Should Sunday Morning Be ‘Hot’ or ‘Cool’?

"Hot" Church

Who’s Watching the Watchmen?

This spring, the movie version of Alan Moore’s critically acclaimed 1986 graphic novel Watchmen was released. In the world of comic nerdom, there were outcries that the change of medium from comic to film was an unholy and sacreligious travesty.

The reason for the uproar was that the one of the most compelling parts of the Watchmen comic was its extremely complicated presenation and plot. It takes several reads to figure out what’s happening and to decipher how the comic’s structure relates to its message. In contrast, the recently released cinematic version is filled with 162 minutes of gory action and special effects, perfect for passively watching with a $10 tub of popcorn.

Comics Are Cool; Movies Are Hot

Though Watchmen junkies might be little extreme in their complaints, the difference between movies and comics is a classic illustration of what Marshall McLuhan called “hot”and  “cool” mediums, a distinction which classifies how much participation is required from a person to engage the medium. A comic is “cool” because it requires a reader fill in the sounds, smells, and details of what happens between the panes. In contrast, a film is “hot” because it completely envelopes a moviegoer’s senses and requires almost no participation or thought to grasp what’s happening.

Similarly, a sketch is “cool” because the viewer needs to fill in the details, while a photograph is “hot” because it contains highly detailed information. An article in USA Today is “hot” because the information is predigested and requires little thought, while T.S. Elliot’s poem The Wasteland is “cool” because the reader has to work hard to fully understand it.

The importance of all of this is that McLuhan argued that people learned more in the long run from “cool” media since they have to do work and participate in contrast to “hot” media where viewers are largely passive.

Who’s Watching the Churchmen? Catholics, Evangelicals, and Video Clips

So what about Sunday morning? Should the things we do on Sunday morning – music, Communion, preaching – be “hot” like the Watchmen movie (highly defined, intense, requiring little participation) or “cool” like the Watchmen graphic novel (more muted, requiring the congregant to think and process)? Some of both? A continuum?

What helps people grow more deeply in their faith?

Consider the difference between telling a story and showing a video clip. A video clip leaves little to the imagination, while telling a story orally requires the listener to do the work of conjuring an image in her mind. McLuhan might argue that the story is “cool” because it requires more from the mind of the listener and that it therefore has more potential for learning. As a youth pastor, I always assumed a video would be more engaging (not to mention easier than telling a story well), but I never considered which might actually help my kids learn at a more deep level.

Consider also a Roman Catholic service versus an evangelical church. The Catholic church with its tradition formed over thousands of years is likely to function in a more “cool” way to many outsiders, so much so that it might be completely incomprehensible. Meanwhile, a seeker-sensitive church might be so “hot” that it is mostly a passive and non-engaging show.

So, this Sunday it might be worth watching how your church navigates the questions of how much work or engagement and congregant has to do. Are they sitting passively watching a show that requires little of them (i.e. is the service too “hot”)? Or is the service so hard to understand that they leave confused (i.e. is the service too “cool”)?

How does your church find a happy “medium” that deepens the faith of the body?

Published by

John Dyer

In my day job, I work at Dallas Theological Seminary, and at night I write Bible software for countries whose leaders could be called "overlords." This one time, I wrote a book about technology and Christian faith. You can find out more about what I'm up to at http://j.hn/.

22 thoughts on “Should Sunday Morning Be ‘Hot’ or ‘Cool’?”

  1. I’ve always felt that video clips at church, when done right, are hot–they engage the viewers and get them thinking. Hopefully, they’re asking “where’s he going with this?” or “Oh…I see how the spiritual truth X is like Y in this movie”.

    Then again, it’s awful easy to show cool clips that illustrate things a little too plainly. Imho, that’s when video does a worse job than just telling the story–it only breaks up the flow of whatever else you’re doing with distraction.

    Take THAT for what it’s worth.

    1. Jake, I think I must not have explained the “hot” and “cool” concept well. Using McLuhan’s terminology both clips would be “hot” because all clips completely take over the visual sense, and neither requires the viewer to use his imagination at all. A “cool” medium would be one that requires the audience member to do the work.

      So, I think you’re saying a right use of video is to choose one where the person has to do work by asking, “Where’s he going with this?” in contrast to a clip that’s totally obvious. In this case the “right” use would be more “cool” and the too plain clip would be “hot”.

      Hope that makes sense. McLuhan himself can be confusing and seemingly contradictory on this subject as well, so sometimes simplifying it actually makes it harder. Sorry for the confusion!

  2. part of the challenge here to evangelicals is that we prize clarity and exposition to the exclusion of mystery. in our honest moments, we might even confess that we don’t trust people to fill in the details of “cool” experiences correctly…or do we not trust the Spirit to do so?

