Monday, November 16, 2020

Sanctuary Screen Use Quadruples in 20 Years!

How things have changed in worship over these last twenty years!  Where in 1998, worship in the United States meant “...getting people together to sing and listen to somebody talk…”, twenty years later we see how technology adds enthusiasm and active participation to worship.

This is from the findings just released in the latest National Congregations Study detailing “Changing Worship Practices in American Congregations.”  The 2018-2019 study included looking at worship practices of 1,250 Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu and other groups.

I’ve followed this study since highlighting it in my 2002 book Silver Screen, Sacred Story: Using Multimedia in Worship, advocating the use of projection and interesting visuals in worship. Since those early days we now find that the number of congregations using visual technologies in their main sanctuary-based worship service has nearly quadrupled, from 12% in 1998 to 46% in 2018. 


Over twenty years worship has become more informal, enthusiastic, and participatory.  

By “participatory” I mean being engaged with interesting visuals on screens, not only those in the sanctuary but in our hands in the form of smartphones.  Indeed, the new study shows 57% of congregations use smartphones by “...inviting people to record some part of the service (29 percent of congregations using smartphones), use social media during the service (16 percent), donate money (15 percent), engage with the sermon in some way, such as by filling in an online listener guide associated with the sermon (13 percent), and engage with the service’s music, such as by following along with the lyrics of songs and hymns on the congregation’s app (5 percent).”

While the use of sanctuary screens has increased in congregations, the typical use is to project song lyrics (42% of congregations), while only 18% projected a video.  

I continue to maintain that the technology allows us to do more than simply put up words to prayers and songs, but to also add video, yes, but also artworks, photographs, and symbols to capture attention, focus a message, and create more participation through memorable, and beautiful, worship experiences. I continue to encourage this after 3 decades of using screens, projectors and visuals in worship.

To be sure, things have changed when the pandemic moved worship out of sanctuaries and into online platforms.  These platforms encourage and allow using visuals in worship, and not just images of the worship leader or the prayers and songs, but also of interesting art, video clips, photography and other illustrative material that transcend words and evoke feeling and insight.

Worship leaders now, more than ever, need to be asking, not “how can I say this” but “how can I show this?”  This question,, while preparing and presenting online worship, will continue to be central to transforming worship once we return to using screens in our sanctuaries.

You can access the details of the study at the National Congregations Study website and the results of the worship and technology survey here.

Thanks to Mark Chaves at Duke University and his team with the National Congregations Study for sticking with this project over these many years!

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