Preaching the Word in an Image–Oriented Culture
Reconcile verbal communication with visual communication.

My childhood church had a silver cross suspended in the sanctuary. It was the visual focus of our worship. I recently returned to the church and the cross was still there, but few people notice it anymore. A large screen now hangs in front of it.

We live in an image-oriented culture, and that reality has impacted the way we worship, the way we design our churches, and even the way we preach. But how do we reconcile the discipline of preaching - a traditionally verbal form of communication - with our culture's captivity to images - a visual form of communication?

Next week thousands of church leaders will descend upon San Diego for the annual National Pastors Convention. Marshall Shelley and I will be there to facilitate an open dialogue with three church leaders on this subject. We'll be talking mainly about the use of visuals and technology in preaching - both the dangers and the opportunities. Each of the participants reflects a different ministry setting, but all are committed to faithfully communicating the gospel.

The panel participants are:

Jarrett Stevens is director of the college and singles ministry, and teacher for 7|22 at North Point Church in Alpharetta, Georgia. Previously, he served as a teaching pastor in Axis, the Next-Gen ministry of Willow Creek Community Church in suburban Chicago.

Shane Hipps is the lead pastor of Trinity Mennonite Church - a missional, urban, Anabaptist congregation. Prior to pastoral ministry Shane had a career in advertising as a strategic planner where he gained expertise in understanding media and culture.

John Palmieri is pastor of the multi-cultural New Life Community Church in Melrose Park, IL. Prior to his pastoral ministry in urban Chicago, he was involved in the business world.

We invite you to share your stories of using images and technology in worship. What has worked well? What was a disaster? And what questions do you have for our panelists? Questions submitted by Out of Ur readers, along with the questions of pastors in attendance, will help direct the conversation. We will publish portions of the conversation in an upcoming issue of Leadership.

January 31, 2007

Displaying 1–10 of 14 comments


May 10, 2007  12:54pm

I have enjoyed and agreed with [at least most of] what was posted above. I just want to add my 2 cents. I try to use technology a lot and find it a helpful and effective tool. Yet I find myself being brought up short on a few issues. First, the writer mentions "our culture's captivity to images." All should agree that this is a given, but then shouldn't we ask whether it is a good thing or a 'captivity' from which our culture needs deliverance? I'm not trying to presuppose an answer to that question, but lamenting that we are not asking it. Second, I am cautious about trying to achieve spiritual ends with technological means. Only God can truly change a life. Of course He uses means, of which technology is a good candidate, but we often speak [and hopefully not think] as if using a video projector will reach people on its own. I believe that ministry can be helped or hindered by the quality of tools we use to communicate, but ministry cannot be equated with these tools. In other words, if I can't do ministry because my laptop is broken, then I seriously doubt whether I was able to do ministry when my laptop was working.

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Larry Witzel

May 08, 2007  7:52pm

When I preach, I always use a visual presentation to accompany it, and have for nearly a decade now. During most of that time I've also helped pastors with visual preaching resources (like at SermonView and Oxygen Church Media). When I first got involved in this, I expected that younger people would be drawn to the PowerPoint slides and images. What I didn't expect was the positive response churches got from older members, especially those that have lost a bit of hearing in their old age. I've consistently heard feedback that having the Bible passages and key points projected helps this older crowd be able to follow along better. Granted, there may be different tastes in what constitutes an attractive visual, but I've discovered that projecting slides to accompany the spoken word is well-received by people of every age. Furthermore, about 40% of the population characterize themselves as visual learners, meaning that projecting the information on a screen helps them get it. One academic study showed a nearly four-fold increase in sermon retention when using PowerPoint graphics over just the spoken word. So to me, it really is a no-brainer. While there are always exceptional circumstances that require different approaches, in North America today visual preaching should be the norm, not the exception.

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March 02, 2007  3:24pm

I think we need to define the difference between "image-oriented" and "visually-oriented." I am an artist and therefore visually-oriented. I am hyper-aware of colors in the sky, the angle that sunlight hits a tree at 3:47 in the afternoon, and the microscopic purple flowers peeking up from under straw in my front yard. Some people are wired to be more visual than others. Some listen better. Some have memories that work better than my external hard drive. Others can work calculus in their heads. To me, "image-oriented" means being image-conscious – materialistic, shallow. Example: I buy $85 jeans because I am image-oriented; I want others to be aware of how I look. However, I notice someone else's $85 distressed jeans with the dark, cross-hatch prewashed finish, ripped front pocket and torn left bottom cuff because I am visually-oriented. In what context is the phrase "image-oriented" being used?

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February 05, 2007  5:17pm

To each his own. God has called us to minister in different types of situations. If technology works, us it to the best of your ability. If it doesn't, use whatever helps your people. Too many times we get caught up in what is new and we never take a serious look at what exactly the people need. But at the same time we need to have an open mind about what is out there to use.

