I’m often asked why we don’t use _________ at the Meeting House. Why no moving lights or haze? Why don’t we use video backgrounds or show camera shots of the band? It’s a great question. I mean, we are a fairly big church with modern and relevant services. If technology is just a tool, shouldn’t we have the best tools possible? And we own lots of these tools already, so why don’t we use them “to their full extent”?
I’d like to challenge the notion that technology is “just a tool”. It is a tool, yes, but I believe it’s much more than that. It is a form of communication – a medium. This brings to mind Marshall McLuhan’s famous expression, “the medium is the message.”
McLuhan was at the leading edge of media theory when network broadcasting was booming in the 1960s and he predicted the World Wide Web decades before it became a reality. McLuhan taught that the form of communication is imbedded in the message and can’t be separated out. Whether it’s speech, braille or 3D movies we need a form of media to communicate content. And media is not neutral – each form comes with its own message.
Think about these examples:
A note scribbled on a napkin says “this is an idea, possibly a spark of genius – jotted down as quickly as possible.” – that’s the message. And let’s say what’s written on the napkin is “John 8:12” – that’s the content. You might think this was an idea for a book someone was writing. You might even think this was a pastor, jotting down an important Bible reference for his sermon on Sunday. It’s unlikely you’d think much of it and, unless someone placed it in your hand, you wouldn’t assume the message was for you.
A bumper sticker says “this is what I think or believe or something I find funny in short form. I stuck to my car so you’ll see it.” – that’s the message. Let’s stick with the same content – “John 8:12”. If you don’t instantly recognize the Bible verse you might make an assumption based on your previous experience with people who put Bible verses on their cars. If you’ve had a bad experience, you might assume it’s something about repenting, hell or how everyone but the guy with bumper sticker is wrong. If you’ve had a good experience, you might assume it’s about love, grace and/or something Jesus said. Although you know the bumper sticker is for you, it’s also inherently impersonal and easy to dismiss.
Now what happens if you put that same content on a gun? You may have seen the story about that very Bible reference inscribed on rifle scopes for US Military. A gun is a medium too. To the person holding it the message is “you are safe, you have power”. To the person it’s pointed at the message is “you’re my enemy and I’m going to kill you”. John 8:12 is a reference to Jesus’ words “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” To the soldier aiming the weapon, these words may be comforting as they go about their mission in what they see as a “dark” place in the world. To the enemy in the sights, the content doesn’t change the message at all – because he can’t see it! The message has content, but only for the person holding it. To an enemy, a gun – no matter what’s written on it – still says “you’re my enemy and I’m going to kill you”.
Media can send very different messages depending on which way it’s pointed.
See where I’m going with this?
It’s easy for us to think the content of a service is the message we’re sending. And the more we grow accustomed to our forms of media, the more we lose our awareness of the messages built into them. A stage says “look here! These people are famous/important/talented and they deserve your attention!” You may be singing and teaching about humility and it may seem right on target to your team. We might say it this way, “the message this morning is about humility.” And it is! But embedded in there is the message of the stage. The message of the cameras, the lights and the screens. The message of the V-neck striped t-shirts, designer jeans and carefully applied makeup.
When I was in high school I had a job selling musical instruments in a store that also sold Christian books and CDs. One day my friend Ben stopped by for drum sticks and wandered over to have a look at the Christian music displays. When he came back to pay for the sticks he said to me “I don’t see the difference between regular music and Christian music. They’re both just selling it with boobs.”
That’s quite a first impression! I have to wonder if Ben would have felt much differently after checking out a few songs or lyrics. Probably not. First impressions are notoriously difficult to change.
If the gospel is greatest message of all time, then Jesus must have a few things to teach us about effective communication. Let’s look at how Jesus tackled a topic like humility. Our first impression of Jesus is a baby, conceived out of wedlock and born in a cave to poor parents. At the high point of his influence he died a criminal’s death, mocked, beaten, cursed, with no possessions; wass buried in a borrowed grave and abandoned by his closest friends. Wow! If anybody embodied “the medium is the message” it was this guy!
How about we take it up a notch? How did Jesus communicate love? Here’s what his disciple, John, had to say:
This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. (1 John 3:16)
As evidenced by my writing these words, I have not died for anybody (yet). What I have done is produced a lot of church services. And sometimes, I fear, the message looked more like this,
This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to build a motion graphic out of it, put it on our giant screens and flash some lights into people’s eyes so they know we mean it. (not 1 John 3:16)
I work for a church with a big stage, lights, screens, and cameras – in fact, I’m in charge of them! And I have no plans to quit my job at the moment. So yes, I am going somewhere with this. It’s an important discussion and I think it’s healthy to dwell in the tension for a bit. Plus, this post is getting super-long so we’ll pick it up next week.
The comments are open for business, so let me know what you’re thinking!
[and special thanks to Joss Monson for the illustration! Go check out his work here!]