- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
Before a sermon at New Life Wesleyan Church in La Plata last month, two artists appeared to pray. Musicians played guitars and keyboard. Vocalists filled the sanctuary with harmony. Stage crews sent clouds of mist through rainbow beams of light streaking the air. Then the two men began to paint.
Each of them, darting back and forth and using a row of cans and sticks and brushes, created half of a larger-than-life image of Christ wearing a crown of thorns.
When they were done, they brought the pieces together. One rested above the other, allowing the hair, eyes and nose on one piece to meet the mouth and chin on the other. Then a crew used thin cords to hoist the finished work high above the center of the stage.
They did this five times during the five worship services held, as usual, over the weekend. Congregants applauded, some cried, others yelled “Hallelujah.”
Day by day, more pastors in Southern Maryland are reaching out to current and potential members through less-than-conventional means. They’re using the arts and Facebook. They’re conducting Bible studies through text messaging and posting sermons online. They’re building computer-based, tithe-paying kiosks in vestibules. And, they’re creating online giving options where members can set up accounts and have offerings automatically deducted from personal checking accounts.
‘It’s not flash for the sake of flash’
“I want to say technology is a new thing that the church has had to wrestle with. But that is not true,” said Pastor Mike Hilson of New Life. “If I take you back to the 1600s, Johann Sebastian Bach was bringing new technology called pipe organs into churches, and people were freaking out about it.”
Hilson also has a church group in Gainesville, Va., where they hear sermons entirely by video. “The congregation went through a crisis that left them needing to start over, so we went in and helped them to start over,” he said.
As new technology and a more relaxed style of worship seem to be attracting new members by the hundreds for some congregations, many of those churches are expanding, holding worship services on Saturday nights to make it convenient, and more welcoming for parishioners who work Sundays or for those with children who play sports on weekend mornings.
And so those hundreds of new members can hear and see. Pulpits look more like stages, and preachers are outfitted with mini-microphones, and their images are projected onto giant screens.
Shawn Holcomb, pastor of Crossroad Christian Church in St. Leonard, said his congregation has seen a high-tech boom. “Six years ago, the extent of our technology was a projector to put up words of songs and an electric guitar.” Today, he said, they can show clips to highlight points in sermons, and members can pay tithes at an electronic kiosk linked directly to the church bank account.
“Nobody carries cash anymore,” Holcomb said. So they just swipe a card. Or they pay by text message. “The text giving is so cool because it’s so simple,” he said. Parishioners can just tap in a number on their phone, indicate the dollar amount and hit send.
The world is coming at people faster, Holcomb said. “Their attention span is much shorter than it used to be.” He wants to reach souls, and “our focus has to be spiritual.” So, Holcomb also has led a 21-day Bible study through text messages and recently had 17 participants. Sessions lasted about 10 minutes. First thing in the morning, he said, people can spend time with God.
“We’ve got to stay in the word every day,” Holcomb said, referring to the scriptures. Technology, he said, has become a tool to make that easier.
“It’s not flash for the sake of flash,” said Pastor Robert Hahn of Chesapeake Church, which is expanding in Huntingtown from seating for about 350 to 700 in the adult sanctuary and adding sign language and support for families that have children with special needs.
Technology, he said, “is a means to communicate excellence and quality.” If you watch television or movies, the “secular world” usually communicates in high quality. Suddenly, you come to the church, Hahn said, and everybody wants to use equipment that is “300 years old.
“When Jesus would go out on the Sea of Galilee to preach, water was a natural amplifier,” Hahn said. When the Sermon on the Mount was given, Hahn said, Jesus was speaking into an amphitheater. “He used the technology of the day.”
Today’s churches, he said, are communicating in a highly technical world.
“The sermon really spoke to me today,” said Rusty McGuire, after the art- and spirit-filled service at New Life.
Before he started going there about eight months ago, McGuire said he had spent some time getting in trouble. He’s spent time in jail. And that kind of history, he said, has been familiar in his family. “I’m trying to break the cycle,” he said.
