Ecclesiastical PowerPoint:

a Cost/Benefit Analysis

 

 

by Steve Byrnes

 

 

 

There is a tradition in some churches – singing songs projected on a wall – that just doesn’t seem to fit the sensibilities of the typical, conservative Lutheran layman. The question arises: Are church-going Lutheran people just being stuck in their “churchiness” when they raise problems with the importation of new technology into the church service? I, for one, don’t think so. I believe this is a function of the immune system of the body of Christ and we ignore that at our peril. The church has a natural resistance to change because her identity taps into eternal realities which do not change. But could it be that the church in our day has developed an auto-immune syndrome? Are our desires to keep everything the same killing evangelism which is the life and purpose of the church? This is the question raised by much of the church growth and emerging church gurus as they seek to improve ecclesiastical technique.

 

It isn’t necessarily bad when the church resists things because they are new. The Christian faith has been around a long time and while just because something is new doesn’t necessarily disqualify its use, more often than not the “new and improved” has turned out to be a mixed blessing at best. We should not simply adopt a technology uncritically because of successful application in other venues.

 

When adapting a tool, especially a complicated one like PowerPoint, we must consider what the tool's first purpose is. Is its stated purpose the same as the purpose for which it is generally used? In adapting it for a new purpose, will there be unintended consequences? PowerPoint’s first purpose is as tool to aid in the creation “of exciting slide shows with graphics, animations, and multimedia—and make them easier to present.” And that is the way presenters attempt to use it for the most part. People who are attempting to sell an idea or present a new business model or give a pep-talk love it. It keeps them on track, allows them to organize notes and generally takes the audiences focus off of them and puts it on the screen. A series of PowerPoint slides is a way to control the scope of a presentation and also control an audience.

 

Edward Tufte, the noted information design expert and Professor Emeritus at Yale University says in his essay, The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint, that “PowerPoint is entirely presenter-oriented, and not content-oriented, not audience-oriented.” The PowerPoint presentation is generally loved by presenters but almost universally hated by the audiences subjected to them. It is easy to build a PowerPoint presentation. Microsoft has all sorts of templates and animations that you can use. The problem is that they’ve made it too easy. Any idiot can build a PowerPoint Presentation and just about every idiot does. When you don’t have a background in design in general, and information design in particular, you may be able to put stuff down on paper or on a slide to great effect. With Microsoft helping you, you're liable to take something you could have elucidated on your own and turn it into an information abortion.

 

The key problem with PowerPoint is that as a medium, it embodies (or perhaps disembodies) a message that goes against the grain of the Gospel proclamation. Its associations with use in sales and business are one aspect of this. And how it engages us as a medium is another.

 

A Medium of Exchange

 

So then, the stated purpose is that PowerPoint will help you to get through material that you are presenting in a business meeting. It is an accepted and expected form of boardroom communication (emphasis on the “board” part). However, what it generally gets used for is not a rich critical analysis of business models but to sell stuff in a “rah, rah” fashion. This has led to the general conclusion among business people that if the guy up front is using PowerPoint, he is generally trying to sell you a product or a plan in a condescending fashion while obfuscating the true nature of the pitch or the thing he’s pitching. Therefore, for all the time and energy that’s spent on them, they are generally hated, distrusted and ignored.

 

Ignored by Association or “Pay no attention to the Man behind the projector.”

 

It doesn’t matter what you are projecting up in the front of the church. It is going to do two things which, while seemingly contradictory, will both occur. You will move the focus of service to the projection, whatever it is (we postmodern people are mesmerized by any type of lighted moving image) and you will move the focus away from the meaning of the text you are projecting (this is at least true for business people who can smell the excreta that permeates the executive boardroom even if they can’t tell you exactly from where it emanates).

 

T.V. Generation

 

Speaking of images on a screen - we are inundated with TV screens, projections, and moving images and words of every sort from every invading medium that Madison Avenue can throw at us and have been all our lives. We’ve been hard wired for this from the time we were able to crawl over to the RCA and plop ourselves down for our weekly dosage of Bugs Bunny cartoons and breakfast cereal hawkers. We have almost no defense for this anymore, and since we swim in it every day, it may take a concerted effort (a whip made of knotted cords, perhaps?) to root it out of the Church. I think making the church building a sanctuary from marauding advertisers and their usual methods is a good idea. Not only should they be absent, but any reminder of them should be absent as well.

