First Things First: Considering Multimedia in Worship

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by Steven Koster This article first appeared in Reformed Worship; for other articles and to subscribe go to www.reformedworship.org.

When I was a corporate video producer, an accountant once proposed we shoot a video about tax law. He was assuming that since video is high-tech, doing a video would naturally make his material dynamic and relevant to his audience. All we needed to do was to put something moderately related to his verbal presentation of tax law on the screen and we would have a compelling video. My response to this client was to say, “Let’s talk about your communication needs first, and then let’s see how video can help meet those needs.” Even if we produced an expensive 3-D animation of flying tax forms and dancing dollar bills, it would be useless if it didn’t help his audience understand tax law. We needed to ground the video in the client’s business purpose.

The same issues of purpose and communication face worship planners who wish to fulfill the promise of video technology in worship services. Video imagery in worship needs to be grounded in the purpose of worship.

The fundamental concept is this: visual media are not used in worship just to reinforce ideas and make the service more exciting, but to further the purpose of each part of the service. Images developed for worship should be designed to help accomplish the goal of each liturgical act.

The Prelude

Consider the prelude, for example. What should appear on the screen while people are coming in and taking their seats? Announcements? Seating instructions? These kinds of questions need to be preceded by key questions about defining the purpose of the prelude. What should congregants be doing in this time? What is their liturgical task? Where should their attention be focused? If we define the prelude, for instance, as a time to prepare our hearts to encounter God within a community of faith, our video media should build on that task of preparation.

Only then can we go on to answer the specific questions about what should appear onscreen. If the musical prelude is based on a song text, maybe project that text. Or a psalm of ascent, or some classic artwork of a divine encounter, or the theme and passage for the day, or a series of poignant questions that would help people prepare their hearts. Occasionally you might choose to emphasize the gathering or community aspects of worship, possibly with images of the church in all times and places, or of harvesting.

Less appropriate would be images that do not focus on the task of preparing and gathering. Announcements about the Wednesday night chili supper or a slide show of the youth group service trip, for instance, have little to do with preparation for worship, though they may be appropriate for other points in the service.

The Offertory

Or consider the offertory. The offering is not simply a method of collecting money to pay church bills and good causes, but rather the congregation’s active response of gratitude by offering lives of service. This self-offering is symbolized in the money given. The task that worship media should reinforce, then, is the task of response. The screen should encourage congregants to offer themselves in service. Here’s an opportune time for announcements regarding mission trips, nursery volunteers, prayer groups, and other forms of discipleship. Or for displaying Scripture texts that call us to produce fruit. Or for displaying the Scripture or song text of the instrumental music used as offertory. Similarly, if a particular ministry is to receive the offering, images or information about how that group is building the kingdom of God might be appropriate. Again, the starting point for the screen is the task given by the liturgy.

Purposefulness and Prettiness

All this assumes that liturgy is purposeful. Each element in the worship service is an intentional act of worship. Understanding the purpose of each element is a prerequisite to designing media to support the task of the worshipers.

Developing media without a specific focus leads to images that are pretty but pointless. Better to create simple but appropriate media than a sophisticated work that misses the mark. A fast-paced music video may be a sensory extravaganza and completely biblical, but if it fails to connect with liturgy it lacks purpose. In short, unless media grow out of the specific worship task at hand, it is merely religious entertainment and a distraction to authentic worship.

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For additional material from the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, click here.

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Our church now uses the screen for a variety of announcements before the service or during the offertory. At times we have a video played during the offertory, sometimes with sound other times without. If the screen is free I usually play the organ during the offertory, if I have useful information about the music I write a short piece about it, explaining what it is, where it originated, for what purpose it was written etc., that info is projected on the screen during the offertory. The congregation is much more involved with it, having gained some understanding of what and why this music is being played, the chatter is much less, sometimes even completely absent, a much more worshipful atmosphere than the talking, rising and falling with the loudness of the music.

Hi John,  That's a great idea. Music appreciation isn't just about passion for the song but also the story in it and the story about the song is needed for depth in understanding the music.

Thanks John for your efforts.