A Preacher’s Commitments Part 2: Using Images

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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.

Layton 1

I admit, I really like ancient icons from the faith and rely heavily on them, like this slide from a sermon on Jesus’ baptism.

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.

Singing The Easter Song All Wrong

During Easter this year this was my standard “transition” slide, minus the title of course.

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.

Proverbs Slide

From a sermon on Proverbs. I shudder at the horror!

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.

antique roadshow slide

I put this joke up last Sunday but barely referred to it. I let it speak for itself while I was explaining the idea of finding antiques you didn’t know where valuable.

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!

Booming to Save the Boomers

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This is the 3rd post in a series on my attempts as a Millenial pastor to engage the different age groups in my community.  On Monday I wrote an introduction to the series.  Yesterday I talked about my difficulties with The Silent Generation.  I argued that the younger clergy should be grieving with them and as I have met them in their grief I have been able to pull some of them to hope as they spend their last days in this tumultuous world.

That has been hard but not impossible.  Compassion, after all, is a biblical mandate and one I feel us younger folks have in high measure.  With that said, my real struggle is relating to Baby Boomers (my parent’s generation).

They were named the Baby Boomers because of the high birth rate during the 1940s and 50s.  However, “boomer” might also define their predilection towards everything noisy, glitzy, glamorous and showy.  A big production, whether a concert, a reality TV show, an action movie or a Promise Keeper’s Revival trumps all else in their minds.

It was this generation that fell in love with Rock And Roll and the crazy concerts that followed.  This generation loved and invented the classic action hero, an unstoppable lone wolf played by Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger or Mel Gibson who took down an endless number of bad guys, aliens, robots and monsters in movies like “The Terminator,” “Die Hard,” “Star Wars,” “Indiana Jones” and the like.

It also took this generation three months of watching Titanic in theaters once a week to realize the movie actually didn’t have a plot.  What it did have was sappy emotionalism between shots of a ship sinking.

But it was also this generation that fell back in love with Jesus.  Before them Jesus was a ticket into heaven.  Christians before the Baby Boomers were much more likely to talk about “God” than “Jesus.”  But the Baby Boomers, particularly the hippies among them, rediscovered Jesus in the 1970s and have led the world back to the gospel stories.  This was an incredible and needed movement in American history.

But no sooner had they fallen back in love with Jesus than the cross became a trademark and Jesus became a product.  Cue the invention of Christian music (and the radio stations that came with), Christian T-shirts, Christian movies, Christian coffee mugs, Christian book stores and, my favorite, Jesus on Facebook.

All of this is bottled and sold in the now classic mega-churches with their business-like church growth models and worship services that resemble rock concerts.

To the Baby Boomers Christianity is a club and Jesus a product to sell.  He is the ultimate Boomer rock star with the ultimate Boomer rock concerts.  He is the Boomer Action Hero that can dodge a million bullets but fire six that magically land in the enemy’s torso.  He is also the fulfillment of all their felt needs.

The Baby Boomers love sappiness.  They are the ones who are currently filling my Facebook feed with horrible and over used cliche sentiments like, “When God Close a Door He Opens 10,000 windows” (add picture of sunlight through 10,000 windows).  They “like” and “follow” Jesus and insist that if you don’t, you are a less than par Christian.  They are quick to forward culture war propaganda and rally behind anybody who is “standing up for Jesus” by re-tweeting or re-posting or re-forwarding whatever out of context Bible verse darts across their screens.

Like their movies, they like their worship services loud with dashes of sentimentalism.  They love perfectly played music and are quick to dismiss an entire service as being “devoid of the Holy Spirit” if there is even one tone deaf note.  My dad calls it a “lack of pastoral leadership.”  I think it is a sign of a great pastor who is willing to put the least and the lowly on the stage.  More on that in a bit.

Their love of glamour redefined the Christmas Pageant and the Easter Plays.  Now we have live camels bringing Jesus in for Palm Sunday.  We have fireworks that go off to announce Baby Jesus’ birth and we actually hammer nails into crosses on Good Friday.  The Baby Boomers love everything that booms.

They are the ones teaching us to be “Spiritual” but not “Religious.”  Religious is a code word for quiet, unassuming, and boring.  In turn, spiritual means loud, crazy, sentimental and booming.

And those are the very things their children, including myself, are rebelling against.

When I hear booming I see superficial.  Clever is manipulative.  Sappy is shallow.  And fireworks at Jesus’ birth betrays the unassuming and secretive nature of the entire passage in Luke 2.

The Baby Boomers replaced pews with chairs.  We are replacing chairs with tables.  They replaced hymns with electric guitars.  We are unplugging the guitars and going acoustic.  They rejected the hymns.  We are bringing the good hymns back but adding a lot more mellow to them.

My Power-points have a dash of clever but that cleverness is more ironic than glitzy.  Instead of a clever background image with three points, I go for black ink on white backdrop with words flying in from everywhere because the clever backdrops take away from the text I want you to see.  Most of the time, I drop text all together and just put funny pictures up there to illustrate what I am saying.  If the pictures are not funny I will make fun of them with a quip like, “That is an actual Polaroid of Jesus’ baptism!”

Beyond worship, many in my age group have abandoned the language of “caring for felt needs” and replaced it with “suffering faithfulness.”  Instead of a Jesus we can trademark, bottle and sell, we preach a Jesus who is fully human and fully God who calls us to a follow Him with sacrifice and service.

But do not get me wrong, this is not a “who is right” and “who is wrong” post or even series.  In fact, I have found as I relate to Christian baby boomers, that there is a very real and deep spirituality underlying their cliches.  For example they are just as likely to post calls for prayer for dying friends as they are to post sappy cliches.  An emotion based faith still can be “faith.”

So I have learned to “like” the sappy cliches that fill my Facebook feed. I affirm them when they post stuff I agree with.  I also look for opportunities to be sappy and “needs based” when the text or my experience allows.  I clean up my Powerpoints from time to time to make them more showy and sometimes I will even talk about the God who dries our tears.  I also listen to Christian music here and there and will quote lyrics in my sermons if I find any that are deeper than “God’s Not Dead.”

I use all of these as opportunities to build bridges from their showy, booming trademarked god to the very real God that meets us in whispers on mountaintops, works through the foolish and powerless and goes almost unnoticed while reconciling the whole world.

I have found this tension to be a very delicate tightrope.  After all, this is the generation who will quickly call your entire faith into question if you don’t listen to Christian radio or re-post the latest culture war on your news-feed.  I found they will even call you “Religious but Not Spiritual” if your sermon is about 2 Kings 12 instead of about “God Cares, Concerns and Creates.”  (Acronyms are everything to them because they combine sentiment with clever.)

But I have found a lot of success as I have learned to boom sentimentalism before I whisper the call of God.  I have also found that with all ages and peoples, that as they age into retirement the Boomers are still looking for something real beneath the artificial world they created.

And I believe wholeheartedly in a God who can provide that for them.