Preaching with Visuals

I published this several years ago. I think it still holds up!

 

The primary tool of a preacher is his or her voice. Of course, effective preachers have always understood the added power of a well-chosen visual aid. Jeremiah once hid a linen belt under a rock in order to help his audience visualize the ruin of Judah and the spiritual decay of Jerusalem (Jer. 13). Today’s methods are more technologically advanced, yet they serve much the same purpose.

 

Using PowerPoint

How it can help: Still image project helps the preacher to focus the attention of listeners on key ideas and propositions. It can assist the preacher in sharpening focus, deepening impact, and enhancing listener retention.

How it can hinder: Building an effective PowerPoint presentation takes a lot of time. For many, the energy taken to develop these presentations comes at the expense of the time that might have been invested in study of the Scriptures. In the end, the preacher might have a pretty presentation without much worth presenting. People are accustomed to viewing professional quality presentations on their televisions and in their workplaces. Few churches are able to come close to matching the people’s expectation without investing huge amounts of time in the process. The answer might be to delegate the task, but this is not as easy as it sounds. Effective presentations require the integration of technical, graphic, and theological acumen. A computer geek might not have a good eye for graphics. A graphic designer might not have the theological insight necessary to know how to actually enhance the sermon. In the end, the preacher may decide that it is easier to do it alone at the expense of other aspects of sermon development.

How to use it well: Despite the challenges, still image projection is likely to grow in use. Preachers can make it work for them if they pay attention to a few basic concepts:

Start with the Sermon: The best way to build a great PowerPoint presentation is to have great material. Garbage on the page will be garbage on the screen. A good presentation starts with a good sermon, clearly conceived and carefully constructed. The first thing is to make sure the preacher has a clear grasp of the big idea of the sermon. PowerPoint will expose any fuzziness in sermon design so the words have to be sharp. Theme statements ought to be short (12 words or less), simple (no conjunctions), declarative statements (not phrases) that can actually be spoken by the preacher. The heading for this paragraph, “Start with the sermon” is an example of the kind of focused wording that will communicate on screen.

Create Visual Metaphors: Preachers need to use fewer words and more visual metaphors in their PowerPoint presentations. Slides should highlight words or phrases, rather than offering a point-by-point breakdown of the sermon. The visual presentation ought to reinforce the point rather than duplicating it. Images come from a variety of sources. Some images can be found online for free. Other fee-for-service websites like photos.com or worshipphotos.com can be helpful. Some preachers will take their own digital photos in order to get just the right image. Remember that PowerPoint is the software that allows you to present the image. The best slides are often created using Adobe Photo Elements (the cheaper version of Photoshop) or some other image production software that allows the designer to creatively merge words with images in ways that communicate an overall concept. The completed image can then be imported into PowerPoint.

Less is More: Like a child with a new toy, preachers initially want to make use of all the bells, beeps, and transitions the technology offers. Wise preachers understand that more is not necessarily better. Simple images and constructions are almost always stronger. As a general rule of thumb, 25 words on a single slide might be a maximum, and 12-15 slides in a presentation might be an outside limit. For further hints on slide construction, check the information and links found at powerpointers.com.

Aim to be Seen: All our efforts will not be worth much if the slides cannot be seen. Try sitting in the back row with a normal Sunday morning light array and ask how easily the screen can be read. Font sizes of less than 28 points might be difficult for some to read. Generally, white fonts against dark backgrounds read well. Colors ought to contrast without clashing. Sometimes, the technology itself causes a problem. A weak projector that offers images too dull to be seen from the back row will frustrate more than it will help. If you’re going to spend the money, spend enough money. 1800 lumens might be a minimum standard for a small church building.

Team Up: Few preachers bring expertise in homiletics, theology, computer technology, and graphic design. A team approach, however, could bring all of these together. Rather than seeing this as a burden, preachers could see this as an opportunity for collaborating on sermon development. The design team could serve as a kind of sermon consulting group, giving the preacher helpful feedback on the sermon while the cement is still wet.

Throughout the sermon, the preacher needs to retain the focus of the listener. The technology must always be in the service of the human event that is the sermon. Preachers don’t have to ignore the screen, for instance. Referring to the image, pointing at the screen, and reading from the screen, can help to keep the listener focused on the human preacher while still making use of the projected image. Remember that the screen does not always have to be illuminated. It may, in fact, enhance the dramatic flow of the presentation to have the screen darken at a strategic moment, when the preacher is calling for response, for instance.

 

Using Video

Computer projection units also offer the preacher opportunity to show motion picture clips, either those prepared in-house, or taken from popular movies and other public sources.

