Focus on What, Not How, in Planning Worship Visuals

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by Joan Huyser-Honig

Dozens of fonts and colors. Fly-in words. Animated graphics. Video loops behind song lyrics. 3D TV-style transitions. Lights synced to the rhythm section. And millions of free or low-cost downloadable images just clicks away.

Slow down.

“Just because the hardware cost a lot and runs magical software doesn’t mean it’s good for worship,” Dean Heetderks cautions in a Reformed Worship column. He is the magazine’s art director and director of product services for the Christian Reformed Church in North America.

If you’re wondering whether projected technology is all it can be in your congregation’s worship, maybe it’s time to rethink your approach. This is especially true if you’ve been treating the screen as solely the domain of the technology team.

Remember why you gather. 

Worship presentation software sites post testimonials like this direct quote from a worship arts pastor: “Everything worked flawlessly. We had several comments of Broadway, Vegas, Disneyish in excellence and quality.”

That’s fine if you think of engaging in worship as a lot like enjoying a movie, concert, or pro game. If, however, you think that dialogue is a better metaphor for worship than entertainment is, then it’s important that projected technology support the goal of leading people through a conversation with God.

“This is a generalization, but for many technicians, the how is more important than the what. Artists understand that the how is often incidental to the what. This basic difference in approach makes a huge difference in worship.

“It’s the same with a pianist. Just being able to play the equipment isn’t enough. You have to know how to move an entire congregation—of all ages—through worship, giving them visual cues to what is happening or will happen next,” Heetderks says.

Visual cues. 

Artists serving with the church technology team can help keep the focus on visual cues that orient people in the worship space, the church calendar, and the flow of worship.

“The big ol’ screen is distracting enough. So often I find myself asking our church projectionists, “Is there a way to make this simpler and more straightforward?’” Heetderks says.

Consider photographing part of a hanging banner or other architectural feature of your church. Use this visual snippet as a background or design element on a projected slide. This reminds people that they are not watching entertainment on a stage but are gathered to worship.

Bethany Christian Reformed Church in Muskegon, Michigan, follows the lectionary and liturgical calendar. Nan Frazee-Byington designed seasonal screens to help orient Bethany worshipers in the church year. In each season, she organizes slide space in roughly the same way and includes a watermark (background image) of circles and crosses from season to season.

Slide colors and elements change with the liturgical season, such as green background and violet blossoms during Ordinary Time (after Pentecost) and white and gold backgrounds with holly and evergreens during Christmas Season.

Within each liturgical season, Frazee-Byington created sets of slides that are visually related yet not exactly alike. For example, her Lent screens have varying amounts of burlap. Christians in some traditions carry burlap in their pockets or display it in their homes during Lent. This visual, tactile reminder alludes to Old Testament sackcloth-and-ashes penitence and Christ’s grace in smoothing our rough edges.

Projected images that include text should lead worshipers through each week’s liturgy. Visually unified images and screens help worship flow like a good conversation. Trying to do too many things visually can make worship feel more like a variety show.

Heetderks suggests ignoring most of the cool transition options in worship presentation software. Since most transitions in film are straight cuts, he advises using medium-to-slow fades for most worship projection transitions, such as when the liturgy moves from confession of sin to assurance of pardon.

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