What was the most memorable experience you’ve ever had in worship? That’s one of my favorite questions to ask at a Creative Worship seminar. It’s fun to see people stop and think about it, then discuss it with their peers.
What I have encountered consistently over the past several years as I’ve asked that question, is that the most memorable worship experiences often revolve around images, metaphors or tangible objects. Being an advocate for such things for the past 15 years, that doesn’t come as a huge surprise, but I’m still learning how to better articulate the value of image in worship.
I’m convinced that using images in tandem with the spoken and written word is the single best way to create staying power for the messages we present in worship. While catchy titles and thematic slogans are good in the short term, they don’t have the same staying power as images. It should be stated that not all images are created equally – abstract “eye-candy” or what we call “holy blobs of color” can be pretty, but not carry a message long term.
Of course there is a danger in using images; they require require setup, are often ambiguous, contain multiple potential interpretations and must be deconstructed in order to properly convey deep truth. But when that work is done, and the gospel is properly conveyed through image, it has the power to last forever.
In the mid 90s, I served as part of the worship design team and media staff at a large Methodist church in Ohio called Ginghamsburg. Ten years after I left, I returned to work as an unpaid servant on their worship design team. Very quickly I was reminded again of the tremendous staying power of image.
In the first few weeks of “being back” I ran into people I’d done ministry with in paid and unpaid roles and a common pattern quickly developed. Nearly every person I talked to had a story from 10 years ago about their most memorable worship experience. Every single one of them without exception was tied to metaphor (which we were doing weekly at the time). What’s even more impressive to me is that key details and message ideas were also part of some of the conversations.
At Midnight Oil seminars, Len Wilson and I tell the story of designing worship with a pastor friend of ours named Adrian Cole. Adrian was a guest preacher one weekend at Ginghamsburg when we were on staff. Six years after that experience, Len and I were invited to speak at Adrian’s church. We hadn’t seen him since that worship design experience 6 years prior. When we greeted each other, we began reminiscing and our conversation shifted to the work we’d done together so many years ago.
When we began to describe in detail of the service and his sermon, which used the metaphor of a half finished sculpture, Adrian stopped us and said, “How on earth do you remember that? It was my sermon, and I don’t remember that.” We responded by saying, “That’s the power of image.” We’ll never forget the sermon about how our journey toward christian perfection is like the process of chipping away at a block of granite until the complete image emerges. I’ll also never forget the image of Adrian on the back of an elephant and the stories of his days in seminary and how God was chipping away at him even then. I’ll never look at a statue and not think of and reflect on the power of that message. Image has the ability to encapsulate ideas that can be carried to the grave.
Another favorite example I use when teaching is rooted in the description of a movie trailer. I ask, “Who can name the movie trailer that featured ripples timed to ‘booms’ within a cup of water sitting on the dashboard of an SUV?” Within seconds shouts from all over the room roar, “Jurassic Park!” You can see that trailer here.
I am regularly amazed that so many people get it right within seconds of the question being posed. I respond by saying, “I didn’t say anything about dinosaurs, DNA, Michael Crichton or anything that would tip you off and you instantly knew from that one image the story I was describing.”
Think about that for a minute. If that one image gets you to Jurassic Park, and you know the movie, that image carries with it the complete narrative of the story, the environments and scenes, the characters and other details that you likely could describe with very little effort.
That trailer came out in the fall of 1992. Without fail, every single group I speak to knows the clip instantly. Can you imagine what would happen in the church if every week in worship you had an image that could carry that much information (characters, story, settings etc) for 19 years and beyond? I can. I’ve seen it in action, and it is exciting.
In my book Digital Storytellers (co-authored with Len Wilson) I wrote, “Art is the discovery of discipleship.” I believe that with my whole heart. When worshipers have a powerful God encounter that is creative and tied to image, that moment lives on and drives worshipers toward deeper personal faith development and world changing mission. It sears truth into the hearts and minds of those who are engaged by it. Maybe that’s why Jesus used metaphor exclusively when teaching in public.
How are you using images to make the message stick around beyond Sunday?