How it can help: The use of video allows the preacher to connect with listeners on their own terms. Video is the language of contemporary culture in just about any part of the world. Not only does it add variety, color, and motion to the preaching experience, it shows that the preacher is relevant and in-touch with the culture. Inexpensive access to digital video cameras and editing software allows churches to customize sermons with locally produced “on the street” interviews, dramatizations, and music-video style enhancements. Such approaches allow the preacher to involve people in the process of putting truth into the context of life. Digital video cameras can now be found for less than $400. Simple video editing packages start at less than $100. Apple Computers bundle iMovie, a simple, intuitive, editing package, with their computers for free.

How it can hinder: A video clip is a kind of super-charged sermon illustration, subject to all of the strengths and weaknesses of such illustrations and then some. Video can eat precious time and interrupt carefully designed sermon flow. Further, a video clip creates a world for the listener to inhabit. Many times that world is more compelling than the world of the sermon itself. Listeners can get lost there, losing touch with the actual intent of the sermon itself. Preachers need to be particularly careful with clips taken from movies which can be seen to give license to listeners to view things that might be substantially less than the pure and lovely things of good report that Paul describes in Philippians 4:8.

How to use it well: Preachers who want to make good use of video would do well to keep a few simple principles in mind.

Keep it Legal: Copyright issues must be respected. Using clips taken from copyrighted motion pictures without consent of the rights holder is theft. Gaining consent usually requires paying a fee. Blanket licenses can be obtained. Whatever the fee, it will not equal the cost of a preacher’s integrity.

Keep it Short: Using a movie clip often requires some kind of contextual “set up.” If the clip requires too much explanation, it probably isn’t worth using. A clip of more than two or three minutes (10 percent of the sermon duration) is probably as long as can be sustained without damaging the sermon itself. Shorter is always better.

Keep it Flowing: Transitions are critical. Video does not do well as a stand-alone piece in worship or in sermons. In most cases, it might be best to use the video clip as a lead-in to the sermon or as a post sermon piece. Either way, videos need to fit the flow of the overall worship experience or they could be more trouble than they are worth.

Keep it Clean: Remember that showing a movie clip in church is equivalent to offering a blanket recommendation for the whole movie. The clip the preacher shows might be clean, but what about that graphic sex scene forty-five minutes later in the movie? If a preacher can’t recommend the whole movie, then he or she should not use it at all. 

Still and video projection are only two of the more contemporary uses of visual enhancement in preaching. While perhaps not as trendy, a good old-fashioned object lesson still has power. Using real human beings in the sermon is another low-tech way of enhancing the sermon experience. Either through using brief dramatic sketches or through personal testimony or interview, the preacher can use the experience of real people to humanize, contextualize, deepen, and accredit the ideas the sermon presents.

 

Visuals are valuable, but they should be used with the confidence that the greatest visual effect inherent to preaching is the image of the preacher standing and delivering. Preachers are going to have difficulty competing with Hollywood or with the multi-media found on cable. But no one excels the preacher in terms of standing up and speaking. It might be worth asking whether the preacher actually needs technological reinforcement. The strength of preaching is that a human being, having heard from God, helps others hear the same. The energy and passion of such a preacher might be visual stimulation enough.

 

 

 

 

 

 


2 thoughts on “Preaching with Visuals

  1. Some great thoughts here. I have often struggled to think through what visual aids would compliment the sermon. We have a graphic’s designer in our church who is willing to do the technical work of putting it together but often wants a fair bit of detail from us as to what we want to see. I appreciate the thought around the need to keep things simple, we can’t nor should we try to compete with the professional media we see everyday, yet we do need to use every available tool to make preaching effective.

  2. I am not sure if it is just among Chinese churches or it is also the same in many other churches, but it is almost expected that the pastor or guest speaker during any talk will provide some sort of power point. This is not so much a problem in the younger English-speaking congregation, but at the other more “traditional” service, it is most definitely expected.

    Although, I don’t think we can ever say anyone “needs” to have a visual for their sermon, I believe that visuals can be very powerful tools as well. I especially like the suggestion of how “less is more,” because I think we have all seen powerpoints where there was way too much going on. Not only might we get lost in the powerpoint, but we might actually lose track of what the speaker is saying too.

    Bottom line is, if we are to use visuals, they must be done well. How many times have we been to services where powerpoints or videos don’t run properly and end up being more distracting than anything? Last thing we want is a distraction. The list of suggestions posted in this article are great guidelines though and definitely something I will keep in mind the next time I use any visuals.

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