All Around Us

Rev. DeVries is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church in Wingham, Ontario, Canada.


"O Be Careful Little Tongue..." 

You remember the little children's song that encourages the child to avoid sinning with various members of his body— eyes, ears, hands, feet. More than ever that warning is needed regarding the use of the tongue. An Associated Press article by Peter Schworm in the August 17, 2006 issue of The Record, newspaper of the Kitchener/Waterloo, ON region, reports under the title, "Teens swear more; but then again, so do adults":

As soon as the teenager saw the skies, he cursed, raining obscenities on the rainfall. 

"You have got to be !%$.% kidding me," he said to his friend as they stood near the mall entrance. "It's (bleeping) raining again." 

"Yeah, what the (expletive)?" the second teenager muttered. 

Waiting for the bus nearby, some senior citizens sighed and shook their heads at the crude language but held their tongues. Such language is, after all, everywhere. 

Minutes later, two middle-school girls underscored that point as they scurried through the rain into the mall, leaving a string of R-rated exclamations in their wake. 

Teen lingo has always been obscenity-laced, but nowadays cursing has become so routine that many teenagers are sincerely unaware that the words carry any "transgressive punch," as one cursing expert put it. 

Once teenagers swore for shock value and to project a cool, defiant image, but in a culture saturated with raunchy rapsters, shock jocks, and foul mouth cartoon characters, teens are barely aware of the expletives they spew. 

On teenagers' MySpace pages, cursing is all but mandatory, a kind of generic password into the teenage vernacular. At malls, in movie theatres, and on street corners teenagers use flagrantly off-color language without a hint of guilt or satisfaction. 

Sheer volume and repetition have made even the most profuse profanity muted and stale. The sliding scale, with words forbidden only a few years ago now accepted in even polite circles, has left most expletives with little weight. 

Educators say the trend is a sign of greater societal tolerance for many once-forbidden words and more relaxed cultural standards in general—more casual language for more casual times, everywhere you turn. 

"Swearing in schools is par for the course," said P.M. Forni, director of the Civility Initiative at Johns Hopkins University and author of Choosing Civility: The Twenty-Five Rules of Considerate Conduct. Forni said that anecdotal evidence shows that not only is swearing on the rise, it's starting at a younger age. 

A survey of public high school students found that more than 75 per cent reported hearing so-called adult language frequently in the halls and cafeteria. 

Getting students and teachers to agree on the ground rules can be tricky, say the experts. Adults tend to be too strict and use outdated mores, while students believe that nearly all words are inbounds. 

But don't just wag your finger at today's youth. Almost three-quarters of American adults report hearing profanity in public at least occasionally, and twothirds said people swear more than they used to, according to a survey conducted this spring by Ipsos Public Affairs research company. 

About the same percentage of adults said hearing profanity bothered them, but almost half said they use it at least a few times a week, with 27 per cent admitting to using the F-word. 

"We tolerate, as a matter of course, rudeness that only a generation ago would have raised indignation," Forni said. 

Timothy Jay, a psychology professor at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts and author of Cursing in America and Why We Curse, sees it as a "safety valve," a way to safely vent excess anger. 

Jay said casual swearing has increased as the world has become more fast-paced and stressful. Teenagers, he said, are especially curse-prone because "they're built to break the rules."

Who cannot attest to the truth of the thrust of this article? We expose ourselves to foul, often blasphemous language whenever we venture out into public or invite the public into our homes by means of television, radio, Internet, printed page, etc. One important question: Is indignation raised in our souls when we are subjected to foul language? Do we "hear" it? Or have we too become desensitized from a spiritual point of view? That ought not be! And, yes, our children are also inclined by nature, as are we older folk, to these sins of the tongue. Yes, by nature, teenagers, ours too, are "built to break the rules." Especially in the circle of their friends, it is easy for young people to conform to a sad standard of corruption in speech. Let us warn them often. Let us strive to be good examples, refraining from all crude and vulgar speech and, above all, from all profanity.

How difficult it is! The Epistle of James warns, chapter 3, verses 5 and 8: "Even so the tongue is a little member, and boasteth great things. Behold, how great a matter a little fire kindleth!... But the tongue can no man tame; it is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison." Let us take to heart the instruction of the Heidelberg Catechism, Answer 100: "...there is no sin greater or more provoking to God than the profaning of His name...."

"High-Tech Worship" 

Most of us appreciate the many technological advances made in recent years. The church too is able to benefit from much of the technology—improved sound systems, advanced audio/visual recording equipment, computers for a multitude of record-keeping and correspondence purposes, informational websites. Even council/ consistory minutes are increasingly being taken on lap-tops. But here, too, as with so many things, the question is: How far do you go? The following article confirms, as far as I am concerned, that many churches today are going too far, becoming technological travesties. G. Jeffrey MacDonald, Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor, reports from Danvers, Mass.:

The Rev. Mike Laird is standing in front of his congregation, admonishing them about patience. Not patience as a generic virtue. But patience with him. 

It's a summer Sunday morning, and many of the high-tech gadgets that give the North Shore Chapel its up-to-date identity aren't working. The clip from "The Matrix" won't play. The Bible verses displayed on a big screen aren't the ones he wants. The soundtrack to a slide show of kids doing arts and crafts cuts off abruptly. 

It doesn't help that the service is being held in a rented discount movie theater, creating perhaps a heightened expectation for special effects, especially when God is involved. But the church's volunteer technology expert is unexpectedly absent: His wife is giving birth. "Today, I'm taking a mulligan," Mr. Laird says, plaintively. 

Balky equipment aside, a growing number of churches are joining the movement towards a digitized ministry. From experimental congregations to mainline denominations, they are using jumbo screens, websites, sophisticated videos—everything but God thundering out of a cloud—to attract worshipers and relate to people in the language of today. 

