Many 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.
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’
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).
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