Written several years ago this article is still helpful in encouraging us to think beyond words. Consider this impulse with the practice of holding worship services online or on Facebook. How are these movements similar and unlike each other? What concerns might you have? What about these practices are commendable? -JB
Consider this scenario: All eyes are glued to the screen as the hero Indiana Jones attempts to save his dying father. This mission requires him to somehow cross what seems like an insurmountable chasm. He stands poised at the edge of the precipice overlooking the bottomless chasm. In his hands he clutches a scroll with instructions that suggest he simply “step out in faith.” That doesn’t make sense. As the audience waits in tense anticipation, the soundtrack builds to a crescendo and then falls quiet. Tension builds as Indy takes a trembling step out into what looks like thin air. The viewers gasp as he lands on a previously unseen bridge. Everyone breathes a sigh of relief.
As the lights go up, the preacher steps to the center of the platform and asks, “Have you ever felt like that? Taking that first step of faith can seem like taking a step into thin air. But here is some good news I’d like to share with you today. Jesus has made a bridge from death to life for us and all we need to do is take a step of faith to cross over.”
Preach the gospel at all times and, if necessary, use words. This ancient maxim, attributed to Saint Francis, may be more relevant today than ever before. In today’s visually oriented culture, we have come full circle from a preliterate to a postliterate world. Words are no longer enough. In the same way that stained glass windows communicated the gospel story to a preliterate world, visual media can communicate the gospel to a postliterate world.
Most people in our postmodern world no longer receive information only by hearing or reading words. In our increasingly visual society, images and symbols speak as powerfully, and sometimes more powerfully than words. The Nike swoosh or Campbell’s soup can sell more than athletic shoes and canned soups. Each image, accompanied by only three words, communicates a spirit of determination and perseverance (Nike) and the value of good nutrition (Campbell’s).
At CentrePointe Church, we seek to use visual media throughout every service to communicate the transforming power of God as we share the unchanging message of the gospel in our changing society. Both new and established churches that access this ancient future principle of communication will find that using visual communication will enhance the worship ministry of their church.
What Does the Gospel Look Like?
Visual communication means more than putting words to songs and sermon points on a screen. We use a variety of visual media to create and enhance our multisensory worship services.
- Prior to the start of worship, a worshiper or guest sees a continuous graphic loop on screen sharing information about the day’s worship team as well as other relevant information.
- A short video clip or graphic montage can introduce the theme of the day’s worship in a kind of visual prelude.
- On-screen graphics can enhance a sermon illustration or point. For example, an illustration about sailing might include a graphic of a sailboat displayed briefly on the screen. Each message or series of messages might have a specific graphic that illustrates the theme. A change in color or focus can communicate a change in tone or indicate transformation in response to the Scripture’s message.
Visual communication should not be limited to visual media. Creative visual arts like painting and sculpture can also greatly enhance worship communication. Consider the following suggestions.
- Use an artist or sculptor from the community or congregation to create an artistic interpretation of the message or Scripture passage.
- Decorate the stage or platform with props that serve as visual cues for the day’s message. For example, use running shoes and other gear on the platform or some other appropriate location in the worship space for a message on running the race. Use a section of chain links for a message on the strength of God’s link to us to remind worshipers how powerfully we are linked to God.
Small visual cues that represent the central theme of the message in a concrete way help to reinforce the key point of the message and remind the worshiper that the message is relevant to everyday life
Helps for Getting Started
Just about now you may be beginning to sigh and wince as you consider adding yet another responsibility to your already full plate. Relax! You don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Several innovative churches and new media companies produce resources that can help your church get started. Numerous websites and e-mail lists can provide reviews, ideas, and helps to get you started.
A Word About Copyrights
A trip to the local Blockbuster or library is all you need to get to movie videos. However, to avoid copyright infringement, it is necessary to obtain a license to show video clips in a worship setting. The Motion Picture Licensing Corporation (MPLC) provides low-cost blanket licensing for video similar to what CCLI does for congregational songs (see box). In addition, you may purchase a video clip library developed especially for worship from some of the sources listed below.
Note that the MPLC license does not cover all movies and does not include the right to edit a video clip or copy it from one media form to another. Permission to show a clip from a movie not covered by MPLC can often be acquired by making a phone call to a studio and asking for the office that handles permissions. Each studio is different. Last year we wanted to use a clip from Saving Private Ryan from DreamWorks Studios. They are not covered by our license so I made a phone call to the studio; they asked us to fax them a description of what we were going to do and then faxed back permission. The only condition was that we would not show the whole movie or charge a fee.
If all else fails, and you really want to show a clip that is not covered, you may purchase a single-view license from Swank Motion Pictures (see box). Swank also provides their most popular videos edited for language and the like.
Be sure to review clips ahead of time to make sure there is nothing objectionable that would detract from the gospel message. Check the box for several books and other resources that can help you get started.
Do It With Excellence
Does all this have to be done by the pastor and worship leader? No. Regardless of who initiates the vision for using visual communication in worship, you’ll want to build a team to do the work. The team does not have to be large, but it must be prepared to include others as the use of visual media expands. Anyone can share the responsibility for finding ideas for clips and clip art and pictures. Share your vision with the team; train, equip, and include them in the planning process. At CentrePointe church a six-member worship design team led by Steve Fridsma, who contributed to this article, does the planning for all our worship services. Having a team increases the knowledge base and the idea bank from which to draw as you consider what type of visual media is most appropriate for communicating the Scripture message.
Do only what you can do with excellence. Using visual communication in worship does not have to be expensive. Start small and add pieces of equipment as you can afford it. At CentrePointe we started with an overhead projector and scanned graphics on a transparency. Start with video clips, and then expand to shooting your own videos. Be on the lookout for volunteers who have a heart for this kind of ministry.
Visual communication is a critical tool for communicating the good news of God in the twenty-first century. It has the ability to bridge the gap between the culture and an encounter with God. Certainly God does not need visual communication to connect with us, but God can and does use visual communication to get our attention. Consider Moses and the burning bush. Videos, art, pictures and other images can all help to connect the gospel story with the stories of those who worship in our churches.
The Wired Church: Making Media Ministry by Len Wilson (Abingdon, 1999). A guidebook on establishing and growing media ministry in a local church setting. (see also www.tfwm.com/twm/articles/broadcast/0300_Wilson.html).
The Spectacle of Worship in the Wired World: Electronic Culture and the Gathered People of God, by Tex Sample (Abingdon, 1998).
St Paul at the Movies: the Apostle’s Dialogue with American Culture (1993) by Robert Jewett (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993).
St Paul Returns to the Movies: Triumph over Shame by Robert Jewett (Eerdmans, 1998).
The Source Resource Guide, Willow Creek Resources (www.willowcreek.org).
Videos that Teach: Teachable Movie Moments from 75 Modern Film Classics by Doug Fields (Zondervan, 1999).
Churches Using Visual Communication
Microsoft Clipart Gallery
New Media Companies
Harbinger Communications (http://www.einet.net/review/54668-310069/Harbinger_Online.htm)
Highway Media (www.highwaycommunications.com)