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Pop goes the sermon

Andover chaplain updates medium of the message

The Rev. Anne Gardner selected a movie clip from her computer during a sermon on forgiveness. An Episcopal priest, Gardner is director of spiritual and religious life at Phillips Academy in Andover. The Rev. Anne Gardner selected a movie clip from her computer during a sermon on forgiveness. An Episcopal priest, Gardner is director of spiritual and religious life at Phillips Academy in Andover. (Dina Rudick/ Globe Staff)
By Michael Paulson
Globe Staff / March 17, 2009
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ANDOVER - The first sign that this is not an ordinary worship service is the pair of toasters on the chancel of the oak-paneled chapel.

Teenagers are seated in pews, eating bowls of corn flakes and raisin bran.

And, at the base of the pulpit, there is a small black iPod - not a choir member or a hymnal in sight.

It's iSermon Sunday at Cochran Chapel, and the Rev. Anne E. Gardner, the new director of spiritual and religious life here at Phillips Academy, is fiddling with her laptop.

In one example of how clergy are attempting to use technology and popular culture to reach out to the young, Gardner is constructing a monthly sermon using songs from the iPods of her students, rather than biblical excerpts from a lectionary, as her texts. In her first three efforts, she has attempted to extract moral lessons from the lyrics of Kanye West, Nickelback, and India.Arie - three artists she had never heard of until her students brought them to her attention.

"I was thinking about and looking for ways to try to connect with this group, and one of the things which seems universal to them is their music," said Gardner, a 48-year-old Episcopal priest. "This is a way for me to try to make liturgy more relevant."

Gardner, who was ordained just a year ago, is one of three local Episcopal priests serving as prep school chaplains; the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts, like other denominations, has been concerned about the paucity of young people in the pews and has been attempting to reinvigorate its chaplaincy programs as well as efforts to evangelize the young.

Last Sunday, the first of Lent, Gardner preached to her mostly adolescent congregation about the challenges of forgiveness, projecting onto a large screen clips from YouTube of India.Arie singing "The Heart of the Matter," by Don Henley, as well as two clips from "Grey's Anatomy," in which Callie and George (played by Sara Ramirez and T.R. Knight) talk about whether she can forgive him for cheating on her. Gardner also aired a clip from "Good Will Hunting" in which a psychologist played by Robin Williams tries to persuade the genius MIT janitor played by Matt Damon that he is not to blame for being abused by his foster father; and a scene from "Ordinary People" in which a therapist played by Judd Hirsch tries to persuade a teen played by Timothy Hutton to forgive himself after surviving an accident in which his brother was killed and then attempting suicide.

"It allows me to speak to them in their own vernacular and it also allows me to expand the message of the Bible well past the four walls of our sanctuary," Gardner said. "The core concept is not to criticize contemporary culture but rather to highlight that messages we receive through everyday living in newspapers, music, and the like can help us find our way into living ethical, just, and compassionate lives."

In the "Good Will Hunting" clip, Damon's character lets loose a blizzard of expletives not ordinarily heard in church; none of the students seemed even to notice. They did notice "Ordinary People" - an unfamiliar film that, Gardner noted, was released in 1980, before any of the students were born.

Attendance at the monthly iSermon is averaging 80 - about double the attendance at the other three Protestant worship services each month - suggesting that students at Andover, as well as some staff and neighbors, are intrigued.

Gardner is the chaplain for all Protestants, so some of the worshipers have previously experienced experimentation with technology in evangelical megachurches.

"Included in nearly every sermon at my church is a PowerPoint presentation which often incorporates scenes from movies or the news or television, etc.," said Rachel Coleman, a Baptist from Manchester, Maine. "While my own church's clips have never contained profanity, I do not think this detracted from the message; rather, it made it more pressing and real."

Others, particularly those from highly liturgical mainline Protestant denominations, have not previously seen multimedia worship services and some have no previous experience with church services of any kind.

"At first I thought the iSermons were going to be a little cheesy, just because trying to modernize things doesn't often work out well," said Kevin Ofori, a 17-year-old Episcopalian from Wooster, Ohio. "But after the first one I realized that Rev. Gardner wasn't just trying to connect with us by using modern lingo. She really knows how to use modern media to cement biblical virtues as relevant in our day and age."

Oriekose Idah, a 15-year-old Baptist from Los Angeles, said Gardner's iSermons "are a whole new concept to me. I had never really thought of contemporary music or movies to relate to my life as a Christian."

Gardner's iPod preaching comes at a time when many clergy are experimenting with different uses of technology in church.

"Those of us in ministry are always facing the question of relevance - the worst condemnation any church can receive is to be found irrelevant," said Nick Carter, the president of Andover Newton Theological School, which recently launched a program to train students in use of media in preaching and congregational marketing. "Many criticize the use of technology in ministry, because they say that ministry depends on community and face-to-face interaction, but there is a whole generation that has found community online, and it is imperative that the next generation of church leaders find a way to be a part of that."

Michael Paulson can be reached at mpaulson@globe.com.

iSermons

iSermons

Sermon excerpts, and the video clips they were based on.
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