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Data Screens

Screens Don’t Solve Bad Worship

Data Screens

Yes, projecting words (and images) onto screens can be used well in some worship, but it is not a panacea for bad liturgy – it can even make things worse.

Screens are inherently about being passive. Your only action: look at them. They are part of a passive culture – we don’t go out to participate in nature, we watch it on TV. In a culture that thinks the real action in liturgy is what happens up front, that has to bring people to do things up front for them to get any sense of participating, screens can reduce rather than increase the sense of liturgy being something we all do together.

People complain about the layout in the Prayer Book, that it presents too many options within the text, that this is a reason we clutter our services with too many words. In practice I see communities that use screens use just as many words if not more.

Screens increase the destructive tendency to reduce liturgy to words. Instead of gathering around God’s table to give thanks and break bread, we stare at words on a screen, waiting for our next words to say. Instead of gathering around the font to be part of baptising someone into Christ’s Church, we stare at words on a screen, waiting for our next words to say. [Our NZ rites are particularly detrimental – there’s regularly yet another pile of unmemorised words that we are directed to say just when we should be participating in action!]

I was recently at a service where, during the readings, it was not the words of the reading up on the screen. During the time of the reading an introduction and commentary to the reading was up on the screen. Was the intention for us to read the screen’s commentary, or hear what the Spirit was saying to us, the Church, in God’s Word, or somehow both at once?!

Screens regularly hide art and symbolism, and disrupt beauty. Children, especially, but also all of us, are enriched by images in stained glass, and the beauty of many of our buildings. I see beautiful stained glass, that a not-yet-reading child could find a focus, covered with screens to turn liturgy even more into words, words, and more words.

I have been present when, half way through a service, the projector just stops. Have you got a contingency plan? [We’ve all been present when the person projecting gets confused, or what is projected isn’t what we are supposed to be seeing].

I have often stressed that we have a tendency in liturgy to attempt to replicate big, successful services and churches. You see people trying to clone cathedral worship in little parish churches – in robes, processions, rituals, etc., rather than contextualising worship to this group of people in this particular space at this concrete time. And screens are often like that. We see mega-church worship in their auditorium with a band and screens – and we clone that, however passive our band makes the worship, and without thinking of better ways than screens that might fit our particular context.

How much training and study is done about screen size to space ratios, font types, colours, size,…?

And you might want to read this as well. [Link added after comment below].

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35 thoughts on “Screens Don’t Solve Bad Worship”

  1. I love the “you can see how many verses you still have to get through”!

    I found an interesting article stating that the US Conference of Catholic Bishops has told one Catholic parish that they may not project the readings; but also that the same argument might be used to prevent printing the readings in a missal, missalette, etc. Here’s the link: http://secondnaturejournal.com/catholic-parish-not-allowed-to-project-scripture-readings-on-screens/


    1. Thanks, Matt. There is much to reflect on in that – the idea that screens “modernise”, and that the reasoning against projecting is primarily copyright. I would question projecting prayers proclaimed. If someone was saying grace before a meal, would we demand the text and have it projected up on a screen?! Again it turns corporate listening into individualised reading. We do the same with our ordination rite. “Here are the Gospels of Christ; read from them, and proclaim the good news” in our deaconing rite is reduced to handing a personal New Testament (rather than the church’s book of the Gospels) which the new deacon takes home to read privately (turning the words to the bizarre interpretation that s/he has never seen a New Testament before!!!) – rather than commissioning the deacon to proclaim the Gospel (well so that it doesn’t need to be on a screen) in the liturgy (“read from”). Blessings.

    2. Just found this and really hope someone is still looking at comments. I hate the projectors at Mass. It’s distracting and undignified. Makes me feel I’m at a karaoke bar. I’m starting to fear they’re going to be everywhere so I’ll be unable to attend Mass. The worst part is the one priest using it in our town, and his pastoral associate, are a weird combo of arrogant and ditzy. The priest tells people “the Vatican likes it” ?! The Vatican probably doesn’t know anything about it. Give me a break!