Focus

 

I am jealous for the Word and for the Sacraments as they are presented in our liturgy. Lutherans, at their best, have focused all of their ecclesiastical architecture on these two things as well, by using a pulpit, an altar, and a font. Solid things. In a church that isn’t afraid of using symbols and art, a projected, temporary image can, and I believe will, quite literally take the focus off of those solid things which represent our faith so well. Even the cross (or crucifix) usually placed somewhere in the sanctuary of every Lutheran church I’ve attended will fade into the background - hopefully not taking the theology it represents with it.

 

A Minimum of Interchange

 

Thinning Things Out

 

PowerPoint is a very thin medium as compared with a book as Tufte points out, “PP slides projected up on the wall are very low resolution compared to paper.” You only see what the presenter or the limitations of the medium allow you to see. How does this work in a liturgical application? It winds up being a kind of forced spoon-feeding. While it does make it easier to recite a liturgical formula – provided that you aren’t nearsighted or blind – it winds up doing damage to context. You can't look ahead to see what comes next, or look back to see where you've been. Unfortunately, we have been set up by our culture to have a permanent condition of short-term memory loss. We hear and see a constant stream of sound bytes and images – one replacing the other in succession, often with no logical connection whatever. (Neil Postman has noted how we can have a sober conversation of the possibility of nuclear annihilation interrupted by the words "And now this from Burger King!" -- and we don't even consider how bizarre this is when it occurs.) It is dangerous for the Church to play in this arena. While the constantly changing images are very titillating and entertaining, our critical thinking gets thrown off-line. Our faith has a strong cognitive component that we wind up ditching if we insert the liturgy into a PowerPoint presentation.

 

Follow the Bouncing Ball

 

We often adopt things into the church uncritically because they seem to be working elsewhere. The lock-step design of PowerPoint, the relentless progress of a business presentation, would seem to lend itself to liturgy as we get towed along in the wake of corporate worship. I think this is a very wrong way to view Christian worship. It is not something in which the faithful should just flow like a river. Worship is also a job. It is a calling – a vocation. It has an active component rather than being simply passive (Psalm 95, Romans 12:1-2). It is the believer’s response of faith in, and love for Jesus express-ed in a formal way, and doctrine plays a part. The liturgy of the Church should involve every part of us – heart, mind and strength. The Stalinist approach to information in PowerPoint tends to leave the “mind” part out of church worship. It puts people into a passive, “entertainment” mode – even when they’re singing along.

 

"Lord, Help Us Ever to Retain"

 

Of course, the ideal situation would be to have the whole of the liturgy memorized. The liturgy contained in the various settings for the divine service could then be viewed as a set of visual training wheels – there to help the newcomer, or us if we should get lost. Why can’t PowerPoint serve in this capacity? Well, it could. But the question arises: Is it a better tool than the Hymnal we have been using? My answer to this is no. In the process of memorization, the element of confidence is vital. You must be able to look away from the thing you are memorizing in order to test yourself. It is by the constant testing of our memory that it gets stronger. You don’t really have the option to look away from a PowerPoint presentation on the front wall of the church – this convenience completely removes the motivation to memorize. It also removes the positive peer pressure of others having memorized what you are attempting to make your own. They are all looking at the slide, so you have no idea whether or not they have thought it worthy of memorization. When I say positive peer pressure, I’m talking about the motivation to internalize the liturgy as a tool available to the individual Christian at all times. It is often difficult to express the value of this to a new believer. To be able to sing the hymns of Christendom in any circumstance is a wonderful thing. I’m not saying that people who have it memorized are better Christians for having done so. Generally, they’ve just been around longer. Memorization is a function of time and exposure as well. They aren’t better, just better for it.

 

As a side note, familiarization with the hymnal is a good thing too. Would you ever know "Lord, Help Us Ever to Retain" was a hymn (LW 477, TLH 288) without it? A PowerPoint presentation of this nature doesn’t have a table of contents – mainly because it doesn’t need one. To put it in a funny way, it is an immediate medium. You are where you are and that’s that. If PowerPoint is used in a church service, I believe books will eventually be removed from the pews and much that isn’t in the service will be missed because the liturgy doesn’t have the whole hymnal as its context. The church-goer will never have to look up the Catechism or the Service for Baptism. Many will miss out on much that the Hymnal has to offer because PowerPoint is an easier and broader road.

