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Using images in preaching

9100_G_1281126154932Many churches these days have digital projection and a screen—so the question is, how to use this in preaching? Many people use it to put up words, perhaps setting out the points they are making. This has some value, but I don’t think it is as effective as putting up pictures or images to illustrate what you are saying, for several reasons.

1. Putting up the words of what you are saying can be distracting, so the congregation switches off from listening, and is just reading.

2. Reading words on a screen increases the demand on literacy; generally, churches in the UK are more effective at reaching the literate, and less effective at reaching the less literate, and putting words up reinforces this bias.

3. In terms of learning, putting words on the screen engages the left, logical part of the brain, rather than the right, creative side—something that all the words in the sermon are already doing.

4. A picture can give new insight into a text and highlight something you might have missed.

So if you want to really engage the whole person, and engage people with different personalities and learning styles, images and pictures can be really significant.

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This morning, I was preaching on the healing of the lame man in Acts 3.1–10 and used this painting by Poussin. In the passage, Luke appears to be not merely telling the story, but identifying important elements, suggesting that this episode was a model, or paradigmatic, for Christian life.

In relation to the man he highlights:

  • the fact that he was lame ‘from his mother’s womb’
  • that he was carried daily
  • that he was at the Beautiful Gate, a title in some contrast to his condition
  • that he was asking for ‘acts of mercy’, interpreted in most versions as ‘money’

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In relation to Peter and John, he focuses on:

  • their daily habit of going to the temple to pray (the verb is imperfect, and is interpreted in this way by the AV)
  • the direct engagement, them looking intently at him, and his looking back
  • their not having what he asks for, but offering the transforming power of Jesus

And he notes the response of wonder, the opportunity for Peter to speak (the rest of the chapter), and also the hostility that arises (in chapter 4).

The painting offered a useful metaphor in reading Acts—we looked carefully at how Luke ‘paints the picture’ and then zoomed in on different parts of it under the headings ‘What we find in God’s world’ (focussing on the man); ‘What we bring to it’ (focussing on Peter and John); and ‘What is the result?’ (focussing on the response of those around).

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I would normally use different pictures to make different points, but because it depicted the narrative scene, this one worked well with the series of close-ups. The picture here helped to highlight features of the text, such as Peter and John’s eye contact with the man, and Peter reaching out to take hold of him. There is also a variety of expressions in the onlookers, suggesting varied reactions. One member of the congregation came up to me afterwards, and asked whether the person on the back right depicted the resurrected Jesus, as Poussin’s way of indicating his presence in power with the apostles—which is a fascinating observation.

The disadvantage of using images is that it takes time to find them. If I am using three good images to support key points in a sermon, I find I need to allow an hour and a half to source the right ones which work well, don’t contain distracting elements, and which support what I want to say.

Additional note: when using images, let them fill the screen. If you do need any background, set it to black, as the colours stand out better. Whatever you do, avoid having a white border, since it is a strain on the eye and distracting.

You can listen to what I made of the passage, and how I preached it, at the St Nic’s website for 14th July 2013

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11 Responses to Using images in preaching

  1. John Allister July 14, 2013 at 4:23 pm #

    I think I agree with you about images v words. I use words occasionally – wordle sometimes to given an overview of the book, but otherwise no more than 5 or so. But yes, sourcing images takes ages, and often copyright issues if you don’t use old art…

    A diocesan subscription to one of the stock photo websites would be really useful…

  2. Ian Paul July 14, 2013 at 5:00 pm #

    Thanks John. I wonder if we get too worried about copyright in relation to images. Use in preaching is not for profit, is ephemeral (in the sense that the images are not being displayed anywhere permanently) and are not in print. Whenever I have explored this with image producers, they have been delighted that their images are being made use of.

    This is quite different from making use of images on websites or in print, where I think yes, you must pay appropriately. I either use Google or Getty Images. If you pay even a couple of quid for each image used in preaching, you are going to run up a hefty bill quite quickly…

  3. Judith Renton July 14, 2013 at 9:54 pm #

    I operate the AV projector for evening services, and I like to also source the occasional good picture to compliment the words of a song. again this can give an extra shade of meaning or emphasis, and as I something I find helpful myself I assume others do too. At times I have found a well chosen picture, for some, has helped as they have not sung, but led into worship through the picture. However,I do try to make sure that the words are visible and clear to read for obvious reasons.

