The Ever-Changing Message
How visual technology always impacts what we preach.

Our friends at recently spoke with Shane Hipps, author of The Hidden Power of Electronic Culture. We posted part one of the discussion last month where Hipps uncovered the ways electronic media affect our messages, and how it can be misused. In part two, he talks about what kinds of messages are well-served by electronic media. You can read more from Shane Hipps about the challenges of ministry in a visual culture in the summer issue of Leadership available now.

Speaking from a specifically church-based context, what kinds of messages are well-served by video or other visual media?

Any messages that demand sustained concentration and intellectual participation or engagement are not well-suited to a video medium. For example, the kind of abstract theological reasoning found in the letters of Paul is extraordinarily difficult to express and depict in visual imagery, since video and images offer impressions and evoke emotions. So, if the content that you want to communicate demands any kind of complex reasoning, images and video will actually work against your best efforts. This is one of the reasons that in the Middle Ages, when literacy rates plummeted and the dominant means of communication was stained glass windows, Paul's letters disappeared in the church. And it wasn't until after the print revolution that Luther "re-discovered" the epistles and basically elevated them above the stories of Jesus.

The question that we have to ask as leaders in the church as we consider using video and visual media is this: Are we inadvertently facilitating the disappearance of Paul again?

On an average Sunday, what are some practical ways that you think the church can use visual media without threatening the integrity of our message?

This question is an interesting one, because embedded in the question is the assumption that there is an "integrity of a message" - I don't think there is such a thing as a pure, unadulterated message.

All messages are delivered through a medium and are, therefore, invariably shaped by our choice of media. It's often said in the evangelical world that the methods can change as long as the message stays the same, and the reality is that when you change the methods you necessarily change the message.

This may sound like I'm saying "make sure you don't change the methods, so that we can keep our same message." But I don't believe there ever was an unchanging message. And I don't think this comes as a surprise to God; he has used so many different media for his messages - a burning bush, a donkey, stone tablets, and ultimately the person of Jesus Christ, which is probably the only place that the medium and the message are perfectly united. But God understood that each of these media conveyed a different message, regardless of the content:

August 02, 2007

Displaying 1–2 of 2 comments

Samuel Son

August 19, 2007  12:12am

I appreciate Mr. Hipps pointing out that there is no "pure message," that every medium "distorts" the message. The distinction of form and content is a verbal slice. This should give pause to us rushing to use the latest media technology and film clips. But this should also give proponents of "word only" a serious sleepless soul searching night. The spoken word is not necessarily the better medium. The verbal and the visual are up for critical analysis. Now I agree with Mr. Hipps that Jesus is the only place where the medium and the message converged into a perfect harmony. But this too can also become idealization, and before we know it, we are playing in the waters of "docetism." The humanity of Christ would shock us with its banality. And this is what gives me the strength to go up to preach on Sundays. The confidence is not that the verbal medium is the more holier one, but that God would stitch God's Word into my word and that even as the words retain my queer accents, awkward phrasings, they will not return void. Fully God and fully man, was Jesus, and so are all our preaching, whatever form it takes, through God's grace. This calls for detailed criticism, but also unashamed confidence.

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August 08, 2007  9:28am

The fact that we need to respond here in 1500 characters or less speaks directly to the problem: The new media can not possibly facilitate accurate and objective dialogue. In this era of acceleration and diversity (Toeffler, A.), people listen only to the "headlines." Television further feeds the frenzy in this fast-food society. People process stimuli primarily through their visual sense, followed by hearing as a distant second sense and tactile as a far-distant third. So, indeed, pictures replace thousands of words on television. And only the most dramatic and sensational pictures are selected – to attract and keep viewers – even when they present distorted and biased views of reality. Because auditory processing ranks second, and because attention spans are shriveling, pastors are well advised to keep their sermons brief and focused. And they would also do well to use visuals such as projected pictures and live demonstrations to support their message. Stephen Rafe, (M.S., Leadership), adjunct professor/global leadership, author of "Mastering the News-Media Interview" HarperBusiness, 1990.

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