The Father, the Son and the Holy JumboTron

In the new Media Reformation, churches employ high-tech gizmos and hip spin to boost their diminishing flocks.

Published April 15, 2002 7:32PM (EDT)

"What did Jesus do?" asks Michael Slaughter, pastor of Ginghamsburg Church in Tipp City, Ohio. "Jesus spoke in parables, which was storytelling -- it wasn't abstract ideas. It was passing on wisdom through the telling of stories."

And telling stories, says Slaughter, is what he is doing every Sunday, albeit with an arguably unholy twist. Where Jesus might have relied on little more than his voice and a nice turn of phrase, Slaughter employs a huge screen and Sony 3-chip studio cameras, an SVHS-format video system, Media 100 nonlinear digital video editing equipment and a Hughes/JVC 320 projection system -- all of it operated by something called "the worship team."

He also operates a Web site, complete with discussion boards. "We are doing a series on marriage and home," reads one posting. "I'm looking for a video clip that shows a wife supporting her husband and vice versa. Any ideas?" A response: "In Father of the Bride Part 2 (my wife made me watch it) there are a coupla scenes when the husband totally pampers his pregnant wife." Other discussion threads: subwoofer placement; which mini-DV camcorder to buy; and which image, converted into a slide and presented via PowerPoint during a service, will best communicate "sanctification."

Signs of the apocalypse? Heavens no, say the leaders of up-and-coming "media churches." Hell yes, say critics of the trend. For his part, Slaughter calls the Media Reformation, a label he coined in his book "Out on the Edge," a revolutionary bid by wired church leaders to keep religion alive. If the church doesn't adopt electronic media -- the language of the postmodern culture -- it will lose the next generation and the next and eventually die out, he says. The evidence? According to Christianity Today, church attendance went from close to 50 percent of the population in the late '50s to 43 percent in 1999. In other words, church attendance diminished even as baby boomers came along and increased market share.

But at Ginghamsburg, attendance has gone from 1,200 to 4,000 since Slaughter began integrating multimedia into his services in December 1994. He started with a single screen and has continued to add bells and whistles ever since, boosting his flock and his reputation. In fact, Slaughter's success and aggressive outreach efforts have prodded a growing number of pastors into the digital age, bringing slick production values and a hip spin on doctrine into churches across the country. New media churches have even popped up in the typically staid Northeast.

"We have a new stained-glass window," says Leonard Sweet, dean of the theological school at Drew University in New Jersey. "It's called the screen."

A typical service at Ginghamsburg begins with the church band's jazzy rendition of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," piped through a state-of-the-art surround-sound system. Congregants then watch a three-minute video clip from the "Wizard of Oz," specifically, Dorothy embarking on her journey with the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion and the Scarecrow. There are yellow bricks stacked on the altar table. The theme of the service? Traveling companions: You need them. Don't go down that yellow brick road (to God) alone.

Next: A prayer, another song, a dramatic sketch and a short message from Slaughter followed by another band number. This time the musicians break into "I'll Be There for You," the theme from "Friends." The lyrics appear on a theater-size screen.

The Ginghamsburg service is as staged, though not as well-rehearsed, as a Broadway show. Slaughter says the worship team began to conceptualize this particular program four days earlier, when Ginghamsburg's four full-time media staffers, plus some of the church's media volunteers (there are 75 to 100), gathered in a conference room on the church's 100-acre campus to brainstorm.

Slaughter describes the creative process behind the worship services in his book, which can be purchased at Ginghamsburg's online store or at the conferences hosted by the pastor and his worship team. At their Ohio facility the group recently led a one-day seminar called the M3 Conference (the three "m's" are multimedia, multisensory and multicultural), which was attended by 500 pastors (at $90 a pop) from all over the country. The day consisted of two keynote speeches and four "break-out workshops in the worship arts," which range from multimedia to graphic design. The gathering was a variation on the Media Reformation conference that Ginghamsburg has hosted in 30 cities nationwide since 1996.

Though he is often identified as the leader of the media church trend, Slaughter isn't the only one involved in what has become a lucrative cottage industry. Companies like Highway Video, a small production outfit based in Mountain View, Calif., produce videos as worship tools, selling them to interested churches and religious organizations. The content of Highway Video's creations, each about three to five minutes long, varies from documentary-style man-on-the-street interviews about religion and spirituality, to abstract images of fast-moving clouds superimposed with scriptural verse.