Critics rue the potential of bells and Whistler-like video images to distract from the deeper meaning of church. But as the techno-worship trend matures, users say it's serving a profound purpose: turning sideline sitters into active church participants, cultivating compassion, and making it easier for the taciturn to tell inspiring stories. 

Technology is becoming more pervasive. Between 2000 and 2005, the percentage of Protestant churches using large-screen projection systems jumped from 39 to 62, according to The Barna Group, a Ventura, Calif.-based church research firm. More than half now also have websites, send out mass e-mail blasts, and incorporate video into services. Stoic Congregationalists at times use film clips to illustrate a spiritual point. Pentecostals use giant monitors to show fellow worshipers sweating, waving arms, or collapsing because they've been "slain in the Spirit." 

North Shore Chapel member Julie Gil knows the merits of techno-religion. She became a Christian about six years ago while reading Tim LaHaye's bestselling novel, "Left Behind: A Novel of the Earth's Last Days," closely identifying with a careerfocused character who has a conversion. Still, few knew how she came to trust God because she feared public speaking. Then a church member videotaped her during a small group discussion and produced a five-minute version for Sunday worship. "Although I knew I was being videotaped, I didn't really think about the camera," Ms. Gil says. "So it was just like talking to a friend."

In some cases, video seems to elicit as much compassion as a sermon.... 

Still, not everyone is enamored with the trend toward digital worship. Technology can feed an idolatrous tendency in America, one that says everything from education to energy has a technological solution, according to Quentin Schultze, a professor of communication at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., and author of "High-Tech Worship? Using Presentation Technologies Wisely." "Our overly optimistic attitude towards using presentational technologies in worship reveals the quick-fix mentality of our times," Mr. Schultze writes in his book. 

Others feel churches aren't using new media enough in services. For ones that do, experts say a few principles govern the effectiveness of the technology. Mr. Jewell, for one, believes it works best when the gadgetry is not the focus of attention. He suggests using homegrown images and sounds that strike a chord with the congregation. The content also should be appropriate. Jewell recalls one of his student pastors who used neon colors and music from U2 in a presentation for an elderly congregation. 

Technology is definitely the lifeblood of the North Shore Chapel, a part of the Christian Reformed Church in North America that claims John Calvin as its spiritual ancestor. During the week, the pastor offers spiritual guidance by e-mail. Some members donate money through automatic bank withdrawals, which allows the church to avoid collections on Sunday morning. Many members worship daily by logging into, a website operated by Irish Jesuits. "If you have a nine-to-five job in the cube (cubicle), you show up 15 minutes early and have quiet prayer time," Laird says. 

At the theater, 30 minutes before the service, a screening room feels like an electronic lab. Volunteer Elizabeth Gilman loads tunes from her iPod into a software system designed for churches. Another member tests still shots on a big screen—a sunrise, storm waves battering a castle, a foggy harbor—selected to illustrate the idea of trusting God under all circumstances. The smooth presentation belies the perennial debates that go into it: Is God best revealed in human emotions? Animals at play? Desolate landscapes? 

A keyboardist reads notes from an electronic screen, and teenagers in T-shirts and shorts warm up their voices and guitars. To them, the technology provides a welcome distraction for the audience. "I'm leading them in worshiping God, not us," says singer Natasha Skovron. "So it helps that they're not watching us." 

The church meets in a theater, Laird says, for the same reason he leads a theology discussion group in a nearby bar: People feel at ease in the environment. Attendees, mostly young adults and children, agree the technology makes them feel more comfortable. Construction worker Kevin Toerne of Danvers, Mass., whose children go to nursery and Sunday school in adjacent screening rooms, says the "upbeat music" and visuals help make the church less "stuffy." 

Julie Shimer of Rowley believes it all keeps the ministry relevant. "It makes it seem like (the church's message) is not an old traditional thing that doesn't apply to your life," she says.

Some of those most moved by the techno-ministry are the ones who have participated in staging the service. Rob Kristoff hadn't thought much about hymn lyrics until he had to pick among some 3,000 electronic images to illustrate spiritual themes. The experience made him think hard about the purpose of worship. "If a song is about the bread of life, they (in the congregation) don't just need to see bread," he says. "They need to see what it looks like to be hungry." With a noon matinee scheduled, worshipers pack their equipment and disappear into the suburban traffic. With that, they go their separate ways—at least until everyone gets back to their computer.

All this—such a spectacle—particularly in a nominally Reformed church, is rather shocking. Where is the simplicity of biblical, Reformed worship? Where is the reverence of biblical, Reformed worship? Above all, where is the centrality of the preaching of the gospel that characterizes biblical, Reformed worship? What a telling statement this is: "video seems to elicit as much compassion as a sermon." Be not deceived! The Heidelberg Catechism, Answer 98, provides the proper response: "...we must not pretend to be wiser than God, who will have His people taught, not by dumb images, but by the lively preaching of His Word."

The temptation is ever present that we suppose that worship is first of all for us, that it must meet our felt needs. Then worship becomes entertainment, amusement, performance. Then worship must make us feel comfortable. Then it must lift to an emotional high and make us feel good about our participation, involvement, or contribution. 

But, according to Scripture, worship is first and foremost for God! We are to "kneel before the Lord our Maker" (
Ps. 95:6). His name must be magnified as we enter into His fellowship in worship. 

We must not suppose that any manner of sincere worship is pleasing and acceptable to God. Calvin says it well: "we should know that it is unnecessary to parade our 'good intentions' as a cover-up for what we have invented, indeed; but on the contrary we should know that the principal service which God requires is obedience" (Sermons on the Ten Commandments, p. 67).

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