Once upon a time before PowerPoint, sermons were rarely preached with visuals. In those dark ages one had to rely on hand-drawn graphics, chalkboards, dry-erase markers, overhead projectors and the mysterious flannel-graph. (Science still cannot explain how those paper cut-outs stick to the flannel.) But now, our investment in technology has made it certain that visual presentation will be a part of almost every worship service or class. In our congregation, we have outfitted every room to be a “smart room.” Our auditorium also features a large screen projector that rivals the system you will find at your local theatre – maybe not IMAX, but it will be pretty close to what’s showing the latest Sundance films in theatre 16. Yet, none of this is truly impressive. It is standard. It is default. After 20 years of preaching, I recognized that I had started to compose my sermons in PowerPoint. I do not know whether this is something to celebrate or mourn. I wonder if we have taken the time to discuss at length what it means to preach sermons in a visual age. Here are seven observations that might get us thinking and talking:
- A lousy sermon with PowerPoint, is still a lousy sermon. The reverse is also true: a great sermon without PowerPoint is still a great sermon. The purpose and function of the sermon is to reveal truth about God and what he has and is doing in Jesus Christ for salvation. This article is not sufficient to engage Marshall McLuhan’s philosophy that the medium is the message. Let’s reserve that for another time. As proclaimers of gospel, we have a message that is proclaimed in multiple media.
- News casting and education are essentially visual in our current culture. Forget television and chalkboards; we have fully embraced mobile devices and smart room technology. Sharing a thought or idea visually through an image or a video is not only possible, it is quickly becoming the default. Those once called the “hearers” of the sermon are also “watchers” of information.
- Be careful when mixing your media. The use of visual presentation can be overdone. On any given Sunday a preacher somewhere delivers a sermon on PowerPoint that comes with a paper handout and includes a video clip, music in the background, and a live or recorded testimony. We should resist the urge to incorporate all of these or even half of these in a single Sunday sermon. There’s no need to justify the purchase of technology or the media package of graphics, visuals, and skits. Combining these different forms of communication places a great burden on the preacher and the congregation to synthesize the intended message that supposedly unifies these separate parts.
- Let the Word be heard and seen. Since we are a highly visual culture, why not lean into it? We have the opportunity to enhance the symbols that are already rooted in our worship experience. Bread, wine, table, water are all representative of realities we explore and practice through worship and discipleship. The Word written and projected on a screen in conjunction with other symbols might make an impression on a post-literate society that responds to logos, symbols, and memes.
- Use graphics to explain details, statistics, and complex relationships. Even before PowerPoint, I found it beneficial to use drawings, diagrams, and charts to illuminate statistics and explain topics. I find now that it is not just beneficial, but essential. We should consider this when teaching or preaching for our highly visual culture.
- Use the gifts of the people. Most of us have been to a conference or lecture that features a painter working on a portrait as the presenter delivers a message. This is one way to use the gifts of the local congregation. Rather than rely on the stock themes that come with software or in graphics packages, why not develop homegrown themes featuring the work of local or congregational photographers? Is there a video from a mission site you support that would provide a better illustration than a classic film? This use of visual presentation will create more investment and ownership of the message.
- Images contain layers of meaning that require interpretation and evoke emotions. Which is not unlike parables or Scripture. Many people communicate with others online through emojis, GIFs, and memes. They are all a type of modern hieroglyphics. Like ancient hieroglyphics, the esoteric meaning of the ambiguous image requires one to become an “insider” to be in on the meaning. This is especially true of memes. The word meme was coined in 1976, but has become standard terminology with the rise of social media. A meme is comparable to a gene. It is a unit of information that seeks to transmit ideas to others. Should we use memes or other electronic hieroglyphs in preaching? A better question might be “how we will use them?” A meme explained is hardly a meme anymore, just as a joke explained loses its richness. A meme has its context. So does a sermon.
Two years before PowerPoint was released in 1987, Fred Craddock wrote his book, Preaching. Craddock taught us that a “sermon is a communication and therefore is to be located as much among a particular group of listeners as with a particular speaker.” Good preaching has always insisted on an awareness of context. We always use more than words when we communicate. That has been true even before we were deemed a post-literate culture. Scripture and prophecy have always been a synthesis of timeless divine revelation and the embodied, time-bound, contextual languages and expressions of humanity. Like any language or form of communication, the Gospel can also be translated into visual communication. There is no reason to avoid it and no reason to preference it. It will provide advantages and suffer from limitations.
What has been your experience with preaching and the use of visual media?