people not to sing.

And, as any one of the hundreds of studies of TV will tell you, the screen disengages the mind. I saw it. Children were not learning hymns. The parents were not trying to teach them. They were all zombies before the altar of convenience and technology.

I’ve always been rather old fashioned – and the accusations of it often come my way. But new is only better if it is better, if there is some advantage. A system that, by its very nature, encourages people not to sing, that shuts off the parts of the brain associated with learning, that disconnects the people from their heritage, that turns us from the singing church to the zombie church – how is that in any way beneficial? It wasn’t as if they didn’t have the funds to buy hymnals – they had them in the pew. At some point, someone must have said the magick words, “Evangelism! Visitors!”

But the church is not an outreach organization, as if we need to keep building the pyramid to be successful. The church quietly confesses the truth against the prevailing wisdom. In it we offer the forgiveness of sins. We offer a refuge from the day to day thorns and thistles of the world. Screens on the wall is to bring those thorns and thistles right into the holy place and offer them on a shiny 80-inch light-up platter for the people to digest.

If I were new in town, and just stopping by churches, I wouldn’t go back. I want to see a church where the people engage themselves in the service: the divine conversation between pastor and people drawn from Holy Scripture that echoes across the centuries. This didn’t even echo across the nave. The historic poetry which has been gathered from the pens of saints gone by, coupled with the music of the church, fell flat. The great artistry was lost amid the confusion and inappropriateness  of the medium. There is no way to fix it, to solve that, to make it better. The screens need to stay out.

It’s not a problem in my church. No one here suggests screens. It isn’t our thing, and it won’t be. But as I watched the people turn from engaged Christians to mindless consumers of new media, I wondered why anyone anywhere would suggest such a terrible judgment be imposed on their parish. Why anyone would seek out this frightful and subtle apostasy, and use good money to install it? It entertains. It amuses. It does not teach. And it confesses all the wrong things.

To ask the question is to answer it I suppose.

And, as with many things vacation, it made me glad to come home.

 

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