Feb  2018 06
Your Brain is Shaped by Which Church?

My friend and recent presenter at the seminary’s Remind & Renew conference, Bob Sitze, authored a book entitled Your Brain Goes to Church. Bob’s title, and the recent conference, got me wondering again about to which church one’s brain goes, and what difference that choice makes in one’s understanding of faithful living.

In particular, I’m wondering how technologies might, in the near future, alter the worship experience in the largest, most resource-rich mega-congregations (defined by researchers as more than 2,000 people in worship), nearly all of which are theologically conservative.

Here is what I imagine as future possibilities for technology in church:

Some churches will set up the worship space like a combination movie theater and amusement park attraction. Precision controlled lights, to create utter darkness and void or penetrating light. The ability to shake or roll each seat, so that someone could experience an earthquake or the roll of a boat in a stormy sea. 3D screens, with all the biblical characters and pillars of smoke and fire so close that you could touch them. Airflow system that allows the introduction of smells: campfires, the ark on day 39, the nard for anointing Jesus’ feet.

Imagine biblical stories told using holographic technology. Think of Christmas in such a church. From the star to the angels (since the different stories told by Matthew and Luke are so often combined) to the Holy Family and the (not mentioned in the Bible) lowing animals. Think of Good Friday, as in Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ-level of “realism” near enough to hear the lash crack and feel the splatter of Jesus’ blood as the whip lands. Think Easter Sunday: all the aspects of the story left unwritten by the Evangelists (e.g., the resurrection per se) done with such realism that participants will believe “of course it happened just like that!”

One could even imagine conversations between the pastor and a holographic Jesus, as if Jesus were giving the pastor his unfiltered words and, therefore, authorizing the pastor’s teaching for all to see and believe.

In addition, there would be monitoring of brain activity. Using real-time fMRI technology, scientists today can see and measure activity levels in the many regions of the brain. What if, in the future, fMRI measuring nodes were built into the virtual reality headsets given to every participant? Think of all the data that could be collected from worshippers. Which parts of the brain lit up when a fearsome event (e.g., an angel appearing) is projected? What kind of brain activity was there when the pastor told a “prosperity gospel” story about a woman down to her last dollar who gave that dollar away and then received a life-changing windfall? And did the 9:30 offering appeal using “story A” yield more dollars than the 11 o’clock appeal which used “story B”?

Sound farfetched? Maybe. But the trend in amusement parks and movie theaters is to provide the audience a full-immersion experience: engage as many sense as possible, immerse the audience in an alternate reality that is not possible in one’s living room even with the best home entertainment system.

For those of us who grew up with flannel boards, holographs might seem like too much of a stretch. But evangelistic leaders—whether the Methodists and other revivalists of the 19th century, the Oral Roberts and Bishop Sheens of a generation or two ago—learned to use the broadest-reaching techniques and technologies of the day to advance the gospel and win numbers. Some megachurches have invested in full-immersion lighting and sound systems. Once other technologies are available, why wouldn’t they be added?

However, while some churches are exploring what new technologies can do to amp-up the worship experience using any available technology to reach the most people with the most brain-stimulating presentations of the gospel, some Christian leaders are taking a non-technological path.

The desire for community and intimacy. The desire to live local, sustainable, and organic. To reduce one’s carbon footprint. To spread the gospel person-to-person in conversation spots like pubs and coffee shops. To see and behold each other face-to-face, rather than via screens and projections. To re-learn the skills and to experience the joy of making objects, meals, friendships, and art. To learn how to have difficult conversations, sit in silence both alone and with others, suffer and rejoice together, and reflect.

Which of the two experiences of church are more likely to stimulate our brains to expand our capacities for compassion, the work of justice, and widen the circle of who we can and will neighbor with love?

Either kind of church I imagine above could evoke awe. There is awe in senses being powered-on and there is awe in connecting at the level of soul. Are both kinds of church also capable of increasing love of God, self, and neighbor? 

Browse more posts by: Gary Peluso-Verdend, Phillips Faculty
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