Using images well in preaching

9100_G_1281126154932Many 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.

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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’

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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 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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12 thoughts on “Using images well in preaching”

  1. I am not sure about point 7. Should we not be living within the law of the land and if you do not have the right to use an image then you should not use it. The fact that it is unlikely anyone would make a copyright claim because of an image used in a sermon, doesn’t mean that copyright can be ignored.

    The watermark principal only works for some images, may website have a blanket copyright for the content of the site and do not watermark the images.

    Church’s should have licences to cover the songs that are sung and also videos played. By your logic both of these are also unnecessary.

    It is possible to adjust the search parameters on Google’s image search to only show images which can be reused.

    • Yes, we should live within the law of the land…and there is no law which says showing a picture, once-off, to a group of people voluntarily assembled, for no profit reason, is illegal. Where would we ever get that idea that it is?

      Churches pay for licences to use music—because the musicians wrote the song to be sung in church, often for their living and livelihood. The same can hardly be said of someone who posts or reposts a picture of a nice sunset on Facebook…!

      • Just showing a picture in a browser would be ok, but in using a picture in a sermon you are downloading the image and creating a new work (the powerpoint/keynote presentation) which incorporates that a copyright image. You are also advising the keeping of an archive of images without the permission of the copyright owner.

        If you assume that it is ok to use images found online, how do you know that the picture isn’t owned by someone who makes a living out of their images ? How do you know that that person would be happy with their work being used in a sermon ? An atheist may object to their work being used in the promotion of the Gospel.

        There are images which have been released with specific licences so that they can be freely reused and/or modified, using these images means that there is no doubt about the legality of the images.

        As for the posts on Facebook, there is a lengthy copyright submission when you upload images where you have to confirm that you have the right to share the image. Re-posts would not result in an image being copied but a link being made to the original.

        As I said previously, it is unlikely that there will be any legal ramifications from using an image in a sermon – that doesn’t mean we can ignore copyright. There is a legal way of using images – with the permission of the owner or through licenced/public domain images.

    • The UK government has produced guidance notes about copyright:-

      It looks as though ‘teaching’ is the most helpful comparison point for preaching/teaching in church, and there is right to use material under [and I quote]:a general “fair dealing” exception, allowing copying of works in any medium as long as the following conditions apply:
      1. the work must be used solely to illustrate a point;
      2. the use of the work must not be for commercial purposes;
      3. the use must be fair dealing; and
      4. it must be accompanied by a sufficient acknowledgement.

      • I have done a little research, there are many sites which warn against using copyright images on websites but not a lot of comment on the internet regarding the use of images during sermons.

        There were a couple of items of interest. The first from FIEC, groups powerpoint presentations along with church websites and publications as areas where churches breach copyright.

        The second is a couple of years old but make the assumption that copyright permission is required for presentations. It also contains several sources for copyright free/licensed images.

        I had a look at the government documents and I am not sure if the fair dealing exemption would apply to the use of images in church. The second requirement of fair dealing is as follows … “Is the amount of the work taken reasonable and appropriate? Was it necessary to use the amount that was taken? Usually only part of a work may be used.” When using an image usually most if not all of the image is used. (Quote from the Education and teaching document p.12)

        There is also the following warning at the beginning of the education document – “The majority of uses of copyright materials continue to require permission from copyright owners, so you should be careful when considering whether you can rely on an exception, and if in doubt you should seek legal advice.”

        Another consideration which has not been mentioned is that if your slides are made available on a website for people to download with the sermon recording (or videos of the sermon are distributed) then there is little doubt that copyright would be breached.

      • As I was wanting a more authoritative answer to the question as to whether copyright permission is required for images in sermon powerpoints, I asked CCLI for advice their reply is as follows :

        “Images on the internet are copyrighted unless express permission is granted to reproduce them.