    Pictures in sermons, and worship, are also great to aid meaning for someone with learning difficulties, or unable to access all the spoken words clearly.

  4. Ian Paul July 14, 2013 at 11:08 pm #

    Thanks Judith—that’s an interesting point about inclusion…

  5. John Grayston July 15, 2013 at 9:49 am #

    In principle I am in complete agreement with the importance of visual and the dangers of words. Perhaps it’s just that old habits die hard, but I want the congregation to know that what I am saying derives from Scripture and not my imagination (and, yes, I know that nothing is that simple), so still tend to display relevant Bible verses (and, yes, I see the dangers of proof texting). This post has made me think again about the implications of this in terms of literacy, learning styles, creativity and left brain/right brain, but I’m still not sure where I will come down.

    There are reasonable sources of free pictures and digital cameras are a wonderful asset. Nor should we ignore the ability of PowerPoint and other presentation software to create intersting, informative and helpful graphics.

  6. Ian Paul July 15, 2013 at 10:02 am #

    Thanks John. Beyond the dangers of proof-texting, is there a danger that we are asking people to read verses atomistically rather than in their context? When preaching on a passage, I hope that people are looking at the passage in their Bibles in front of them.

    As I wrote this, it made me reflect on more on the left brain/right brain issue. I also wonder whether there are any gender bias implications. Do men prefer to have the freedom to explore something without simply being told what to think? Now that I reflect, it was interesting that a lot of the comments I got yesterday were from men in the congregation…

  7. Cliff McClelland July 15, 2013 at 10:08 am #

    Thanks for this Ian. I love trying to get the right balance between images and spoken word, I do find they complement each other really well. Do you have a comment to make on the use of video, youtube etc? If I get it right I find they evoke an emotion beyond what I can achieve with spoken words

  8. Ian Paul July 15, 2013 at 10:18 am #

    In my experience, the big difference between a still image and a video clip is that the image needs interpretation, and so opens up possibilities, whereas a video clip often interprets itself, so tends to close down possibilities (depending on the type of clip).

    Videos also often carry other, distracting elements, so people are often left with other questions or concerns completely unrelated to what you wanted to communicate, unless you are very careful. I remember watching someone show a flashmob video to illustrate exuberant praise, but it left most of the congregation thinking about the culture issues (it was from the States) and mediating on the ethics of these things, which were just a distraction.

    I also think that a well-told story can often deliver a lot better than a video illustrating the same thing. And then there is the question of technology…

  9. John Grayston July 16, 2013 at 7:26 am #

    Yes, there is always the danger of viewing verses in isolation from their context and the broader biblial narrative but while that danger may be accentuated by displaying it on a screen it is surely present even when we encourage people to look at their Bibles. The onus lies with us as preachers to use the text(s) responsibly.

    The reason I put texts on the screen is that most people don’t have or do not open a Bible. In my own church, where I preach regularly, around 50% will bring a Bible and use it. We provide church Bibles for those who want them but encourage people to bring their own. But I have preached in churches with pew Bibles where not a single one has moved from the rack during the service. I have also preached in churches where every time I mentioned a verse the entire congregation would turn to it – but that was not in England.

    This also raises the interesting question of whether an electronic text, whether projected or viewed on a mobile functions differently or creates different impressions on the reader to a printed text and if so whether it matters.

  10. Charles Twombly August 9, 2013 at 1:56 pm #

    Let’s see: would we call Byzantium and old Russia visual ages? They sure knew how to bombard the senses–all of them. Some are still knocked over by the beauty. Some even find the gospel hitting them squarely in the face.

  11. Charles Twombly August 9, 2013 at 1:59 pm #

    One of the church fathers (perhaps Chrysostom, perhaps John of Damascus) said something like, if you would wish to introduce someone to the faith, bring them into the church and talk to them about the icons. Especially good idea in a (basically) non-literate age; but ours is perhaps a post-literate time.

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