        1. Blessings back to you for getting how ridiculous that is. I love Mother Church, but the human priests in it can come up with some crazy comments. Thanks

  2. …and my favourite peeve with liturgical screens is services concocted from Google. Bits and pieces of liturgy from all over the place stitched together with scant regard for how they all flow together. So wild changes in style and imagery to say nothing of theological integrity. Usually of course presented in hideous fonts with distracting backgrounds and all in garish colours.

  3. Couldn’t agree with you more on this one – and your posting was timely in light of a discussion I’ve been having with one ‘worship venue’ (i.e. not one of the church buildings that are regularly used in the parish) who insist on projecting EVERY word used during the liturgy – their argument being that the ‘audience’ (their word not mine) isn’t familiar with the style of language, and therefore the words need to be projected in order for the ‘audience’ to participate in the liturgy.
    It’s like banging my head against a brick wall sometimes…

    1. Thanks, Andrew. This ‘audience’ has clearly never been an ‘audience’ at a play, movie, or concert! Blessings.

  4. Thanks so much for stating the obvious. I am all for getting the congregation to fully _participate_ in worship. Both the congregation and the clergy perform worship for/to God. God is the audience! Another excellent point is contingency. Ya gotta have a backup plan!

    Yes, PowerPoint and other media are great tools. But I still remember vividly sitting in the choir loft during Sunday morning worship at the Lutheran church where I grew up, reading in the front of the hymnal about the liturgical practices of the church. I’m afraid I wasn’t always listening to the sermon. (Sorry, Pastor!) However, that was how I developed my love for liturgical practices, and how much they add to worship–especially for someone like me, who is so drawn to visual and auditory stimulation.

  5. Gillian Trewinnard

    After 17 years not attending any church, and with a varied denominational background, I returned to the ‘fold’ in an Anglican church in Christchurch NZ some years ago. The people held the NZ Prayer Book in their hands but in fact most knew the Eucharisitic liturgy by heart. Naturally, within a few months, I knew it by heart too – and loved it with all my heart. A few years later I moved to a country town parish that uses a screen. Most of the people are in their 60s, 70s and 80s and have been Anglicans all their lives, but they no longer know the liturgy by heart. When there is a problem with the computer, projector, or operator, they don’t know what to say next. It seems that screens have the ability to make us ‘unlearn’ what we used to know by heart. And it doesn’t help that the liturgy is sometimes cobbled together from several sources.

    1. Thanks, Gillian. I think your point about increasing memory-dependency is a fascinating one to add to the passive screen-culture. Knowing things by heart is decreasing because we can just “look it up”. Blessings.

      1. Not sure this makes any sense. So you’re saying that looking at a screen as opposed to looking at a book decreases memorization because it’s passive? We can simply look it up in the book too. This isn’t an either or debate but unfortunately this sounds a lot like it is.

        You do say “Yes, projecting words (and images) onto screens can be used well in some worship” but you then use the rest of the article to speak against this. That’s to bad.

        1. Thanks for seeking clarification of my brief reply to Gillian, Fleming.

          My reference to our being a “look it up” culture was to our culture generally. History dates, just to take one example, are not memorised in education in the way they once were, because people just “google” such things now.

          Although you say it isn’t “either or”, you may need to clarify your own brief comment, because it appears to me that that is what you are presenting. Some of the strongest things I say and write are trying to stop people from having heads in books in liturgy and using books badly in liturgy. I very rarely write about the use of screens. I write lots about using books. I certainly don’t think that in all (most) cases screens are the best answer to the problems of books. Have you seen my introductory video?


  6. Let’s not make a judgement based on bad examples. There are good and bad ways to use screens. Some of us have studied (and given training on) questions regarding typography, placement of screens as not to further clutter or distract the worship space, how to not give a script for the whole service, but just the prompts for correct responses. Used well a projector for common worship enables the congregation to follow with clarity and confidence. In my experience it is much easier to glance at a screen to check I have the right response than to shift focus to a book in my hand. And using projected responses has answered the question of how to get the congregation’s head out of their books – it has been nice to hear then respond with gusto and see the whites of their eyes for a change!

    1. Thanks, Chris.

      I began with the point, and repeat it: “Projecting words (and images) onto screens can be used well in some worship”.