    I confess, this is hard. I’m not saying that all evangelicals preach to the exclusion of mystery, or that all evangelicals do so with nary a thought of the Spirit’s work – I *am* saying we’re at risk, especially as it relates to our people growing and learning by means of working mentally.

  3. A really solid point, John, and something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, especially regarding the potential use of motion graphics in message presentation. I haven’t seen much in the way of experimentation, and that’s always surprised me given how much narrative and emotional power that might bring to the table as well as how consumable it would be in the social media world … Your point makes me think that perhaps “hot” media isn’t always a good thing? P.S. Love the new look.

    1. Nick, I’m not sure what exactly to make of it, but it does seem like it’s worth spending time considering how each of media we use on Sunday we well as the entire structure of the service itself will affect how people really learn. I’ve always been taught to “put the cookies on the lower shelf” and now I’m wondering about holding out a little mystery (ala J.J. Abrams).

  4. This quote by James Houston, founder of Regent College in Vancouver, speaks to your question, and was the quote that began my journey of thinking about technology and the church, from I Believe in the Creator:

    What many Christians do not appear to realize is that techne is the trojan horse in the City of God. Innocently, we introduce techniques for counseling, tools for Bible study, organization for church life, only to find that when they become substitutes for the ‘fear of the Lord’, technocratic religion usurps the sphere of the Holy Ghost. The Kingdom of God cannot be extended by the technological society, for it is not a kingdom of this world. The pastor was never intended to be an entrepreneur or a corporate manager.
    Another threat of technology to the spiritual life is its powers of procurement. Our society demands both instant coffee and instant gratification. However, the very strength of personal commitment is measured by the scarcity or unavailability of personal values. So when a value is made readily available or is artificially substituted, so that what was once scarce is now mass-produced like the sands of the seashore, one is no longer committed to its search. This is the grave threat of the technical, that it appears to make available readily, easily, universally, and even instantly what was once scarce and valued. Commitment then ceases to be an exercise of the soul. If, then, the spirit of the technical undermines the need for commitment, is it not likely that faith in techne tends to atrophy the spirit of man, so that the exercise of prayer, of personal discipline and of human relationships become increasing difficult? The further threat is that when the state is itself recognized as the ultimate form of technology, man finally abdicates living as a real person. Then non-commitment leads inevitably to totalitarianism in government, and to the abolition of personal responsibility.

    (A corollary: Commmunity and discipleship are not commodities the church can provide but spiritual processes requiring commitment. Any attempt to provide them while ignoring this reality is doomed to fail.)

    1. Wow, that’s an articulate statement by Houston, but it seems a bit strong? At least to me. I think we find an alternative view on technology (rather, creativity in general) from Andy Crouch’s book (cited earlier on this blog).

  5. You wouldn’t believe (though maybe you would John) how often, during our worship planning meetings, we discuss “not laying it out” too much for the consumer (I’m not using consumer in a derogatory manner here).

    There is an intentional desire to create an environment for the consumer (would using worshiper instead help here?) that enables them to hear, see, feel the entire story from the moment they enter the space to the moment they leave. An environment that is both challenging and unsettling contrasted with a sense of comfort and peace.

    It’s always difficult to do consistently. Too often, the momentum of our history and our past (especially as a Bible Church) is to put it out there and expect you to get it . . . and if you don’t there is something wrong with you.

    The times when we’ve felt the most succesful is when we’ve told the story well from beginning to end and engaged the consumer/worshiper/wahtever to think and to “engage” their own mind and sense of self around the story.

    So, to answer your question, hot tempered with occasional cool spells to allow room to breathe :)

    1. Bill,
      You rule. Thanks for taking time to comment since you’re one of the few people I know that actually does the planning for a humongous service.

      The trend in popular story telling (J.J. Abrams) seems to be to open the “mystery box” very slowly and keep people guessing so they come back week after week. Is that like Jesus’ intentionally vague parables that he doesn’t explain until later, or is that comparing apples to oranges? I tried to do this a little with a toolbox class at IBC where we went through the Old Testament trying to imagine that we didn’t know anything about Jesus. The mystery (though completely fabricated) was kinda fun. But maybe that’s totally the wrong thing for the larger worship service.

      1. The common element to all story telling is the “conflict”. When we sit and review the scripture passage for a particular message it’s important to ask what is the conflict of the passage and how is it best made interesting and relevant to the audience.

        Your mention of the “mystery box” technique (so well illustrated in his TED talk) also speaks to the contemporary proliferation of non-sequential time lines and multiple plot points to keep the audience engaged in a “cold” manner.

