Why We Choose to Still Print Bulletins in a Green World

Zac HicksArt and Worship, Worship Theology & Thought12 Comments

It’s common in our day and age to get our chops busted when we waste paper.  More and more, organizations are pushing toward a paperless work environment.  Besides cutting down printing and hard material costs, it’s obviously better for the environment.

Churches use this same reasoning to advocate for worship services which are more projection-and-screen-based.  If they print anything for their service-goers, it’s often a simple half-sheet piece of paper.  Some, I have heard, even allow you to view the order of service through iPhone, iPad, and Android apps.  

There are good, biblical reasons to cut down paper usage.  We are stewards of creation.  We are not Gnostics, who believe that the material is bad and the spiritual is good.  Jesus came in the flesh to redeem our souls, our bodies, and the material earth.  In the eschaton, we will not only see God make a new heavens, but a new earth.  God cares about the physical, material world, and so should we.  

But are there good reasons why printing bulletins is still a valuable exercise?  Yes.  Many have noted that it’s very helpful and edifying for individuals and families to be able to take home the order of worship, to go over it, to relive it, and to meditate upon it.  However, this isn’t even the most profound reason.

My relationship with Denver artist, Jake Weidmann, has had a sharpening impact on my thinking about all of this.  (And, by the way, this is why it’s good to be connected with artists.  We don’t just “use” them to “artify” our lives and spaces.  Artists often approach the world from the vantage point of prophets who speak truth into our lives.)  Jake is a master penman, which means he is skilled in the old school artform of caligraphy and ink-and-pen flourishing.  He and I were recently talking about how the digital age has had the (perhaps unintended) effect of dehumanizing many of our experiences.  Jake sees it from the perspective of a very materially-dependent artist, skilled in the crafts drawing, writing, painting, and sculpting with his hands and with the hard materials of the earth.  In a world of slick graphic design (which is truly an artform in itself and not to be discounted) and the standardization of fonts and texts, we have perhaps made ourselves yet one more step removed from being able to celebrate and engage our earthy, physical, and human makeup in the visual arts.

Do you see how the logic carries over to a screened versus a papered service?  We mustn’t forget that the medium is the message.  What is the implicit message behind screens which display words which are here one second and gone the next?  Among many things, first, it certainly preaches ephemerality–things are fleeting.  But this is not at all the nature of our faith as Christians.  Our faith is grounded in deep, unchangeable truths and a Triune God who is from everlasting to everlasting.  Our faith is not ephemeral, and certainly our worship is not ephemeral.  It is, in fact, one of the most eternal practices we engage in as human beings on earth.  A physical, “permanent” order of worship in my hands, which is just “there,” sends a message consonant with the permanency and durability of our faith and worship.

Second, a screened, projected service preaches the immaterial over the material.  One can argue that the light particles from a projector are physical, but come on.    The difference between a relatively immaterial screen image and a solid piece of paper with print in one’s hand is stark.  It communicates that God is not only the ruler of the heavens and the immaterial world but the creator and sustainer of the rolling spheres.  Pure screen-based worship might be an appropriate message if we were Deists, but we’re not.  God is not removed from us.  He has taken on flesh.  God has identified with our humanness in the most intimate of ways.

The irony here, is that, yet again, the way forward might be the way back.  While the mantras of “keeping up with the times” and “connecting with our culture” tend to push us toward greater implementation of screened and projected technologies, perhaps it is more “relevant” and “cutting edge” in a culture awash in dehumanized ephemerality to present a faith which is appealing precisely because it offers something we all need but culture strains to provide–human, physical, embodied, permanent, and earthy.  I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had with folks who almost express a sense of relief over having a printed bulletin.  I don’t think the relief is based purely on a nostalgia for bygone days of worship.  There is in their relief (even if they can’t articulate it) a groaning of humans wanting to be human. 

