Many churches these days have digital projection and a screen—so the question is, how to use this well in preaching? Many people use it to put up words, perhaps setting out the points they are making. This has some value, because it enables listeners to see and understand the shape and flow of what you are saying (assuming that you are including some ethos, persuasive argument, alongside the logos, content, and pathos, appeal to response, in what you say). If there are key verses, a key quotation, or a key summary statement in your sermon, these too are useful to put on a screen, to allow the congregation to take in and reflect on what you are saying.
But displaying words alone is not as effective as putting up pictures or images to illustrate what you are saying, for several reasons.
1. Putting up too many of words related to 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.
I recently preached 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 a paradigm, 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 ironic 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 and on that I had not thought of.
In this example I was using pictures in a particular way: the images offered one ‘reading’ of the text, and as is often the case when considering such an interpretation, it then makes us consider the way we are reading it, and helps us to read and interpret more carefully.
More often, I will use images to illustrated different aspects of what I am trying to say, so the images will be more general, and related to the interpretation and application of a passage rather than the text itself. Here are my 10 Commandments to bear in mind when selecting and using images:
1. Allow time in your preparation. 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.
2. Don’t use too many images in any one sermon. Often less is more. Just as too many illustrations can detract and distract from the point you are making, too many visual images can overwhelm the senses of your listeners. Just as three main points are enough for a sermon (and even these need to be related to one another), so three major images might well be enough.
3. Choose carefully. Avoid images which will generate an emotional reaction; in general avoid images of contemporary scenes which will lead people’s thoughts in other directions; avoid ’emotional leakage’ of images which raise issues other than the point your want to make.
4. In looking for good images, think in concrete terms. If you are illustrating an abstract idea, you can search for that term, but you might have a whole range of unrelated images come up. If you can (possibly from an initial search) find a concrete expression of this idea, and search for that, you will find more images that you can use.
5. Attend to aesthetics. An image that is visually arresting or pleasing will engage your congregation more than an image which is mundane. God is interested in beauty, so we should be too.
6. Manage your images efficiently. I work on a Mac, so when I have found an image by an internet search, then one click stores it in iPhoto, and from there it can drag and drop straight into PowerPoint. I then have one ‘event’ in iPhoto where I put all the images I have ever used in preaching, and if I need to revisit an idea, then my image collection is easy to search. I am sure there must be something just as easy for PCs…(!)
7. Don’t be anxious about copyright. If you are using this image in preaching, you are not displaying it permanently, not including it in print, and not making any money out of it, so you are certainly not depriving anyone of income. If images online should not be re-used, they will have a watermark—so avoid any images with a watermark! If a photographer would like credit, then a name will be included at the bottom of the image. Retain it.
8. When using your images, let them fill the screen. If you do need any background (if for example the shape of your image does not match the shape of the screen), 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. (For the same reason, you should normally put light text on a dark background, not the other way around.)
9. When you first put the image up, describe it. This is essential to include anyone in the congregation with visual impairment of any kind—and it will remove any puzzlement in the congregation, even momentary, regarding what the image is and why you have used it.
10. Use simple transitions between images—but do use a transition. I always set my transitions to ‘slow fade’, which gives a smooth transition from one image or slide to the next. No transition means an abrupt change; any other transition is distracting. Remember you can blank the screen when you have moved on from talking about a relevant image.
Above all, make use of images. We live in a highly visual world, and a good number in our congregation will find images an important way into thinking, reflecting and listening, both to you and (more importantly) to God. And in using images, we are forming a bridge between what happens when we are gathered as church, and what happens in the rest of our lives when we are church dispersed.
(The first half of this article was first posted in July 2013).
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