        One of the first movies that emphasized non-sequential time lines (way before Pulp Fiction) was the adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse Five” (the book jumped around as well I recall). It certainly created a “cold” environment within a “hot” medium and I believe that is why we are seeing such techniques today in traditionally “hot” mediums such as movies and television.

        I think Jesus’ intention was to use a cold technique simply because it does force the reader/listener to engage with the story in a more complete manner.

        Your take on studying the Old Testament while attempting to maintain no existing knowledge of the New Testament sounds like a blast. I do think that, in small doses, with the proper setup it could work in the big room.

        Now that I think about it, I believe I’ve heard one of the teaching team do something similar as they explained a particular passage by pointing out the “hidden” meaning that the specific audience of the day would have related to compared to the “obvious” meaning that we have with 20/20 hindsight . . . or at least a couple of thousand years to step back and see it in a larger context.

  6. John, the book is best described as spiritual theology of creation. It comes in the chapter titled “Culture and Civilization Before the Creator.” It is a part of his reflection regarding creativity and work, and I think the key point for me his reflection regarding the “spirit of techne,” what Borgmann would call the dominant force or character of technology in our culture.

    Houston’s insight is that spiritual growth requires commitment, whereas the promise of technology is that it can deliver commodities to us without our involvement. So I think there is a lot of tension between “worshipper” and “consumer.” We live in an entertainment culture, so we have to make accommodations to it, but worship requires engagement and the exercise of our souls. Can you imagine preaching a sermon based solely on someone else’s exegesis?

  7. Bleek, I think Houston’s comment is about the technology as a power in our culture, not about specific technologies as such. I worked for a number of years as a pastor of small groups, and it became clear to me over those years that people came into the church thinking that community was a commodity that the church should provide for them. I would have to explain to them that community happened as they were committed through time to a group of people and lived life together. They often told me they didn’t have time for that!

      1. Sorry for the late addition to the conversation, but just to amplify Kenny’s point about Houston, when Houston refers to “technology,” he focuses on the “techne” origin of the word – thus, Twitter is a technology, but so is inductive Bible study, management theory, or the technical execution of a liturgy. A major part of Houston’s spiritual theology is the idea that God cannot be manipulated, nor our relationship with him be “processed,” by following a formula or mastering a skill.

  8. My Sunday mornings occur at a “traditional” Southern Baptist Church. Our average age is probably 50+ (although that is getting younger as we’ve had a large number of seniors going home lately.) I know that the older folks prefer a “cooler” worship experience, where the younger crowd is wanting a little heat. We’ve had to find a balance that works. Can’t go too far to quickly….

    We’ve had a stream of younger folks move membership to our church recently… and they’re coming from the large nondenomination churches in our area. They’re leaving HAWT worship and finding that they really enjoy the mix and teaching that we are doing. That’s encouraging. I personally love the worship that happens in these other environments, but it reminds me that God uses all styles to meet people’s timely needs.

  9. What a great post! I've been in discussions regarding church message and worship styles where we talked about the same thing, only without those words. You put things in a really good perspective.

    Like you, I would say we need a healthy balance between "hot" and "cool" but I definitely think most churches need to lean further towards "cool" services. I think the tendency is to prepare, package and deliver a weekend experience without any thought into how it can be actively lived out the other 6 days of the week.

    In terms of movies, there are some movies that are good examples of "cool" stories like Eternal Sunshine Of the Spotless Mind, Little Miss Sunshine, or Garden State. Rather than taking a message and beating you over the head with it (*cough* Fireproof *cough*) it presents some very real-life situations and leaves it open for you to think and discuss it.

    Have you heard Don Miller's talk "Let Story Guide You?" I think you can get it on iTunes. Worth checking out. Talks about some of the same things.

    Great post.

  10. What a great post! I've been in discussions regarding church message and worship styles where we talked about the same thing, only without those words. You put things in a really good perspective.

    Like you, I would say we need a healthy balance between "hot" and "cool" but I definitely think most churches need to lean further towards "cool" services. I think the tendency is to prepare, package and deliver a weekend experience without any thought into how it can be actively lived out the other 6 days of the week.

    In terms of movies, there are some movies that are good examples of "cool" stories like Eternal Sunshine Of the Spotless Mind, Little Miss Sunshine, or Garden State. Rather than taking a message and beating you over the head with it (*cough* Fireproof *cough*) it presents some very real-life situations and leaves it open for you to think and discuss it.

    Have you heard Don Miller's talk "Let Story Guide You?" I think you can get it on iTunes. Worth checking out. Talks about some of the same things.

    Great post.

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