Do we use screens at Cherry Creek?  Yes we do, and it’s very helpful for many things.  But we do so intentionally and simply, and we do so alongside our (admittedly tree-killing) printed material.  We refuse to allow ourselves to be blindly led into the technological future without important “media ecological” reflection.  So don’t hear me as advocating a kind of puritanical, screen-less approach (though that’s not entirely off the table).  All I’m saying is that in forward technological progression and in valuing the earth, we must be cautious about unintentionally chucking the baby out when we’re trying to slough off some bathwater.


(And yes, I recognize the irony of communicating this in a blog post.  Perhaps if I really wanted to make a statement, I would have printed it out and mailed it to all my readers, but that seems a bit excessive.)

12 Comments on “Why We Choose to Still Print Bulletins in a Green World”

  1. Of course, we could just go all the way and have a formal liturgy for all seasons and times, like Eastern, Catholic, and Anglican worship. 😉 Of course, I'm not actually advocating that. But I wonder if the call for more tangible materials matters in preaching too? Consider:

    Horton says there's a reason God chose the preached Word as the vehicle to communicate the actual Word (he makes no distinction between the two Words, by the way: whoa). It reminds us that as we receive preaching- for we must: hearing is primarily a passive action- we receive the Gospel and contribute no work to it.

    I wonder if screens actually rob the Gospel of its effectiveness in the preached Word then, requiring more activity from our "visual culture."

    I think we need to move more in the luddite direction than we might originally think. I think so when I have a conversation with a young life guy last night who said of a church, which is a great church, that he just couldn't stand it anymore because the church was so boring. Wow. This isn't a young life kid; it's a young life staffer. It made me hate the clamor for relevance inherent in evangelicalism that much more.

    Less screens. Less noise. More beauty.

  2. Thanks. Got me thinking.

    Jesus never printed a bulletin or projected his message in a Powerpoint – he used the medium of the day – the spoken word, and the written word (e.g. scrolls in the temple).

    We project words on the screen for the service, and provide printed bulletins, precisely because these are the most practical methods of delivery available today for their respective purposes, that suit the people who attend our church. For example, the projected words on the screen are larger and clearer (because we don't need to fit all the songs within the margins of a booklet of A5 pages). Plus, the screen encourages the congregation to lift their heads to sing, rather than heads-down trying to read a book in their hands.

    We print a bulletin that includes family news, a devotional, and announcements so that everyone can take it home to read at their leisure, instead of having to break the service to announce everything that's going on – also, many of our congregation still don't have a smart phone, let alone access to the Internet, so an electronic version is currently not planned. I'm all for ecological awareness, but it's possible for people to focus irrationally on the most visible perceived transgressions ("think of all the trees that died to print these bulletins") while ignoring the plank in their own eyes ("sure I leave the air conditioner on all day, hate to come home to a hot house"). It comes down to moderation – printing a few 100 A4 pages may not be ecologically correct, and could perhaps be mitigated by switching to recycled paper, but stopping the printing of bulletins would hardly make a real significant difference to our environment. Instead, in the interest of being good stewards of God's creation we'd rather focus on the biggest areas of waste in real terms – such as unnecessary use of electrical power, or closing the doors when the heaters are on, etc.

    If the medium does not meet the practical needs of those it's intended for, the practical problems cannot be compensated for by layering any kind of spiritual meaning on top of it. However, I do like the idea of a handcrafted (e.g. caligraphy) item for a special occasion, wherein the medium is itself an expression of worship. For example, we've had for many years a lady who would make little crosses, folded out of a palm leaf, and given to each attendee on Palm Sunday.

    On the other hand, if the medium itself is distracting from the message or worship (i.e. "wow I like the pretty lights") then it's not suiting its purpose. This is why we have a static, unchanging background for all our songs. No-one notices the background image anymore – even though it was painted beautifully by one of our digital artists – because our purpose was to draw attention away from the technology and to the message of the words being projected in front of it.

  3. Paper is a dead technology to me. I love having a bound Bible, but rarely use it except in study. I use my smartphone most of the time, referencing the bulletin for the passages used. But I toss the bulletin soon after I get home.

    A benefit of the projections (during singing) is keeping everyone's heads up and singing loudly.

