One of the first objections I hear from pastors regarding the use of digital technology in worship is,
“Then people will be too distracted, I want them to be completely focused on the sermon.”
I don’t buy it, for several reasons.
First, this makes the assumption that people ever were “completely focused on the sermon.” Well, perhaps “ever” is too strong a word. It makes the assumption that people have been focused on the sermon at any point since the advent of recorded (and then broadcast) media. Since this advent, the choice has been between mostly “ok” preachers, and a recording of your favorite entertainment or a really good preacher/teacher. Is it any wonder people have been finding it difficult to listen to what is preached in churches since the late 1800’s?
Second, the desire as expressed above is too narrow. I guess I can’t blame the preachers I know. After all, in Protestant circles, we spend a lot of time being taught how to preach during our education. On the other hand, we don’t spend a significant amount of time on the nature of worship. Is it any wonder we think of worship as, “Three songs, an offering, and a sermon?” The reality is, we need to help people focus on the entire pageant of worship – and not simply the sermon. If this is the case, and I believe it is, then perhaps digital technology could be helpful rather than distracting.
Third, it assumes that taking away people’s digital devices would mean their attention would be automatically focused where we want people to focus. This isn’t the case. Taking away digital devices will merely shift a people who are naturally distracted and shift their attention to a new distraction. These range anywhere from writing out a shopping list, playing hangman with a neighbor, doodling on the bulletin, or (when all else fails) napping. My working theory would be the subtraction of digital devices in low-church Protestant worship, in particular, would actually increase the amount of people being distracted from worship by their bad napping habit.
So, if people are going to be distracted anyway, what can we do? Do we simply give up and never hope people learn/grow/change through worship? Not at all.
People are distracted, but many are able to sit through a sporting event, movie, or TV show with no problems – and even point out details later on. Why? Because there is movement. The shifts in these media are such that it changes people’s perceptions and keeps their attention. Churches, particularly low-Church Protestants, need to remember worship needs a movement to it. People need to be able to change their eye levels, move their body position, and even cheer when the drama of God is unfolded (a good liturgical “Alleluia!” is a wonderful example of this).
We can also, frankly, preach differently. Aside from using a screen well (which I cover here), we can also work our content to match our audience. Preaching is about communication, not about getting through a weighty manuscript and tossing out huge amounts of data at people. We can always stretch people to be able to focus for longer periods of time, and we should do this, but perhaps preaching isn’t the best venue for this. How many of us have been in, or preached, sermons where the main point was covered ten minutes earlier – but the sermon keeps on going because there are stories to tell and quotations to utter forth? What if we just cut off the sermon when the main point was made?
Finally we need to allow for the truth that people will be distracted. We are not an “all there” society, and haven’t been for generations. We are a “here and elsewhere” society, and this was true long before the advent of texting. If we use digital devices to aid in the awareness that worship is a movement, however, perhaps we can subvert a distracting influence and make it an ally to help people be more “present.” No, it’s not an easy path to walk – and for some people a digital device will never help them focus. I do know, however, that it’s easier help people turn the wheel toward a different heading, than it is to scream out against a forward momentum which has been gaining steam for over a century. One lands us in a different location, the other gets us run over and bitter. I’ll choose the former.