By Len Wilson
No matter what happens at seminars and conferences on images in worship, when it comes to Q&A time, it’s always the same basic set of questions. These are the basic concepts that everyone needs to know in order to use screens more effectively in worship. Consider this a crash course on screen use in your church.
Q: How can we afford to use a projection screen every week?
A: Separate worship screen expenses into manageable accounts.
What’s behind the “can’t afford it” question? Let’s break it down a bit. Don’t ask me to do your taxes, but basically, there are three types of expenses: a) capital, or extra-budget acquisitions; b) cost of goods, or money spent on production; and c) operating, or overhead. For the sake of argument, as one department in a larger organization, let’s reduce screen use operating expenses to wages – paying someone to create the images. So we have: upfront equipment, production costs, and labor.
For churches getting started with screens in worship, the concerns are mostly capital. This may require a donor or other special consideration. If you’ve already gotten an equipment setup, you need to pay for image acquisition and/or artists to do the work. Starting with pre-produced images is relatively inexpensive. Allocate $100-150 a month for production right away, and begin to set aside funds for ongoing capital upgrades.
Ultimately, you may want paid production staff. This indeed requires a much greater investment. But you don’t need paid staff to do good stuff. Read on.
Q: We have screens but just use them for song lyrics. How do we begin to do more with them?
A: Experiment with the screen as a canvas for art.
“You’ll love the screens, Myrtle Bea. You can’t read the book anymore anyway.” Many churches initially justify their screens in worship according to what my former partner in ministry Jason Moore calls the “big piece of paper” defense. We appeal to personal benefits for the longtime saints of the church, and the grandkid argument (“It will make your grandkids want to come to church”) doesn’t work as well as the big piece of paper defense.
While transitory, the argument is right – using screens instead of books helps us see lyrics and spoken word elements better, draws faces upward, and generally increases worship participation.
Of course, screens are not a print but a visual medium – an entirely different communication system. Many churches intuitively get this after a while, and begin to experiment with art.
Most art falls into one of two types: representative and abstract.
Typically a church will start with representative art, or what we might describe as illustrated text. We craft our sermons and our services as before, and then look for opportunities to illustrate. Usual suspects include Renaissance era paintings, nature footage, church-y artifacts and pictures of people. Eventually this becomes tiresome or insufficient to capture a concept. Not knowing what else to do, churches swing to the other end of the spectrum and project abstract “holy blobs of color.” Abstract, amorphous shapes, lines and bursts of color morph across the spectrum of design, and make some in worship nauseous.
Perhaps blobs are meaningful to some, but it seems the primary benefit is their supposed lack of interference with the “foreground” of text. This in itself is telling – we refer to text as foreground and image as background. Even with such lowered expectations, much of the time blobs fail the lack of interference test. Neither approach gets past the AV Mentality, which sees the screen as background for the main feature, text.
A third way is interpretation—images based in reality but not directly illustrative of our concepts. This is the essence of metaphor. We connote rather than denote. We approach an idea through a comfortable side door. We don’t illustrate the kingdom of heaven with pearly gates but we interpret it with a kernel of wheat. This is Jesus’ method. It’s visual and it works.
Q: We have screens but they just seem distracting. How can they enhance worship in a way that feels natural?
A: Move from illustrating propositions to telling stories.
As hinted above, when our main concept(s) in worship are propositional—when they seek to prove arguments, as a scientist making a case—we’re reduced to ornaments and illustrations. Such an approach is indeed distracting from a good case, like histrionics in a courtroom. Making use of the screen leads us to re-evaluating our entire communication strategy in worship. Is the goal of worship to make a case, like a lawyer? Whether theologically right or left, most churches are still quite scientific in their worship design.
Instead of thinking of the screen as proposition illustration, think of it as story opportunity. Many in ministry associate art and story with beauty, in a negative way: myths and fantastical tales that are nice ornaments to the real work of systematic theology. Yet in some ways story is more reality than abstract theological proposition.
Consider the Pixar film Up. The crux of the film’s narrative is a beautiful scene near the end when the man, after one last moment remembering the beauty of his longtime marriage, looks around his house and realizes he’s living in the past. His story is literally weighing him down and preventing him from saving his new, young friend. He pushes the big pieces of furniture out the door, the balloon-hoisted house lifts off, and they are saved. The clip preaches well on a variety of topics, from living in the present to accepting God’s grace to dealing with grief.
Effective use of screens in worship means a reevaluation of our very communication approach in worship. Are we more comfortable with propositions, or can we (re)learn to let stories inform us as Christ followers? The distraction question is symptomatic. The real answer is to start learning communication strategy from the visual storytellers of our culture.
Q: How much is too much? Some Sundays, we feel assaulted by a thousand random pictures.
A: Create “dynamic stained glass.”
I visited a church once to lead a seminar. The host proudly showed me his PowerPoint file from the previous Sunday. In it he had 75 slides to punctuate the sermon, every major sentence animated with flying “word art.” Wham! Boom! Pow! Those poor worshipers.
Less is more. This is a fundamental value of screen use.
Find a core image, hopefully metaphorical, and build your service around this common theme. Some variation of this image will be your ongoing visual representation, and will stay on the screen throughout the service, as if you were in a cathedral. The only difference is that screen art is dynamic, not static.
Q: We cannot afford professional designers. How can we create non-cheesy images ?
A: Discover the power of references.
The secret ingredient to professional artists and designers everywhere is references. Biopics of Jackson Pollock flinging paint in his Florida room obscure the daily task of working in a culture of design. Most artists don’t work in brilliant, tortured isolation; they look at other artists. They keep browser bookmarks handy to reference for inspiration. This is standard protocol.
Some recent favorite reference sites include Fubiz, The Inspiration Room, Before After Magazine, and Book Cover Archive.
When you visit these sites, don’t copy and paste. Pay attention to individual elements within items that strike you, such as font choice and placement, color scheme, use of metaphor, composition, and so on.
Say, for example, you want to use a water image for baptism but you want to avoid using somebody’s party photo album on Google images. Instead, go to one of these sites and look for ways others represent water. Use these concepts as inspiration for your own look.
Do this, and you’re on your way to becoming a designer.