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mike rucker

February 04, 2007  10:40am

red-letter day: i actually agree with geoff. kinda. probably more so with tim. do you think a lot of this is congregation-specific? if i've got a marry-'em-bury-'em congregation, they probably expect a 20-25 minute lecture with three points & a prayer and then an invitation where no one comes up the aisle. if it's a younger crowd, then, yes, i think you should use methods and means with which they are familiar. in fact, give everybody a keyboard and do the whole thing through IM, or text messaging via cellphone. (just kidding - kinda.) tim's reference to timothy is probably the best point. (a) the "word" in this verse - is it the bible? paul didn't even have the gospels when he wrote this, much less the bible we know. and perhaps we place too much emphasis on paul's do's and don'ts - not all of them are meant for all peoples and all times. (b) i believe the (watch it - here comes that word...) post-modern world, especially in north america - wants to participate in dialogue. this demands "preacher" skills a little different than just straight exegesis and exposition. maybe the pastor of the 21st century needs a whole new set of talents - facilitation, comfort with opposing viewpoints, the ability to turn narratives into visuals like skits and drama, etc. i would especially like to see a drama on a burning, fiery hell, complete with human sacrifice so that everyone gets the picture. or maybe use some of those old clips from the vietnam war where people doused themselves with gas and burned themselves alive. maybe some holocaust images. then everyone in the congregation can really praise God for his righteousness and coming judgment. (sorry, had to get my favorite subject in here somehow...) mike the (ex-)baptist

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February 02, 2007  9:19pm

Truth Seeker- I agree with you completely. To discard methods that are no longer "technologically cool" just because something new has been invented is to throw out the baby with the bath water. Hands-on, interactive teaching tools (like flannelgraph and object lessons) work. However, our churches have been conditioned to use visual entertainment (eye candy) instead of authentic teaching because they are focused on numerical growth instead of personal spiritual growth. It's much easier to use a generic video and to call that "teaching" than to sit down with a smaller class and to target their understanding and to teach accordingly. Technology seems to provide lots of white space and special effects...but often delivers little in the way of real content. Kat

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Trevor Lee

February 02, 2007  3:41pm

Question for the panel: How do we know where the line is between using technology to assist the message and just trying to be cool? I struggle sometimes with the hours it takes to put together a quality video to be used in teaching/interaction, but know that at times these things have impacted people in ways just talking with each other wouldn't have. Can we put things in place to hold ourselves accountable for our motivation in using different forms of communication?

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February 02, 2007  12:24pm

Preaching is shackled in sacred cows. 2 Tim. 4:2 may as well be changed to read "Lecture the Word, be prepared in season and out of season..." in lieu of long standing tradition. Far more than "image oriented," mankind is relationship oriented. One-way communication is VERY weak relationally. The God we serve is a two-way communication God. Why do leaders insist on making one-way communication the dominant orientation of the biblical concept of "preach"? I know they have their reasons, but none of them are founded in God's revelation, only men's preferences and assumptions. (Have I missed the scripture that says preaching has no verbal participation in any way from any other believer?) There are multiple scriptures that prescribe two-way communication for believers gathering and learning. Even the verses that tell us to "not forsake assembling" speaks of two-way, highly relational articulation of truth. Col. 3:16 tells us "the word of Christ dwells in us richly, with all wisdom, as we teach and admonish one another." This is very clear. These scriptures are rendered meaningless in the pew-pulpit relationship. Would preachers be willing to think and act outside the box of tradition for the relationship orientation of saints and the lost?

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Truth Seeker

February 02, 2007  7:48am

Geoff, Thanks for the posting. I took some time to read and re-read your post before I spoke. I agree with you in that we need to use tools for communicating the Gospel for the Glory of God. I agree that we need to reach people through a medium that would speak to them. But I think I disagree with your question of whether it is missionally and biblically irresponsible to use 'outdated' methods and tools. The only methodology spoken against, or spoken about period in the Bible directly is false teaching. There is no passage on the adequacy and use of flannel-graphs. I think a lot of your questions are based on mere aesthetics. One can properly and adequately share the message of the Gospel through flannelgraph just as well, if not better in some cases, than a powerpoint, or fancy movie. Here is a case study: A friend and I both teach the same age group of kids on Sunday's: 1-3 grade. Now he firmly believes that he needs to use the most up-to-date and technologically sound mediums to present the stories each week. I have, on the other hand, chosen to go with flannel-graph, simple maps and just a white board with a marker. My buddy will spend hours each week doing a power-point which the kids cannot interact with. The kids I teach love to be able to put up the flannel guy on the board. They love to draw as I teach on the board the various stuff we learn about. In the end I have seen a marked difference in both of our groups of kids. The other kids may be able to tell you one or two things learned over a semester and that's it. My kids on the other hand can tell you what we learned, the importance, the meaning, and how it applies. We are both gifted teachers, but the medium was not effective in one situation. So flannelgraphs are not useless. They are simple to carry, simple to set up, easy for kids to get involved with, I don't need an electrical outlet, easy to travel with, can go indoors, outdoors, small room, big room. Can't do that, at least not without frustration, with a power-point or fancy movie. Sometimes we need to remove the fancy technology to allow people, and kids, to see the simple message of the Gospel and to let them interact. My .02! Blessings,

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Geoff Baggett

February 01, 2007  4:31pm

Frankly, I can hardly believe we're having this conversation. It's the "battle of the screen," episode 27... It is my deep and abiding conviction that we must use every tool at our disposal to reach the people of our culture with the message of Jesus Christ. Since we live in the 21st century, the church had better wake up, hop in the time machine, come back from 1955, and start using 21st century methods. Here's a question for your panel: "Don't you think that is it missionally and biblically irresponsible for our churches to continue to use outdated, ineffective methods and tools (i.e. - flannel boards, blank walls, tiny classrooms, pipe organs, uncomforatble seats, etc...) to reach the technologically savvy, intelligent, visually oriented people of 21st century North America?

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