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When silence speaks volumes

After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave …

I’M SURE you’ve seen pictures of the Amish. They are those people in America who still ride in buggies pulled by horses, wear clothes fashioned in the 19th century and to all practical purposes would seem to have become stuck in a bygone era.

What is often not recognised is that they represent one subsection of a much larger spiritual movement that arose in the 16th century and continues to this day in groups such as the Mennonites, the Amana community, and others. To varying degrees, these groups sought to establish Christian communities as alternatives to the fallen order of the secular world.

A critical area of concern was the dehumanisation that seemed to go hand in hand with the advance of mechanical technology. They did not reject technological development or utilisation outright but they were concerned that without proper reflection and discipline, rather than man mastering machines, machines would master them. They believed proper discernment be exercised with technology so that progress was kept in tune with man’s chief end to “glorify God and enjoy him forever”.

As Christian communities, they looked at the overall utility of technology before they approved its place in the life of the community. Some inventions they used, others they rejected and some they modified and improved. The Amana colonies of Iowa grew rich through their use and improvement of technology and today represent one of the most lucrative producers of home appliances in America.

I mention this because I sense that our love affair with gadgets and our desire to have them and use them can be obsessive to the point that it detracts from our relationship with others and with God. Indeed, if God speaks in a “still small voice”, we may be in serious trouble. Life in the age of gadgets is hardly more peaceful and focused upon our Christian priorities.

At food courts and restaurants, we are bombarded by noise from loudspeakers and TV sets. We fill our days with the trite whether that be endlessly exercising our right thumbs sending SMS or losing our vision staring at video games, the Internet, or the vacuous nonsense of situation comedies. It’s not that any of these activities are evil. Rather that they are technology that would substitute distraction for a life well lived.

More importantly, I fear that our need for distraction has begun to affect our worship. Rather than providing the space and stillness necessary to hear “the still small voice of God”, worship is too often filled with techno-gimmicks, incessant talking, and a blur of images and talk that tries to fill up every minute with audio or visual stimulation.

It is rare now that during a communion I find myself able to reflect quietly upon the sacrifice of Christ, without the preacher telling me exactly what I ought to be thinking at every moment. With the invention of PowerPoint, there is now the temptation to become ever more sensational in our electronic pyrotechnics.

As one who uses PowerPoint and other technology for lectures and at times worship, I’m not decrying their use, but I do fear that we need to reflect upon their use to ensure that we enhance rather than distract from worship.

Thus, I believe we can learn something from the Amish. Technology should not be taken on blindly but with reflection and true spiritual discipline so that its use accords with the true ends of worship.

What are those ends and how can they guide us to use the gift of technology in our worship wisely? The object of worship is the majesty and praise of God. This is why the Reformers emphasised simplicity in worship. The heavily ornamented cathedrals of the Romanists had become spiritual entertainment halls with all sorts of gimmicks that would rival even Disneyland today.

In contrast, the early churches of the Reformers were architecturally designed so that the focus of the worshipper was not distracted from the pure Gospel and the Sacraments. In the same manner we should examine our use of technology in the worship service to ensure that it does not distract or become so ostentatious that people are more interested in wowing the crowd than on hearing and receiving the Word of God.

A good rule of thumb is to only use technology to the extent that it enhances, defines or clarifies the meaning of Scripture or the Sacrament. If it distracts, merely seeks to entertain, or actually diminishes the Word and Rite, then it is not appropriate for worship.

Some years back I was working with a doctor who shared with me that as a boy he had grown up in the church but in his college years had fallen away. He said he had grown tired of services that were noisy, wordy and distracting and had simply quit going to church. Nonetheless, he confessed that every once in a while he attended his wife’s Orthodox Church. When I asked him whether he enjoyed the service, he said that although he retained his doubts about faith, he enjoyed the quiet sanctuary and the beauty of the ritual refreshed him.

I didn’t see him for a couple of years after that conversation, but upon meeting again I asked if he had continued visiting his wife’s church. He laughed and said he now tried to attend church every week. When I asked what brought about the change, with a wry smile, he laughed and said, “I guess amidst the quiet and the ritual, I began to hear God again, and once you’ve heard His voice it is hard to stay away.”

The Rev Dr Tom Harvey is a lecturer at Trinity Theological College and works with the Singapore Presbyterian Church as a Partner in Mission from the Presbyterian Church (USA).

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