Worship on Screen: Congregational Singing, Digital Devotional Images, and the New Audiovisual Iconography #crassh3c (Monique Ingalis)

A Christian band uses ProPresenter 5 to show lyrics for an evangelical congregation.

Monique Ingalls (University of Cambridge): Worship on Screen: Congregational Singing, Digital Devotional Images, and the New Audiovisual Iconography
Social media platforms such as YouTube have enabled music, images, and religious devotional practices to become conjoined in new and complex ways. This paper uses internet ethnography and multimedia analysis to explore the devotional practices surrounding several popular evangelical Christian worship music videos on YouTube. In these devotional videos, amateur creators overlay commercial audio recordings of their favorite congregational worship songs with a variety of visual effects, including moving imagery, film clips, still photographs, song lyrics, and bible verses.
This paper sketches the shape of the new networked worship practices enabled by the creation and sharing of these small-screen devotional videos and highlights the broader social and economic implications of their use. I argue that the worship video can be regarded as a form of twenty-first century audiovisual iconography—a multimedia devotional resource that draws together the preexisting strands of evangelical visual piety surrounding mass-mediated devotional images and the ‘worship lifestyle’ invoked by commercial worship music recordings. By following worship videos’ complex pathways of circulation, I demonstrate the ways in which musical devotional practices are woven together as they move from the small screens of private worship to the large screens of public worship and back again. As these videos play an increasingly important role in (re-)mediating worship music, evangelical congregational worship is being transformed into a site of audiovisual convergence in which song lyrics, images, and music are combined into a powerful experiential whole. Religious audiovisual media insert themselves into the structures of daily life which enables them, in conjunction with a range of other offline practices, to shape embodied ways of listening, viewing, and worshipping.

Evangelicalism : Continuing Protestant Iconoclasm?

Paper today discusses Protestant uses of digital technologies in devotional rituals. Lyrics projected – an early example. The repertory used is ‘Contemporary Worship Music‘. Several centres of global production (Nashville; Sydney; London). Shared via social media. How have circulation patterns changed? Monique attempted to work out the 5 most sung songs of 2011 in the USA.

  • How Great is Your God
  • Mighty To Save
  • Our God
  • Blessed Be Your Name
  • Here I Am To Worship

These songs were searched in a social media network to see how many amateur or corporate cover versions existed online.

These top 5 worship songs were contrasted with amateur videos for the contemporaneous Billboard Hot 100. The primary difference was the prevalence (in the worship music videos) of background images, along with a greater use of text. We now look at Blessed Be Your Name.

The song form is briefly discussed – being unremarkable structurally. We see a list of image types in the sample set of 50 amateur videos:

  • Nature imagery (88%)
  • Depictions of worshippers (64%)
  • Depictions of Jesus (32%)
  • Performer of the song (1/50) – 2%

Text consists of

  • Song lyrics (74%)
  • Biblical quotations (20%)

Commentary follows on the Christian community’s view of using videos for marketing purposes. The lyrics often focus on abstract ideas that are difficult to illustrate with literal imagery. The nature images work in the background to create an atmosphere of worship because (as one interviewee pastor said) “they show God’s creation without distracting too much from the lyrics”. This also solves the problem of iconic representations of the divine. The prohibition of images of the divine has caused the use of nature images in Islam also, Monique notes.

We now see some screenshots from more videos for the same song – the predictable image of a worshipping crowd with arms outstretched is heavily used. Silhouettes are extensively used, in the style of Apple’s iPod ads. Depictions of Jesus are often taken from 19thC classical art [JB note – plenty of auburn or blonde messiahs!].

Visual representations of the divine are discussed with reference to relevant scholars. Worship videos use three types of images – Nature, Worshippers and Jesus – to ilicit responses. These responses are shown in the form of YouTube comments participants note involuntary/embodied responses (from singing along to ‘raising my hands up’.). Monique describes this as ‘audio-visual piety’.

We now look at evangelical screen culture – from small video screens to the large screens of public worship. Evangelical worship has embraced a recent ‘screen culture’, starting with the OHP in the 1960s and developing ambition as technologies allow. There are now specialist companies providing digital projection services for congregations.

Digital words have a different semantic meaning from printed congregational hymnbooks. The digitisation of text allows it to function with the images and communicate on several levels simultaneously.

We now compare two 1970s songs – ‘Father I Adore You’ (1972) and ‘I Love You, Lord’ (1978). Monique notes increasing levels of song form sophistication since the 1970s (moving away from the much-parodied over-repeated material in that decade). We hear some derisory critiques of Christian music [JB – I particularly like the phrase ‘Fridge Magnet Poetry’]. We look now at ‘Mighty to Save’ (2006) and Monique notes its use of poor lyric writing techniques and indiscriminate blends of conflicting content. The song’s apparent intellectual weakness appears not to be noticed by (even ‘intelligent’) believers. Monique muses as to why this should be, and speculates regarding ways in which the listener is distracted from the literarily weak material.

Textual units in congregational singing are now analysed – common practice seems to be grouping text in two-link sections (a move away from the traditional hymnal four- or eight-line layout). So listeners are digitally removed from the overall meaning of a verse and are grammatically decontextualised. These couplets are often used by congregations in their own prayers – a manifestation of the Fridge Magnet Poetry idea.

Use of the image (and text in its context) is an important part of the evangelical experience. US churches invest thousands in digital AV systems and then further invest in large libraries in order to project lyrics. The reductiveness of the text to couplets is reiterated as changing the meaning of the canon of religious/musical work. Through omnipresence on small and large screens, AV icons insert themselves into the structures of evangelical life.

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