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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, November 6, 2002

Churches use multimedia, drama to spread message

By Doug Mandelaro
Rochester (N.Y.) Democrat and Chronicle

Word of Life incorporates multimedia into its service by projecting the lyrics to hymns on a big screen, allowing everyone to sing along.

Jeff Widener • The Honolulu Advertiser

In many churches, the use of drama performance in worship is usually still confined to disheveled but adorable school-age children in makeshift period costumes, tripping about the sanctuary as faux Roman soldiers or awestruck shepherds.

And it is probably safe to say that most churches have not installed state-of-the-art speaker systems, projection TVs, video and sound boards, or brilliant stage lighting that would be at home on Broadway.

But slowly and surely, the gospel is becoming electric in a growing number of churches.

There is a burgeoning use of original drama and multimedia and the tackling of such topics as workplace stress, modern relationships, premarital sex and once-taboo subjects such as homosexuality. Such a development is seen as a way of modernizing ancient liturgies for a technology-loving culture and making Christianity hit home to an MTV generation come of age.

"For previous generations, there was a reliance on the spoken word, the facts followed by the faith," says Joe Horness, worship director of the huge Willow Creek Community Church in suburban Chicago, an evangelical church that calls an auditorium its sanctuary and draws 20,000 people a weekend. "For the postmodern generations, there is a strong desire for the experiential, the feeling, the sensory and drama, and use of multimedia is a dynamic way of delivering it."

In Hawai'i, many of the larger evangelical churches, such as Calvary Chapel and Word of Life, incorporate multimedia.

At Word of Life, an Emmy-winning director, Sila L. Paopao, mans the editing bay of the $300,000 sound and multimedia system to create MTV-style, quick-cut video "commercials" on coming presentations. During a Sunday service, strains of contemporary Christian music by a 10-member, color-coordinated Praise and Worship group blares from speakers.

And all this can be seen via rebroadcast on 'Olelo, or weeknights Monday through Friday (when not pre-empted by sports) at 11 p.m. on KFVE.

Paopao, the senior editor, once won a regional Emmy for a sports series for KFVE.

Honolulu's Roman Catholic churches are becoming more high-tech as well. The newly rebuilt St. Ann's in Kane'ohe boasts twin screens on either side of the altar where lyrics to hymns are projected, so those in the pews can sing along.

St. Ann's pastor, the Rev. Clarence Guerreiro, said the sound/video system cost just under $200,000.

Churches are finding that the major driver "that reaches this emerging culture is not one of words but one of aesthetics," says Leonard Sweet, a futurist and professor whose 1999 book "Soul Tsunami: Sink or Swim in New Millennium Culture" on postmodern worship, has inspired many churches. "There is a renaissance of multimedia storytelling in religious circles."

Like Horness, Sweet is in high demand, traveling widely and speaking to church groups and conferences. He believes the next few decades will mean a tidal wave of change for the way churches worship.

"The emerging postmodern culture does not think in logical, linear, sequential, conceptual categories like print-based modernity did," he says. "This emerging culture is more perceptual than conceptual. Its native language is sound and sight, hence MTV."

Maria Hancock of Rochester, N.Y., who recently organized a conference on the use of drama in worship, says she knows firsthand the effect of sight and sound on her own soul. She was drawn to Lakeshore Community Church because of its use of drama.

"Drama tries to depict everyday situations and how being a Christian can give people hope and be able to cope. It is intended to make people feel engaged," she says. "It is the same with contemporary music. Today, you can't use the music my grandmother listened to. We're not the same old church anymore."

Hancock's conference was designed to teach pastors and scores of volunteers stage lighting, acting, writing, directing and the like.

At Easter time, Word of Life wasn't the only O'ahu group getting into the drama of the season. Pacific Island Praise, an interdenominational group of Christians, flew in an actor from Arkansas whose special skills include the ability to realistically portray Jesus being crucified for its Easter presentation of "The Witness."

Word of Life's "He Did This All For You" used a cast and crew of more than 200, and the church has already begun preparations for its Christmas multimedia extravaganza, said Jonell Cockett.

"We work with a sight and sound generation," Cockett said. "The method changes, but the message doesn't."

Advertiser religion & ethics writer Mary Kaye Ritz contributed to this report.