      I note the photo of your recent induction (blessings on you and your community). I see on the screen: “GREETINGS” – some sort of picture of a crown with a cross in the top; lots of pretty squiggles; then a statement, “Chaired by the Archdeacon An opportunity is now given for some parish and community leaders to welcome the new Vicar The Vicar responds”; then more pretty squiggles. All this is on and visible at the centre of your church building while they and you are speaking. I think this is totally unnecessary clutter and distracting. I think that at such a moment in a service the focus should be on those speaking; the screen distracts from rather than enhances the moment.

      When you say “Some of us have studied” – where and by whom are these studies offered? I think it should not be “Some of us” but, as with training and study in other 21st-century technology (websites, social media,…) this should be integral to all current priestly training and an essential part of ongoing ministry training for all clergy in active ministry in the 21st century. Is there a compulsory course on contemporary technology at St John’s College?


  7. I’m thinking that a few of the commentors here are from the “I hate screens on principle” league – or have just never been in a church which chose to really think about and study the role of technology.

    And I agree with you: if the only way to install a screen is to cover stained glass, then probably screens aren’t a good fit for your church – maybe you should consider column-mounted large screen TVs instead. If your operator is inexperienced, things can be confused (so spend time training and working with them). If they fail, it can be a disaster (so have a back up plan in place – including a songsheet that you can photocopy if needs-be).

    But used well, screens free the music programme from the tyrrany of the hymnal (it’s not in our book we can’t use it). They let you use verses 1, 2 and 5 without half the people launching into verse 3 at the 2/3 mark. They let you do mix things up even with an unpractised congregation (men only on verse 3). They let you show well-chosen images or even videos – at exactly the right time to that support a sermon message. They stop you from needing to throw away reams of paper with Scripture printed on it. And they focus people on the hymn we are singing right now, instead of the other ones that they like better and wish they were singing instead.

    People have done plenty of research into screen size to space ratios, font types, colours, size. Much of it is not church-specific. Here’s one example:

    A few years ago, I spent considerable time looking for research results – and came to the conclusion that apart from some general principles (use fonts designed for screens, use light on dark if you can control ambient light or vice versa if you cannot, make the colours harmonise with your building and test font sizes in place, be consistent) there is no one best solution.

    Computers don’t make a bad process better: They just make failures faster and more obvious. But with a good process they can be very effective.

    Believe that the same is true of screens: they don’t fix worship problems, but can greatly enhance well planned worship.

    1. I’m sorry, Mary, I don’t see the “I hate screens on principle” league.

      Like you, I think screens in some contexts can be used well. I repeat again, that’s how I began the post. But I’m not convinced by all your points. I think the sense of God’s family gathering around God’s table is not enhanced by your suggestion of having God’s family staring at TV screens on building columns. I’m not sure how the technology failing in the middle of a service can be saved by your suggestion to have a sheet ready to be photocopied. And I have repeatedly declared my own position (including once again in this thread) against printing off copies of the scriptures being proclaimed.


  8. “Screens increase the destructive tendency to reduce liturgy to words. Instead of gathering around God’s table to give thanks and break bread, we stare at words on a screen, waiting for our next words to say. Instead of gathering around the font to be part of baptising someone into Christ’s Church, we stare at words on a screen, waiting for our next words to say.”

    A powerful summary of the problem. I hope it will stir lament in the soul of everyone who reads your words. I hope your words get printed in large letters and hung on the wall of every seminary classroom where liturgy and worship leading is considered.

  9. I don’t entirely agree.
    Some churches use data projectors like the old Overhead Projector and it’s terrible.
    Some put far too many words on the screen.
    Operators are sometimes slow to change slides and words can be wrong from the spoken word too.

    But done well data projectors can evoke the imagination and awaken the spirit just like anything else.
    I think some people can become idol-like over their prayer books too.
    In the end the goal of church worship is our corporate response to God.

    1. Thanks, Owen. You seem to imply it’s either screens or prayer books? Poke around this site and you’ll find I’m quite against people at liturgy with heads buried in books all the time. If you are interested, start with my talk here and then read my free online book, Celebrating Eucharist.


