NEW YORK – The lights are dim and the audience's eyes focus on the looming images projected before them. It's not a movie screening or a video presentation. This is a high-tech church sermon.
In an effort to appeal to the younger, and often non-church-going population, churches are bringing technology such as cameras, projection screens and computers into their worship ministries.
One of the first churches to incorporate technology into its service was Ginghamsburg Church in Tipp City, Ohio. In 1994, the church began using what Kim Miller, the church's creative director, calls “multi-sensory worship.”
“We recognized that as humans we learn through using all of our senses,” said Miller. “Since most of us are visual, we need to see and not only hear the Christian message.”
Ginghamsburg Church decides on a collective theme for each service based on Pastor Mike Slaughter’s weekly message, which often draws from pop culture such as a recent “Dad Almighty” service that played off the Jim Carrey movie Bruce Almighty.
Once the theme has been decided, a team puts the service together and a graphic artist designs a logo. For the “Dad Almighty” service, the image was similar to the movie’s poster and was projected onto the screen throughout the service.
The media director also assembles video stories of member's experiences that illustrate the theme. And cameras project the minister’s sermon onto screens throughout the church.
The screen, Miller said, “becomes a modern-day stained glass window as stories are told through the projected images." By using new media (search), Miller said they're “recapturing the art of storytelling.”
Since 1994, the number of attendees at the church has grown from 1,200 to 3,000, and the church now holds five services, or what Ginghamsburg calls “celebrations," per week.
While it may not appeal to traditionalists, this updated take on worship has drawn a new crowd.
"Our target audience are those turned off by traditional church," explained Miller.
Similarly in 1996, Westwinds Community Church in Jackson, Mich., underwent a change in their "philosophy of ministry," meaning their focus and method for reaching people, according to the church’s pastor, Ron Martoia.
Martoia believed that the traditional church service didn't draw newcomers. “So we said, 'Let’s take a cue from MTV (search), from TV commercials and what’s capturing people’s attention.'”
Westwinds decided to enhance the worship experience by making it more sensory and layered. Using its state-of-the-art facility, the non-denominational church’s services are held in a hi-tech auditorium that includes 24 portal outlets for live Internet connections and multiple screens for projecting video, man-on-the-street interviews and art projects, since the church places great emphasis on creatively sharing the Christian faith.
“It’s church the way it ought to be done,” said Martoia.
Most unique to Westwinds is a digital confession in which a parishioner can share his or her experience of faith with the congregation. As the person types the testimonial into a live computer terminal, the words are projected onto a screen.
Martoia, a self-described “techno freak,” even uses a Tablet PC to deliver his sermon, and said the technology has strengthened his ministry “big time!” In four years, the congregation has grown from around 300 to more than 1,000.
But even smaller churches like Wesley United Methodist Church in Union City, Ind., with a weekly attendance of 150 people, are incorporating technology into their traditional worship services with PowerPoint (search) presentations and hymn lyrics projected onto a large screen.
“Part of the reason for using [PowerPoint] is to keep those who are used to multitasking and using multimedia interested,” said Wesley’s pastor, Don Brenneman.
But Brenneman also recognizes the difficulties in changing the traditional church service format.
The cost of maintaining the equipment and the time it takes to use PowerPoint can be overwhelming for smaller churches.
"It's a lot of work putting slides together each week," he said. "It doubles the usual amount of time needed to prepare for the service.
“Also, the down side is that to those from the radio generation, the screen projections can be distracting,” he said. “It’s hard to please everyone."
While the hardest sell for postmodern churches is getting the older generation on board, Brenneman said some senior citizens find the images helpful.
And at Westwinds, Martoia said of his congregation: “You’d be surprised how many 60-year-olds are saying, ‘We love to see this kind of life and energy in the church.’”
But there are still some areas where most people resist multimedia devices, such as weddings. Martoia has performed some matrimonial services in his avant-garde church, but is often asked to perform them in a more traditional setting.
Tradition, it seems, still has relevance in this new high-tech world.