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Seeing is Believing: Making the most out of screen images

The use of technology in worship has many monikers, from “streaming media” to “IMAG” to simply the name of the most popular software application, “PowerPoint”. Regardless of the description, though, studies are showing that churches all over the country have begun to implement media in a live worship setting. But there is a difference between using PowerPoint and creating media that has the transformative ability to both connect people to themselves and to God.

Len: Recent studies commissioned by the secular audio-visual industry have shown that over 75% of churches in the United States have purchased technology systems or are planning to in the year 2001. Usually, these systems cost around $10,000 and consist of a screen, a computer and a video player. Jason and I produced The Wired Church: Making Media Ministry book/CD-ROM because we knew about this coming trend and wanted to outline a series of strategies for churches to begin to use media in their church life, from design to team building to technical to the most important part, understanding the differences between effective media and media that is not. Getting churches to accept technology as an integral part of church life was a primary goal for the book.

Jason: But screen projection will be a passing fad if folks don’t learn powerful ways to use the medium they’ve fought so hard to install. The sad reality at this point is that many have limited the new technology they’re appropriating to song lyrics, announcement, and other ways to present data. The screen is used simply as a repeat of printed hymnals or as an expensive bulletin board to display community events and information. Our mission in life is to show churches that the screen can be used for so much more!

Len: We’ve definitely realized a few things since the Wired Church came out. For one, my original mission statement, to speak the Gospel in the language of the culture, was not good enough, because churches have said they will use technology and claim that technology is the cultural language, but still not “get it.” Many churches don’t really have an idea of what media is supposed to do, if anything, in revitalizing how churches can transform lives with the Gospel of Jesus. Further, many churches have no strategy at all and only purchase technology for worship and/or education out of a vague awareness of trends. Churches point to success stories in their own regions and national stories like Ginghamsburg Church as both ammunition for their own media strategies and as frustration for why it’s not happening to them the same way.

Jason: I’ve attended many churches that are in the early stages of incorporating digital media into worship. Some are doing great stuff, the kind of stuff that makes you want to come back every week. Others are making an attempt, but are unknowingly falling short of what could take their worship experience to the next level.

Len: Churches often experience the same progression. Somebody says in a leadership meeting, maybe the pastor or the worship person, “we need to get a screen.” They might say, “Lyrics on the screen are better than reading them from the hymn book.” So they do that, and over the objections of many and through many theological, political, and economic battles, the church leadership gets their equipment installed over the next 6 months to a year. The transition causes great controversy and makes worship interesting for a while, sometimes in an intrusive sort of way.

Jason: Recently I attended one church that was trying hard but wasn’t quite getting it. Seemingly every other word that left the pastor’s mouth became an animated point via PowerPoint on the screen. Text flying in circles, shooting in from the left, falling from the top, and “OH MY!?Ķ she can’t take much more captain!” That kind of sensory overload makes keeping up with the pastor feel like you’re a hamster running on a treadmill stuck on high. Cheesy clipart filled the screen on several occasions and the graphics for the most part were solid backgrounds or gradients. The experience left me feeling flat. If only they had used a present day metaphor, a film clip that related in some way to my life, or an artistic image that communicated to me at a heart level, I might have walked away inspired and excited by the message.

Len: Often what happens is that worship planners settle down into a pattern of using “IMAG” (image magnification, or use of cameras and a projector), song lyrics, sermon points, and an occasional movie clip on their screens. But no long-term substantial difference occurs. After 18 months they become aware that they need to do something else. Church leaders begin using words like “We need to go to the next level”, or “We’ve got to up the excellence standard.” Whatever the language they use, there is still behind it a desire to help the congregation become disciples of Jesus, and an awareness that media, as it is being done, is not contributing substantially to that. In fact, many church leaders, out of frustration, even develop theologies on why it is neither appropriate nor possible for media to communicate the Word of God in the same way that established forms of oral and written have done. Can it?

Absolutely it can. We are currently writing a book to be published by Abingdon Press later this year that addresses these questions. But the most immediate problem is to throw away the dominant construct of “presentation” media, as it is commonly known in the business world. “Multimedia” is a construct rooted in early 90s PC development. Ten years ago the term meant a cutting-edge communication style, but now “Multi-media” has come to symbolize a business-driven, computer-based standard that consists of a number of textual, aural and visual elements tossed together in a PowerPoint document, with little sense of design and zero sense of story or experience. PowerPoint is a medium that is neither rare nor well done, full of cheesy clip art and written by computer people that live in a TV culture.

Jason: We believe that the future of media in church will only thrive if implementers start to use an artistic approach as they design worship. This means that the screen is used to communicate thoughts ideas and feelings that can touch people a much deeper level. Song lyrics alone just can’t do that. Our goal is to help churches cross that bridge from the data presentation approach to the artistic representation approach.

What is the artistic representation approach? Art moves beyond “multimedia” when it connects to people at their basic human needs. Art that points people to God goes a step further by making the connection from their basic needs to the One that is capable of filling those needs, God.

