Backstory: Church of the higher tech

The Rev. Mike Laird has the church meet in a movie theater for the same reason he leads a theology discussion group in a nearby bar: People feel at ease in the environment.

The Rev. Mike Laird is standing in front of his congregation, admonishing them about patience. Not patience as a generic virtue. But patience with him.

It's a summer Sunday morning, and many of the high-tech gadgets that give the North Shore Chapel its up-to-date identity aren't working. The clip from "The Matrix" won't play. The Bible verses displayed on a big screen aren't the ones he wants. The soundtrack to a slide show of kids doing arts and crafts cuts off abruptly.

It doesn't help that the service is being held in a rented discount movie theater, creating perhaps a heightened expectation for special effects, especially when God is involved. But the church's volunteer technology expert is unexpectedly absent: His wife is giving birth. "Today, I'm taking a mulligan," Mr. Laird says, plaintively.

Balky equipment aside, a growing number of churches are joining the movement toward a digitized ministry. From experimental congregations to mainline denominations, they are using jumbo screens, websites, sophisticated videos – everything but God thundering out of a cloud – to attact worshipers and relate to people in the language of today.

Critics rue the potential of bells and Whistler-like video images to distract from the deeper meaning of church. But as the techno-worship trend matures, users say it's serving a profound purpose: turning sideline sitters into active church participants, cultivating compassion, and making it easier for the taciturn to tell inspiring stories.

Technology is becoming more pervasive. Between 2000 and 2005, the percentage of Protestant churches using large-screen projection systems jumped from 39 to 62, according to The Barna Group, a Ventura, Calif.-based church research firm. More than half now also have websites, send out mass e-mail blasts, and incorporate video into services. Stoic Congregationalists at times use film clips to illustrate a spiritual point. Pentecostals use giant monitors to show fellow worshipers sweating, waving arms, or collapsing because they've been "slain in the Spirit."

North Shore Chapel member Julie Gil knows the merits of techno-religion. She became a Christian about six years ago while reading Tim LaHaye's bestselling novel, "Left Behind: A Novel of the Earth's Last Days," closely identifying with a career-focused character who has a conversion. Still, few knew how she came to trust God because she feared public speaking. Then a church member videotaped her during a small group discussion and produced a five-minute version for Sunday worship. "Although I knew I was being videotaped, I didn't really think about the camera," Ms. Gil says. "So it was just like talking to a friend."

In some cases, video seems to elicit as much compassion as a sermon. In Kansas, for instance, a pastor recently brought a teenage church member to a nursing home, where he videotaped her interviewing a church elder who hadn't been to a service in 10 years. The congregation watched a three-minute clip and later inundated her with birthday cards. "She was kind of teary-eyed about how much she missed church," says John Jewell Jr., assistant professor of ministry and technology at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary in Iowa.

Still, not everyone is enamored with the trend toward digital worship. Technology can feed an idolatrous tendency in America, one that says everything from education to energy has a technological solution, according to Quentin Schultze, a professor of communication at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., and author of "High-Tech Worship? Using Presentation Technologies Wisely." "Our overly optimistic attitude toward using presentational technologies in worship reveals the quick-fix mentality of our times," Mr. Schultze writes in his book.

Others feel churches aren't using new media enough in services. For ones that do, experts say a few principles govern the effectiveness of the technology. Mr. Jewell, for one, believes it works best when the gadgetry is not the focus of attention. He suggests using home-grown images and sounds that strike a chord with the congregation. The content also should be appropriate. Jewell recalls one of his student pastors who used neon colors and music from U2 in a presentation for an elderly congregation.

Technology is definitely the lifeblood of the North Shore Chapel, a part of the Christian Reformed Church in North America that claims John Calvin as its spiritual ancestor. During the week, the pastor offers spiritual guidance by e-mail. Some members donate money through automatic bank withdrawals, which allows the church to avoid collections on Sunday morning. Many members worship daily by logging into sacredspace.ie, a website operated by Irish Jesuits. "If you have a nine-to-five job in the cube [cubicle], you show up 15 minutes early and have quiet prayer time," Laird says.

At the theater, 30 minutes before the service, a screening room feels like an electronic lab. Volunteer Elizabeth Gilman loads tunes from her iPod into a software system designed for churches. Another member tests still shots on a big screen – a sunrise, storm waves battering a castle, a foggy harbor – selected to illustrate the idea of trusting God under all circumstances. The smooth presentation belies the perennial debates that go into it: Is God best revealed in human emotions? Animals at play? Desolate landscapes?

A keyboardist reads notes from an electronic screen, and teenagers in T-shirts and shorts warm up their voices and guitars. To them, the technology provides a welcome distraction for the audience. "I'm leading them in worshiping God, not us," says singer Natasha Skovron. "So it helps that they're not watching us."

The church meets in a theater, Laird says, for the same reason he leads a theology discussion group in a nearby bar: People feel at ease in the environment. Attendees, mostly young adults and children, agree the technology makes them feel more comfortable. Construction worker Kevin Toerne of Danvers, Mass., whose children go to nursery and Sunday school in adjacent screening rooms, says the "upbeat music" and visuals help make the church less "stuffy."

Julie Shimer of Rowley believes it all keeps the ministry relevant. "It makes it seem like [the church's message] is not an old traditional thing that doesn't apply to your life," she says.

Some of those most moved by the techno-ministry are the ones who have participated in staging the service. Rob Kristoff hadn't thought much about hymn lyrics until he had to pick among some 3,000 electronic images to illustrate spiritual themes. The experience made him think hard about the purpose of worship. "If a song is about the bread of life, they [in the congregation] don't just need to see bread," he says. "They need to see what it looks like to be hungry."

With a noon matinee scheduled, worshipers pack their equipment and disappear into the suburban traffic. With that, they go their separate ways – at least until everyone gets back to their computer.

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