  4. Zac, I never thought this day would come! The day when I can't support your post. Well, that's too harsh. I understand where you're coming from but I just can't get all the way there with you. It seems a bit hyperbolic to claim that having a printed bulletin makes our worship earthy and organic. If anything it is just as much of a crutch as our screens. The claim that the words on the screen are more ephemeral than a printed bulletin is obviously correct but neither is built for longevity. I doubt that many of your folks hang on to those bulletins for long. I also doubt that when you need to reference a service from the past that you refer to a physical file folder full of printed orders of service. I imagine that you do like most of us — search that hard drive, baby. A more logical end to your claim would be to stock our pews with the book of common prayer, those would be even more permanent and lasting and provide consistency in worship as well.
    Your post reads like a response to one of your youthful colleagues who perhaps questions why you don't lean farther into post-modernity.
    No matter, you're still my go-to-guy for all things worshippy!

  5. It really is important to look at what we do and what we use, and see how it impacts people in other ways than we intend. The impacts are generally never soon after, but much further in time after the change happens.

    In the past, preachers would stand behind huge pulpits when they spoke, didn't move much, and spoke from "larger" bibles. These slowly became images of authority that may not have meant to become what they did. It simply happened over time. So, some older brothers and sisters have struggled as we removed the larger pulpits (or all pulpits), started to walk around as we spoke (or sat down), and either used smaller Bibles or none at all (because it was on screen or in the bulletin).

    The changes took away what used to mean something important, but honestly, some may not understand what happened, but they feel something is off. To others who did not live through what use to be or experience the same, there is no connection, so it wouldn't "bother" them.

    Other similarities are using and now not using hymn books; because only people on stage can be heard with mics, only people on stage CAN speak and are important; whatever is done during our corporate gatherings and who is seen most is most important; the constant use of certain words to describe what we do slowly makes us believe those words only describe those certain things (examples: "worship", "church", "pastor", "prayer", etc.).

    We don't realize that our decisions to do and say things certain ways affects our people long-term. It means we need to think a little more about what we decide to do not just for the now, but for how it affects them 10 years later as well. And honestly, we need to desperately seek God for wisdom on what to do, because I know even if we could think of everything (we can't), only God knows the future and what is best for His people. Need to trust He'll take care of us.

  6. Dirk, you can always feel free to disagree. Please understand my argument, though. I am saying that the need for bulletins in our culture right now is probably more pressing when one of the things we're losing in broader culture, with our fragmented, postmodern, and "screened" world is a sense of permanency, rootedness. I'm saying printed bulletins as a medium serve to facilitate the message of the permanency of God, His Word, and the gospel better than screened media do. I'm not saying that they're the be all and end all. I'm not saying that there aren't even more "earthy" and "organic" media out there that would probably communicate that singular message better. But I am saying that printed media better serves that particular message than screened media do. I am merely comparing those two media because they're the most prevalent right now. My post is merely to raise the "medium is the message" flag so that we don't blindly adopt technologies without first observing their media ecological consequences.

  7. Adam, I love your thoughts and think that you're right on. I think I need to still grow in many of these areas of reflections. It's much easier to shoot from the hip and not realize the unintended consequences of what has been "communicated" in the loss of something or the adoption of something else.

  8. Hey Zac, is is possible to throw a pdf of your printed bulletin up to have a look at?
    Being creatively challenged, I like seeing what others are doing, and am always happy to steal borrow more helpful formats when I see them.

  9. Cool, guys. Thanks for the interest. Keep on the lookout for a post next week, Lord-willing. I'll try to put up a bunch of examples AND give folks access to my full document of worship notes.

  10. Years ago I was the hip young Young Life worker and then pastor that railed about the old ways and how the older pastors were dinosaurs and how God was doing a new thing. I now find myself as the older pastor that is irrelevant and a dinosaur and needing to get out of the way because God is doing a new thing.

    I would love to live long enough to see all the fresh, cutting edge pastors today become the old guys and find that God is doing a new thing.

    I say this in amusement and all Christian love.

    From a guy that came out of the Jesus Revolution.

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