In high school I played bass guitar in the Jazz band. Sometimes the complicated riffs would throw me, and I’d get lost in the music. Frequently, it wasn’t more than a few seconds after missing my notes that the band director would tell us all to stop. He’d look me in the eye and say, “You dropped out! When the bottom goes, the music dies.” It wasn’t that I was more important than anyone else, because he treated the other members of the band equally. We were all playing equally important instruments that when brought together made beautiful music.

Our view of digital media is that it functions much like one of the instruments in the band. Each of the components of worship has a different part to play to make the melodies and harmonies work. So for instance, if you leave out the prayer portion of worship, one of the instruments is missing, and the music dies. Leave out the sermon, praise and worship, or media, and the same thing happens. Unfortunately some churches write their “jazz piece” without incorporating media and they then try to tack it on at the end. The creativity is spent on the other pieces and nothing is left for the media.

Some people are of the opinion that the media should “serve” the other more established portions of worship. I disagree. I would have been insulted if someone told me that my bass playing was only there to serve the drums or the brass section or so on. All forms of worship should be looked at as equal. They are there to “serve” the gospel message. One form of communication is no more right or holy than the other. This means media should look and feel as integrated as all the other forms of worship. It’s a whole new way to conceptualize worship.

Len: This view of the equality of the screen as a medium for the Gospel necessitates an entirely changed view of how to build worship. I was at a church recently that was using a screen, but not doing so effectively. Their problem was not in the quality of the media, but rather in the more fundamental issue of individualistic design. After starting worship with a call to worship on their current topic of marriage, the music was led by one pastor, who created a powerful presentation of the cross through song. Later, another pastor, who continued his series of how to have a strong marriage, led the preaching. Both parts were good, but utterly separate.

Media is most effective when it not only represents the technical form of digital culture but the communication form as well, which is the story. Story is best accomplished through the presentation of a single idea that permeates every aspect of worship, and is communicated through a primary metaphor. One theme, one metaphor.

Jason: We have limited attention spans and our recollections fade quickly. It can be common for a worshipper to leave a service wondering what the sermon was about or only days later forgetting what had touched them about the service. How can we combat these attention and retention problems? Metaphor.

Applying a metaphor to your message means simply taking the abstract story or idea(s) your working with and updating it to a present day tangible equivalent. Substituting familiar objects, stories and situations can make archaic and hard to grasp texts, easy to understand and retain in our limited memory banks. Metaphor is the glue that makes it stick!

When we would develop a successful metaphor at Ginghamsburg Church, people in our congregation could easily recite the crux of a message months later. It was unbelievable. I heard folks talk about messages from years ago, and it was always tied to the metaphor. People were getting it, I mean, really getting it. Using metaphor to communicate biblical stories, allows us to take what may be hard to understand in today’s culture and update it in a way that makes since to everyday people. It’s cheap, it’s fun, and it can be relatively easy.

Len: And more importantly, remembered metaphors trigger the Biblical truths that they communicated to begin with. This is obviously not a new idea. Scripture is full of metaphors to communicate truth. The presence of the Holy Spirit is a dove, for example. So, metaphors are a legitimate way to both understand and remember the basics of our faith. We did a recent production at Lumicon where we illustrated the wheat and the chaff story from Luke 3 with the process of brewing coffee. A good cup of coffee, full of flavor, is the wheat; the grinds left after the brewing are the chaff, which are thrown away. Notice how Jason even put a dove on the coffee maker to reinforce that it is the work of the Spirit that does this filtering in us.

Further, metaphor may be established in a worship experience through a wide range of media. Our goal is to help churches create a weekly post-modern matrix of media. Think film-style short video and animation, commercial-style graphic art, and integrated media including live presentation with graphics, music, and video. These elements seamlessly flow into one another as true “multi” media, communicating the Gospel using contemporary and ancient metaphors and settings to interpret the biblical experience, one message at a time. Perhaps, as Jesus would do parables today.

Jason: Using all the suggestion above can help form a seamless worship experience. Transitioning from one portion of worship to the next can be critical to the effective of the experience. Studies have shown that once you’ve lost the attention of your audience it can take around 20 minutes to get it back. That could mean that if you lose them after praise and worship, and your 30-minute sermon follows, you may only have their attention for the last 10 minutes. Effective use of media can fill the potential holes in worship.

Not only is attention lost, but the “worship moment,” or the place where a worshipper is aware of the presence of God in their midst, can be destroyed by a misplaced song or a poorly timed video cue.

I liken worship to the old “pass the egg” game I use to play when I was in youth ministry. The game goes like this. There are two teams lined up next to each other with each team member holding a spoon. The egg has to be passes from one end of the line to the other with out dropping the egg. First one to get the egg to the other end wins. Reality is this should be a delicate process, but in the spirit of the game the floor is covered with scrambled eggs. The worship moment is so much like that egg for individuals that fill our sanctuaries. When the stage is bare between elements, someone is fumbling with a microphone, or the sound system is turned off but the band is trying to play, the egg hits the floor. The screen not only makes the songs, sermon and various other elements, more meaningful, it also covers those egg drop experiences.

So as you design worship with a screen, be proactive about thinking outside your established planning boxes. Look for ways to carry a single theme throughout the entire worship experience. This approach will open up incredible creative doors for how you use the screen to carry out that theme.