        Unfortunately, sermon PowerPoints are not covered under the teaching clause of copyright exemptions. “

  2. The day that my oldest said that she found my sermon harder to follow because I hadn’t used any images – that was the turning point for me in realising there is genuine value in images (and as an adult she likes to do those grown-up colouring books). I don’t ‘get’ it at a personal-needs level, but I can appreciate that this is a genuine factor. I suppose it is comparable to having stained-glass windows 😉

    These days I try to stick to 5-6 slides (including the title slide). I avoid slide transitions altogether (at most I would use a fade, but that can depend on how powerful the computer is if working away from ‘home’). And I try to minimise the number of words on the screen (maybe a single Bible verse, or just a heading to go with the picture).

    Preparing these is time-consuming (mostly in trying to source an image and select the wording to use). BUT… I have also found that the process of preparing powerpoint slides has become part of the whole thinking process, driving me to become clearer and more succinct about each point.

    And sometimes I do post a scattered-and-overlapping photos style montage onto Facebook ahead of Sunday as a kind of teaser-trailer (enough to intrigue, but hiding the words as much as possible).

    I would certainly echo the need to use fewer rather than a multitude of slides – death by Powerpoint is not a Sunday morning aspiration!

    • Paul, thanks, that’s interesting. I haven’t commented in the post on this, but find it true as you do: when you use an image to illustrate a point, it can change the way you make the point and bring something new to the content. So it is a two-way thing.

      Just one thing to note though: if you ‘avoid transitions’ in fact what you end up with is an abrupt, instant transition from one slide to the next, which I think jars—hence my use of a simple fade. The only way to entirely avoid transitions is to have only one slide!

  3. As a variation on your approach with Poussin’s painting, I have found that Jean II Restout’s painting Pentecôte offers a wonderful plethora of personal reactions/responses to the surprising encounter with the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (comparable to the crowd reactions for Poussin). There is such a wide range: from submissive devotion, through fearful drawing back, and even ‘nothing’ (yet, for two characters), and also the “I’m out of here” reaction of one character (or is it Peter hurrying out to speak to the crowd)? It’s a great, non-threatening way of inviting people to explore where they see themselves within the episode.

    But I think that one danger with painting si that they are, by nature, an interpretation of the incident …and we need to be careful not to merely preach an interpretation of the interpretation instead of actually preaching on the text (perhaps Hunt’s “Light of the World” is a case in point, where so many make significant comment on the lack of door handle).

  4. A quick look at sites like Flickr or Istock will make it clear that not every image on the internet is free of copyright. Even if they are happy to offer an image for free, many creators will want to assert their “moral rights’ to be identified, without layering their name on to an image.
    But the good news is that the non profit creative commons licensing system is easy to use and gives good guidance as to what a copyright owner is happy with. Please look at Creative commons has created a vast source of free copyright-safe images on the net. Please use it.

  5. I often used 12-15 slides in a sermon with pictures usually culled from Google Images. I don’t think listeners/watchers find this excessive, rather they help to focus interest and wordlessly reinforce the points I’m making.
    I usually put a Bible verse up on a slide; sometimes you can find attractive examples from Images of verses incorporating a suitable picture.
    I don’t use fade-out, exploding screens or animation as these seem contrived and distracting to me.
    Making a ppt is time-consuming but also rewarding, esp. if you are into the great masters of religious art.

    My bête noire is churches showing little films all the time, esp. those with overpowering transatlantic accents and cultural norms: but what else can we expect in 2016:

    Make America Grate Again.

  6. As a photographer (as well as a minister) I endorse what both John Sanderson and Andy have already said about copyright. Violation of copyright is not merely about the intent to make money from someone else’s original work. There is a whole debate online among photographers about the value or otherwise of watermarks, so the absence of a watermark is meaningless.

    More positively, let me put in a plug for an app called Haiku Deck that helps you make simple visual presentations. You can create with it on an iPad or the web. It comes in both free and paid editions, the latter of course having more tools.


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