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Worship in an A.I. World

"... in our approach to gathering, we need to allow technology to serve the people's worship, not dictate it."

On a recent podcast that I was part of, one of the pastors made an interesting comment that I've begun to process in light of all of the press coverage about concerns over A.I. (Artificial Intelligence). He mentioned that they do not do overhead projection of any kind, preferring song sheets so that people can take the songs home and sing them during the week. I do love the intentionality of going more "retro", even though some may disagree that having to stare down at a sheet removes some of the sense of corporateness that caused many churches to move from hymnals to projection a few decades ago, and even limits the participation in actions or physical expression of worship.

Now, it's been rather humorous to watch people ask Chat GPT to "create the lyrics for a song in the style of Hillsong", or whatever, and to see the result of what appears to be a composite of existing phrases and themes found in many contemporary worship songs. But that aside, how is the church supposed to wrestle with technology as it impinges on the church? Should we fear it? Embrace it? Reject it?

Some Examples…

Take the topic of lyrics again and remember that up until the 15th Century there were no hymnals (nor Bibles) in pews. The Gutenberg Press revolutionized the commodification of word and song in a format that made it portable and accessible to many more and spawned the Sunday School movement to increase general literacy, so that the commoner could read the Bible for themselves, instead of relying solely on what a priest said about faith. The prayer book followed suit as an aid to personal and corporate worship,[1] especially with the order of liturgy placed in their hands, enabling them to participate in readings and prayers along with the minister. And, of course, hymnals became a staple of worship as the cost of printing went down.

Yet, that battle goes back even farther. Other than a few outliers,[2] it wasn't until the development of music script notation in around the 10th C. that there was a general way of passing down melodies in more than simply an aural (by ear) manner.[3]

Moreover, the church wrestled with new musical technologies. Never mind synthesizers and electric guitars, Early Church era instruments included the likes of simplistic percussive instruments, plus flutes, lutes, harps, and so on - some of which we see in the Psalms. But, by and large, music technology did not change all that much until the Middle Ages and the development of new keyboard instrumentation. Some, like those committed to strict the Regulative Principle of worship, would say that if the Bible doesn't mention it, we should avoid using it altogether.

Keeping the Main Thing…

I know we won't settle some of these issues quickly, but my goal is to help us remember that in our approach to gathering, we need to allow technology to serve the people's worship, not dictate it. We can become excited by new implementations of lighting, sound, or stage decor, all in the name of aesthetics and quality of production. Yet, in the end liturgy is, as the Greek meaning tells us, the work of the people. Churches in developing parts of our world are thriving without some of the technological gadgetry that we in the developed world have access to.

We can never know at its outset how something like A.I. will impact The Church and its worship. Technology will continue to advance, for better or worse, and the church will need to know what to do with it. At the heart of what we do in ministry, our focus on 'equipping the saints for the work of ministry' (Eph. 4:12) must remain a priority for those who serve among us. Whether it is making them better sound techs, better vocalists, or challenging them to be better musicians by not relying on tracks to play hooks and other parts, let us continue to place people before production. In the end, when people serve with the talents and abilities they have, they will know the satisfaction that they have been part of the discipleship process that happens every Sunday as we meet to worship our Lord!

Article originally posted on The Worship Leader Institute website

[1] The Book of Common Prayer was originally produced by Thomas Cranmer in England in 1549.

[2] Perhaps the most famous early music manuscript is of a hymn found on papyrus in Oxyrhyncus, Egypt in the 18th C., believed to be from a Christian community in the 3rd C. A.D.

[3] A. Wilson-Dickson, The Story of Christian Music; Lion Publishing, Oxford, 1992; p32.

Photo by Uriel Soberanes, courtesy Unsplash.