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.)