Worship Media Arts

Big Ideas, How-To, and Articles on Worship, Media and the Arts

Learning to Preach with Image

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<p>A fire and a blanket. Once, this was the technology for visual communication. Important messages could be seen rising above the plains from many miles away, as Native Americans relayed signals with smoke. These signals were of vital importance to the tribe. They could warn against oncoming attacks or be a call for help. Sometimes they were meant to simply convey that everything was normal. Smoke signals were not standardized code, as one might expect. They were instead aimed to transmit secret knowledge between friends or allies.</p>
<p>For many preachers, using images in worship can seem a lot like trying to send and read someone else’s smoke signals. Trained in “literate culture” seminaries, they have a vague awareness that using images in a sermon carries potential meaning. But learning to preach with image has proven to be challenging.</p>
<p>For most preachers, talking is easy. What is difficult is the conveyance of meaning, or communicating with the right combination of syntax and style to make a message heard. Even with the supposedly captive audience of a congregation the challenge remains, as the expectation for communication has risen along with our digital media options. How do we make our words carry weight? The elephant in the room is that preaching is hard, very hard, and few exhibit a command of oratory, both historically and presently. Some have even said preaching is dead, because so few people practice it well. The solution for many is to learn how to mix media in preaching.</p>
<p>While this concept may seem as new as the sudden ubiquity of screens in worship spaces, it is actually a significant part of the Christian tradition. What we call preaching began in a culture of orality with Isocrates and the style of Greek rhetoric ?Äì ordered, persuasive arguments that sought to develop and disseminate ideas. By the time of Jesus, amidst the bustle of commerce and new roads in the Hellenistic world, a new medium emerged ?Äì the letter. The Apostle Paul saw in letters an opportunity to “mix media” and proclaim the risen Christ using both the established style of rhetoric and the new medium of letters. In fact, some said he was better at new media than old media (Acts 20:9, 2 Cor 10:9-10).</p>
<p>The media mix changed over time. With the rise of the mass-printed book and the scientific method, the spoken word came to be regarded as a modification of the written rather than vice versa. Words took on precise, unambiguous meaning. The written word became authoritative. The art of rhetoric was lost and the sermon became a reading.</p>
<p>Now, many worshipers experience a sermon both by hearing it and reading it. Some preachers use a simple bulletin outline; others reprint large portions of their sermon for the congregation to read. Sermons are structured around doctrines and propositions. Arguments are systematic. Words are precise. In fact, the more wedded to book learning the preacher is, the more likely he or she is to carry angst over individual syntactical meaning. Sound familiar?</p>
<p>The irony is that the speaker is much more concerned with individual word choice than the listener. Largely, listeners today are no longer systematic. The goal is not precision, but individual interpretation. Science is being forced to recognize art.</p>
<p>Many of the best speakers in our culture have discovered, like Paul, the power of utilizing a mix of media. Yet the church seems to lag, continuing to trust what is written more than what is heard or seen. Part of such distrust stems from lack of mastery. It is true that creating powerful images and video for worship is hard. Worshipers are sophisticated media consumers and the expectation of quality is high. (It’s paradoxical, however, that expectations remain high even as production values decline with viral web video and reality television.)</p>
<p><strong>The Power of Mixed Media in Preaching</strong><br />
What does all this mean? To be better preachers, we must learn to believe in the power of the visual to proclaim Christ. We must move beyond just text and learn to think also in image, discovering the power of mixing visual media into our preaching. Here are some suggestions for integrating visual language into preaching and worship.</p>
<p><em>1. Brainstorm sermon images with a trusted small group.</em></p>
<p>If we are truly the body of Christ, why not practice it when designing worship? Group or team worship design is an opportunity to come together with the collective gifts, knowledge, and experience. Everything, including music, media, and (especially) sermons can benefit from the brainstorming and critique of a small, diverse group of designers. If you want your sermons to communicate with a visual voice in addition to an oral one, team design is the best way to get there.</p>
<p><em>2. Focus on a single idea and find an image that communicates it.</em></p>
<p>Many people who attend worship find it hard to recall the sermon later in the week. Even the most gifted preachers may leave worshipers with only one memorable point, scripture reference, or illustration to retain in their memories after the service ends.</p>
<p>In an effort to improve retention, a lot of pastors turn to the use of image and PowerPoint presentations as a sort of “visual aid” to their sermons. Often, though, nothing changes in the level of listener recall. Images too often are visual imprints of the same words that are printed in the bulletin. Listeners still are left with one particular scripture, sermon point, or illustration.</p>
<p>How can preachers design sermons with image in mind? First, look for a central image that communicates the idea or theme for the entire worship service. Carefully choosing a single thematic image gives pastors an avenue for connecting ideas with common thread. Once the singular focus for the day has been decided, all aspects of worship can be built on variations of that common visual theme.</p>