 

Mutability

 

Along with losing the impetus to familiarity with the hymnal, you lose its stability. A projection of the text of the liturgy works against the real gift of liturgy – having the thing memorized. Even with stylistic changes every twenty years, the hymnal acts as an anchor for the church, helping to hold it in place on a sea of constant change. Its core has remained the same for centuries. Worship is involved with eternal realities and a hymnal that can be handed down from parent to child does a far better job of embodying the unchanging nature of our doctrine and worship than a bodiless PowerPoint presentation that can be changed at a moment’s notice, probably without anyone being the wiser.

 

At the risk of being labeled a Luddite, I’m going to say the Prayer Book and Hymnal (along with an old fashioned hymn board) is a far better medium for conveying the content of our faith and practice in worship. I know it can be more difficult at first, but so is Lutheran doctrine. §

 


Steve Byrnes is a member of Faith Lutheran Church in Capistrano Beach California. He is a graduate of Christ College Irvine (now home to Concordia University), majoring in English Literature, and Westminster Seminary in Escondido, where he took a Master of Arts in Biblical studies. Steve lives in Mission Viejo.

 

This article originally appeared in Old Solar magazine, a witty and sharply intellectual on-line theological journal. Check it out at www.oldsolar.com. Our thanks to Rick Ritchie for permission to reprint it here. The name Old Solar is taken from the language of the unfallen races in C.S. Lewis’ Space Triology.

 

 

 

 

Letter to the Editor

 

 

 

Editor Peter Berg responded to this letter.

 

David Berger writes

 

Let me add my expression of premature sorrow at your planned demise, although somewhere you gave the impression that you have allowed yourselves leeway in this matter. The article in III:1 on PowerPoint was so good, i.e., relevant, that I shared it with our practical theology department, along with the back page information, including the "cutting-edge" cartoon.  In retrospect, I find it interesting that my initial acquaintance with the ubiquitous Gatesian sales-oriented software was a presentation by our current SP, who was a DP at the time.  As for PP, just give me the printoffs and skip the presentation. Regarding its use in a worship setting, forget it.  What's the "point"? 

 

Aaron Moldenhauer's letter to the editor (with editorial responses) on women's communing other women struck another sensitive nerve.  It appears that WELS DPs and theologians have been reading LCMS CTCR reports.  (Or is the current Lutheran theological Zeitgeist universally pervasive?  Maybe we all drink the same brand of beer?)  The WELS COP quote at the bottom of p. 13, col. 2, captures precisely the spirit, if not the exact wording, of an LCMS CTCR report of 1983 on "Theology and Practice of the Lord's Supper," subsequently quoted in another report on "Women in the Church" (1985) and now, in substance, in the recently issued "Guidelines for the Service of Women in Congregation Offices." (Keep your eye on the bouncing statement as it lands in one document after another.)  And be aware that the statement itself had its genesis in a Q&A section at the end of the 1983 report.

 

"May women serve as assistants in the distribution of the Lord's Supper? While some [?] might argue that assisting the presiding minister in the distribution of the elements is not necessarily [?] a distinctive function of the pastoral office, the commission strongly recommends that, to avoid confusion regarding the office of the public ministry and to avoid giving offense to the church, such assistance be limited to men."  (Women in the Church, Sept. 1985, p. 47)

 

Look familiar? (As I said, we must all be drinking the same theological beer.) Who are the "some," and what is the substance of their claim?  Why is it given any credence?  So that we can say that "confusion" and "offense" are the only reasons we recommend against the practice?   (AC XIV; XXVIII,5; and FC-SD VII, 83-84 are not relevant?)   Imagine the dynamic of that CTCR discussion as the commissioners tried to compose their answer to the nagging question about women's assisting at the Lord's Supper.  How can we satisfy everyone?  In the end, the answer really satisfies no one, at least for the present.  Those who support the practice must now bide their time.  Once the risk of "confusion" and "offense" is no longer an issue, they can get on with their agenda.

 

Continue to publish as long as you can.  The issues you deal with have an impact on us all.

 

8MM Thank you for the kind comments.

 

A strange brew indeed. After making the leap from the WELS to the LCMS I've also noticed the similarity in the way that the two synods do their theology. Paul's prohibitions will be of no help to those with a minimalist hermeneutic. After all, he doesn't give distribution rules. The answer to the question at hand is obvious to those who view God and man ontologically, but this seems to be a stretch for those who can only proof-text. (PMB)