Members laughed at pastor/artist Bryan Sells’ jokes told with a Southern accent wrapped around a few terms of urban slang. But, Sells also got serious and said he had been hooked on drugs. He thought about suicide, that “if I just died, everyone in my life would be OK.”
Teens in the congregation were silent. A few adults called out in response. But all eyes seemed to be on him.
Then, Sells said, the Holy Spirit visited him in a jail cell, and the name “Jesus” popped into his head, over and over. He had new direction, and he soon made a commitment to serve Christ.
“Jesus finds you no matter where you are,” Sells said into the microphone, on the stage, with lights shining down. “He’ll find you laid out somewhere,” Sells said. But he also can look beyond the brokenness and see what he created. “And he thinks it’s beautiful.”
Although the delivery style seemed new, accentuated by special effects, there was plenty mention of scripture that was thousands of years old. Sells referred to the Old Testament book of Jeremiah, Chapter 29. It says, “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord. Plans to prosper you and not harm you, plans to give you hope and a future” through prayer and seeking him with the whole heart.
“Each individual in this room has a plan for your life that Jesus himself has laid out for you,” Sells said. “But you have to surrender all of your heart.” You have to be committed, humble and make sacrifices.
‘Focus on the word’
Worshipers still have to hold true to values, said Chaplain Jeffrey Augustin from his office at Patuxent River Naval Air Station. That, he said, includes husbands and wives being “sexually pure” and focused on each other and children being raised on God’s word.
“How the message is presented will change,” said Augustin, who uses a program called iWorship to play presentations, music and project images during services. But the substance of God’s message should not, he said. That is understood through study, experience and growth.
And, “when we talk about spiritual growth,” Augustin said, “the older generation would understand that it happens in a community.”
“Kids with phones have created this private world, with just a bunch of silly texts,” he said. “Often they become indifferent. We have to step away from our private worlds. We have to engage with other people.”
That means serving, maybe through repairing someone’s home, or providing meals to hungry families. For a clergy member, that might mean encouraging a member to put down his or her phone, shut down the email, and come into the office for a one-on-one conversation.
People come to churches seeking something, said Bob Timmons, who was whacking weeds one Friday to make things a little neater before Sunday worship at the Leonardtown Church of the Nazarene. Some need something positive in their lives. Others are looking to make friendships and find a place where they belong.
His congregation has different members of different races, ages and professions — and they all have their own struggles. But they get through them together with traditional practices, like singing and shouting and baptisms. Timmons said they also have an online prayer list where members can send updates and get-well notices. “If you’re on the list and you’re not in church, often two or three from the church will call,” he said. “Almost every day, you have people who need prayer.”
But what may be most refreshing, at least for Timmons, isn’t Internet capability or anything high-tech. It’s the lack of a massive organizational structure, and the lack of judgment and exclusion from peers that makes some parishioners uncomfortable.
Timmons said he has been to church, in the past, out of obligation. “I said, we’re missing the boat. Let’s talk about the meaning of salvation.”
“If people can begin to see love and embrace the meaning of love, their minds will be so open, and more people will want to know Christ,” said Ceandra Scott, a St. Mary’s photographer who uses technology to “capture the movement of God” through the way people worship and through nature. She said she works with 11 churches.
“If I can keep my focus on God and not on people, then I’m all right,” she said. “You come in as you are, and you will evolve,” Scott said. “I promise you that you are going to evolve.”
“If we could just love a little better, churches would be flooded with people,” Scott said. “And, I see many growing in that direction.”
It starts with something much simpler than wiring big-screen televisions and launching social media outreach campaigns.
“In the body of Christ” (meaning the church), Scott said, “Can I walk up to you and embrace you and you have tattoos everywhere? In the body of Christ, can I walk up to you and hug you and you just got out of jail for a crime that I do not like?” she asked. “But, it’s not about me.”
“Focus on the word,” Scott said, referring to the scriptures. “It teaches you love.”