  10. I guess the nest thing, Bosco, might be ‘Virtual Worship’, in which there is no corporeal representation of altar or priest. These could appear on a screen, just ‘doing the manual acts of the Eucharistic Liturgy’, with appropriate pauses for readings, band numbers, songs and hymns recorded for the occasion by readily accessible formatted disc technology (from ‘Office Central. The sacred Elements could have been consecrated beforehand and dispensed by automatic machines in the aisles

    This would suit the casual worshipper’s tastes maybe, but not the ideal of corporate worship around the altar, which is what real Liturgy is really all about.

    1. Yes, Fr Ron, there has been, in the past, much discussion about this. On this site, one of my early, strong positions on this is here. Blessings.

  11. I like the debate over projector screens. It tells us a lot, because the two ‘sides’ are actually arguing about two different things… two things that can become idols if we are not careful.

    It seems to me that it’s not an argument over the best way of doing something. It’s actually an argument over two very different things, two priorities, that by chance end up competing for over the same bit of space. People who like screens prioritise welcome and accessibility. People who prefer not to have screens tend to prioritise beauty and space. (Unfortunately, both ‘sides’ often then marshall every argument they can find, fogging the debate no end.)

    It seems pretty obvious that both sides have valid aspirations. Churches that cannot welcome new generations will die. Churches that cannot offer God beauty out of their worship are broken. A good welcome is pastoral. A good space aids prayer.

    A more useful debate then, becomes how to ensure that our services are accessible AND beautiful. This is a challenge to be tackled on a church by church basis, because each church will have its own mission – or at least its own way of interpreting the mission of the church in its context – and each church will have its own community with peculiar set of needs and hopes.

    Only by insisting that the debate be worked out locally, church by church, can we avoid any of these priorities – accessiblitiy, beauty, welcome, good liturgy – from becoming idols that jerk our little souls around and distract us from the business of drawing ourslevs into the worship of the one true God.

    1. Thanks, Simon. You may very well be right that many discuss these out of those two different paradigms. On this site I provide a lot of ways of encouraging church communities to grow and flourish, and be welcoming to all. So I do not fit your dualism. I see little reference to your “prioritising beauty and space” in my original post. I do think you add an interesting point – I think it is very counter productive where, in wanting to be welcoming to visitors, we treat all regulars as visitors. Blessings.

      1. Thanks Bosco. I thought your post was very helpful, and I wasn’t trying to fit you into one or other of the ‘paradigms’, I promise!

        I believe – as I sense you do – that a desire for good worship comes first, and debates about tools (screen or no screen) should flow from that. Your post helpfully highlights many of the hazards with screens – hazards that others may not have thought of.

        I genuinely do believe that there is no ‘on principle’ way of making this decision, and I genuinely do have no preference outside of the actual setting of the church where I worship.

        There are a great many factors peculiar to each individual church, if and when they come up against this decision, about the space, the capacity and needs of the congregation, the vision for welcome and growth, the shape of liturgy…. and so much more. The decision will be worth taking carefully and collectively, involving as many as possible, because it then becomes a formational process in its own right, signalling the values of the church in action, and demonstrating how faith is put into practice.

        Best wishes and thanks for a very helpful blog site. Not looking forward to your absence during Lent 🙁

        1. Thanks, Simon. I’m certainly an early adopter with much technology, and I use interactive projectors, screens, and shared Google Docs etc as much as possible, find they enhance what I am doing, and seek training to keep on the cutting edge in many contexts. I take care, also, that what is appropriate and works well in one situation might be a disaster in another. I think we are very much on the same page. Thanks for your encouragement. Blessings.

  12. My wife is partially sighted and can rarely read the screen. Backgrounds are often a picture – which is which when I can’t read it either. Should large print be available (not always the case) then the print and the screen often fail to correspond. For me, a high mounted screen literally gives me a pain in the neck due to neck injury. So we tend to avoid Churches and other gatherings which rely on screens.

  13. On trips away, when Diana and I are looking around for a place to worship; wherever screen are obvious, we move on. It usually means there is little attention given to the central figure of Christ in the Mass.

  14. I would like to “See” the Homily that is given by a priest who has English as a second language.
    I am 70 years old, wife is 76, mom is 95. We cannot hear as well as we used to. And “interpreting” the message that is not spoken well in English is impossible. Also we spend many minutes trying to find the hymns and readings in the books provided. (then the priest says a prayer not in the book anyway)

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