In one video, called "Are You Ready?" images of a subway platform with cars racing by in fast-motion and people walking down a busy city street flash by as the voice of a young man says, "I've been following you all day. I saw you talking to your friends, to your family -- I have so many gifts for you. That fiery rise over the low hills this morning? My idea. So was that cool breeze over the mountain." In the end, "he" asks if "you" are ready to receive his gifts. It's God as a sort of all-powerful benevolent stalker.

In the spring of last year, Highway Video had 300 clients. Currently that list is closing in on 4,000, most of them evangelical churches, including all Christian denominations. Who else is using video and other multimedia? A 2001 study of 14,000 American houses of worship -- from Judeo-Christian to Buddhist -- by the Hartford Institute for Religious Research, determined that 40 percent use visual projection equipment, and 16 percent say this equipment is "always" in use. Two-thirds use electric instruments or recorded music during services; one-third use these resources "often." But Scott Thumma from the Hartford Institute says it's mostly Christian houses of worship -- especially evangelical -- that are getting into religious showbiz.

"For a lot of other groups," says Thumma, "it just doesn't resonate with their culture. Their way of worshipping rules out the possibility." Non-Western cultures are not (yet) as media-obsessed, he says. Plus, evangelicals have a history of investing in new inventions -- a pipe organ, a slot on local cable -- that will attract followers. Their focus has long been on presentation, on watching the pastor perform and even creating a cult of personality around him. It's something they share with Baptist churches, which also have adopted new media with gusto.

But it isn't just historical precedent behind the churches' faith in multimedia. And it isn't just evangelical churches that are ready to take the leap. The problem that Sweet calls "the mass exodus from traditional religion in Western culture," is a huge motivation. To illustrate the seriousness of the phenomenon, Sweet points out that on Sundays in London, more people are visiting the local IKEA than all of the churches combined. Attendance patterns aren't much better in the United States.

Kimon Sargeant, a Ph.D. in the sociology of religion, explains the trend this way: With the movement in Western society toward a culture of choice and individuality, churches are no longer guaranteed the next generation's attendance. Something had to change -- church had to become as attractive as secular forms of entertainment, as gripping as the Super Bowl, MTV or "The X-Files," or perish.

Which is where Michael Slaughter comes in. "When's the last time you wanted to spend all day at church?" he asks. It is a rhetorical invitation to appreciate his approach: There is no room in the variety show at Ginghamsburg Church for the audience to become bored.

Renaissance, a 2-year-old nondenominational church in Millburn, N.J., is a brand-new media church. Founders spent the bulk of their start-up money on audio-visual equipment, even before they had a permanent home. Every Sunday, their "setup team" hauls equipment in two trailers to the local high school, where they rent the auditorium and several classrooms for the children's ministry. It takes about four hours for tech setup.

Renaissance creative director Steve Young has grand plans for media programming. He wants to create a kind of video wallpaper that will run during the entire service. There'll be montages and constant surges of images -- a concept similar to Highway Video's "vibe videos," which show images of sunsets, mountains, the ocean and the sky, sped up like those science-class videos of a flower morphing from bud to bloom, only the church ones are branded with phrases like "Don't be afraid," or "There's nothing to fear," or "Be patient."

Young describes with palpable excitement the lines he's seen outside one church in Texas that presents Christian rock concerts as part of their Generation X ministry on Saturday nights. "They start lining up hours before the doors open," he says. "It's like a U2 concert."

For now, though, Renaissance is decidedly less high-tech than Ginghamsburg, and the church's 40 members are not knocking down any doors. Their service begins with David Cobia, Renaissance's pastor, and Young, both dressed casually in cords and jeans, playing some Christian rock songs -- Cobia's on lead guitar and Young is on the keyboard. The lyrics are projected onto the home-movie-size screen on the stage behind them. There's a PowerPoint presentation of graphics that illustrate the Scriptures, then the words themselves, and for one interactive segment, Rorschach ink blots. Later in the service, a clip from "Four Weddings and a Funeral" is shown. It's the scene where the bumbling minister botches a wedding ceremony, illustrating how tongue-tied you can get when you're trying to explain your faith.

