When I was in college I took a class that was all about preaching creative sermons. The foundation of the class was the narrative preaching technique, with a bit of inductive approach sprinkled in. But the heart of the class was the use of images.
The teacher spent hours teaching us how to use Photoshop to spruce up our sermons. He talked us through all the copyright laws (which were not many at that point) and gave us examples of greatly illustrated sermons and lectures.
However, the one big takeaway from the class was that using media in your sermons is not something you should do halfway. If you couldn’t do it well, don’t do it at all. Just get up in the pulpit and use hand gestures and facial expressions.
For the first years of preaching regularly, I tried to follow that advice. I used images sparingly with my sermons, probably about a third of the time. I usually did it only if two qualifications were both met. First, I had to have the time to put the slideshow together. Second, I had to know where I was going with the pictures. I didn’t want to do them for the sake of doing them.
But last year I read Leonard Sweet some more. Then I considered the younger people in my congregation and how image fueled they are. Then I found that pictures were a much better way to keep track of my sermon’s logic than notes were. Then I thought about how image oriented and symbol fused our culture is. After all that I consciously affirmed what I had all ready subconsciously decided, that using pictures (and using them well) was a must for every single sermon.
And that commitment has certainly paid off. The sermons run smoother. The audience is more engaged. There are more avenues available for expressing humor and emotion (than just my wild arm movements and facial expression :P). And I can keep better track of where I am in the message.
But in the spirit of using images well I to let you in on some of guidelines that govern how I use them. I do so in the hopes that they can help illustrate (no pun intended) how useful that 8 foot tall screen in my sanctuary can be.
1) Use text very sparingly. So far in this post I have avoided using the word PowerPoint, even though that is the program I use to put the pictures into a slideshow. PowerPoint implies bullet points and I do not use bullet points very much, though there are exceptions. Instead I focus heavily on pictures and memes. I do put Bible verses on the screen once or twice a sermon but other than that I rely mostly on pictures. The point isn’t to give people things to write down. It is to give them a visual example of something my words are illustrating.
2) For a 20 minute sermon 8-10 pictures will do. When I first started using pictures, I thought I needed a new picture for every thought or a new image every 30 seconds. This was manic. Now, I only use pictures I think help keep the message afloat. This might mean a picture of an empty tomb is on the screen for five minutes while I exegete the Resurrection passage. It also might mean I have a standard “background” slide that I alternate back to during transitions. Whatever the strategy, you don’t need 40 pictures for a 20 minute message.
3) Practice, practice, practice. The biggest nuisance about putting pictures with your sermons is that you have to practice your sermons 10x more. And you cannot practice them sitting at your desk. You have to actually practice in the sanctuary, behind the pulpit, with the projector on. (Though most times I cheat and just put my laptop in the front pew.) Practice is invaluable for so many reasons. It helps you feel out the flow of your sermon and the pictures. It helps you find out which pictures were superfluous. But most importantly it creates subconscious connections in your brain so that when you see the picture, you instinctively what to say.
4) The pictures need to look professional. Probably the biggest mistake I have consistently made is that I slap together lousy slides using Microsoft’s crude image cropping and color altering. The result is a chaotic, disgusting slide like the one to your right. The real failure was the times I used bullet points and couldn’t find a background for them so I just used black on white. Ironically switching that to white text with a black background was all I needed for a professional spin. I have repented of that recently when I realized I would rather search through pages and pages of Google images, using multiple search terms to find the one picture that says what I want it too than work just as hard to put together a dumb looking slide.
5) The pictures are one piece of the whole, not the centerpiece. I get it, we all like pictures. We are crazy addicted to them because since the first time mom and dad let us watch the television, we have seen literally tens of thousands of them a day. Still, throwing a bunch of clever pictures together is not an excuse for shallow Biblical study and incoherent content. This is why I always do the slideshow last in my prep, well last before I go to the practice stage. First comes exegesis. Second comes content. Third comes a clever metaphor or story that helps package the content. Then come the pictures to add depth to the metaphor, content and exegesis.
In closing, I am not entirely sure using pictures badly is worse than not using them at all. I am trying to rethink that as I continue to experiment with how to visually support my content. For one, I think failure to try is not the same as trying and failing.
So try to use pictures and see where they get you and what you might learn!