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3 Comments so far »

  1. Gene said,

    Wrote on January 2, 2007 @ 6:19 pm

    Another great article, guys. Though using ‘exegete’ suggests you’ve caught a mild case of “seminarian’s disease” (the need to show how much you learned in seminary 🙂 But given the target audience of preachers, it may help connect with them.

    I like the references to specific movies and songs. (Which also reminds me to put ‘Munich’ in my Netflix queue. I can’t watch it at the Red Cross during apheresis, because at 2 hours, 44 minutes, is significantly longer than the procedure takes) It makes the description of the power of imagery vs. words that much clearer.

  2. Learning to Preach with Image at youth ministry blog said,

    Wrote on August 18, 2007 @ 5:33 am

    […] From the people over at Midnight Oil Productions A fire and a blanket. Once, this was the technology for visual communication. Important messages could be seen rising above the plains from many miles away, as Native Americans relayed signals with smoke. These signals were of vital importance to the tribe. They could warn against oncoming attacks or be a call for help. Sometimes they were meant to simply convey that everything was normal. Smoke signals were not standardized code, as one might expect. They were instead aimed to transmit secret knowledge between friends or allies. […]

  3. PASTOR VICKI J. CUBBAGE said,

    Wrote on January 5, 2010 @ 5:24 pm

    I ENJOYED YOUR ARTICLE. I HAVE BEEN AT PARK PLACE UNITED METHODIST CHURCH IN LAVALE,MD. FOR ALMOST THREE YEARS NOW. I USE A VISUAL TABLE EVERY WEEK. I USE ITEMS THAT HAVE SOMETHING TO DO WITH MY SERMON AND AS I SPEAK,I PICK UP EACH ITEM AND DESCRIBE THEIR IMPORTANCE. COLORS ARE IMPORTANT AND SO ARE SOUNDS. I HAVE EVEN USED SUCH ITEMS AS SMALL FOUNTAINS. I EVEN USED MY OWN DIPLOMA ON GRADUATION SUNDAY. DURING LENT I TRACED MY OWN SOLES OF MY SHOES TO USE AS THE STEPS TO THE CROSS AND EACH WEEK I ADDED SOMETHING DIFFERENT TO THE FOOT STEPS. I TAKE PICTURES OF EACH TABLE AND I KEEP A COPY FOR MY OWN USE AND I SEND A COPY TO THE DISTRICT SUPERNINTENDENT’S OFFICE,JUST IN CASE HE LIKES THE IDEA. I LEARNED THE USE OF VISUALS AT A LEADERSHIP DAYS SEMINAR ABOUT 15 YEARS AGO.
    GREAT IDEA. I HOPE IT CATCHES ON. IT HAS MY CONGREGATION’S ATTENTION. THEY TALK ABOUT IT ALL OF THE TIME. THEY THINK THAT IT REALLY HELPS TO UNDERSTAND WHAT I AM TRYING TO SAY.

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