Cobia created a special series of services called "Living a High Impact Life" (its visual metaphor, shown on-screen, was a field of wheat blowing in the wind) to prepare his core flock for Easter, the day that Renaissance threw open its doors to the public. The event was supplemented by what Young calls a "marketing blitz," developed by the church's Leadership Group working in tandem with a California ad agency whose clients include Coca-Cola and Nike. Says Cobia, the folks at the agency "get what we're about" since they've worked with these kinds of churches before -- in California. Renaissance couldn't find a local ad agency able to think of church as anything but traditional.

(Some preliminary designs from the California firm went a little too far with the technological theme: One ad had an image of a PalmPilot against a solid red background with copy about the church printed inside the PDA's screen. It was too small to read, but the agency was on the right track.)

In one service, Cobia gets to the heart of what he and other religious leaders believe is a major obstacle in bringing new parishioners to the pews. When he asks his audience to name the first thing that comes to mind when he says the word "evangelist," no one speaks, so he answers himself: embarrassment. He cites a poll in which people were asked to rate occupations by their degree of honesty -- evangelists came third to last, above drug dealers and organized crime bosses.

If Cobia had gone on to list some specifics, he might have hit on Tammy Faye and Jim Bakker as well as the caricature of the evangelical priest preaching about hellfire and brimstone, or pop-culture parallels like Ned Flanders and the Church Lady. These are the associations that churches like Ginghamsburg and Renaissance are trying to shake to attract a clientele that's turned off by the preconceived notions of organized religion.

But it is by straying from hellfire and brimstone that churches of the Media Reformation are infuriating their peers. Mainline Protestants call this brand of church "religion lite" and "Hallmark card religion." In his book "Losing Our Virtue: Why the Church Must Recover Its Moral Vision," evangelical theologian Dave Wells says, "With tricks, gadgets, gimmicks and marketing ploys, it shamelessly adapts itself to our emptied out, blinded, postmodern world."

Gary Gilley, pastor of the Southern View Chapel in Springfield, Ill., has written in his church newsletter (in boldface), "The gospel is not about helping Harry [a typical new churchgoer] feel better about himself and his circumstances; it is about his rebelliousness against a holy God who will ultimately condemn him to hell if he does not repent and trust in Christ for the forgiveness of his sins."

Leonard Sweet sees this criticism as a necessary symptom of change. He compares what's going on now, this "turning" as he calls it, to the Protestant Reformation, which was prompted by the invention of the printing press and Martin Luther's determination to mass-produce the Bible in the language of the common people. That rabble-rouser was accused of heresy and forced to hide for his life in a castle. "These turnings can be quite difficult for the church to go through," says Sweet. No one is likely to die for the Media Reformation, though Ginghamsburg and its disciples will likely endure eternal grumbling from traditionalists.

Os Guiness, a prolific old-school evangelical pastor, predicts that media-driven churches will fold once their fickle consumers -- baby boomers and Generation Xers -- fall out of love with the product on offer. If it's lights, video and music that attracts them to God, he reasons, their staying power will last only until the next bright, shiny thing comes along and catches their attention. "Will today's cutting-edge pastor suddenly find himself stampeded by the herd tomorrow?" he asks.

But Sweet argues that this particular turning is actually a return to the past, to medieval forms of worship. Multimedia is a throwback to a pre-literate culture, he says, before the Protestant Reformation, before the invention of the printing press, when churchgoers read images -- church paintings, stained glass windows, tapestries -- instead of words.

"Images and metaphors are so much deeper and more complex than words," says Sweet. "It's the most primary language -- when you dream, do you dream in words? The natural language of your mind is metaphors and images."

What would Jesus do? Lord knows he employed occasional dramatic flair, if not mind-bending feats of faith, in his appearances before crowds of heathens and believers alike. Would he approve of soundboards, JumboTrons and movie clips? Impossible to say, but theoretically, the media-friendly ministers will find out -- if not in this world, then in another.

By Caroline Tiger

Caroline Tiger is on the staff of Philadelphia magazine.

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