Thursday, November 04, 2004

Preaching screens

My great friend, Sister Dash, has posted her dissatisfaction with a PowerPoint-like presentations in a sermon at the seminary where she works and raises questions whether such devices -- roll-down screens, bullet points, quotations, and the like -- are appropriate. Check it out here. I was going to post my reply there, but I have decided that I'd take full responsibility for the tirade and post it here.

In her post, Dash laments the use of a pull-down screen in a sermon to highlight certain points and quotations. I join her. I think such things are unnecessary and, more to the point, at odds with the nature of preaching.

Unlike Dash's first respondent, I have no training in communications theory (except for a smidgen in connection with preaching classes -- and that I didn't process at all!). And I am one of those "visual" types who process information much more effectively if they see it than if they hear it. And I rather enjoy a good academic presentation -- whether from within or outside the pulpit -- with evidence of erudition. And I am a notorious note-taker.

But I don't think that the sermon is the time to transmit information. I think the point of the sermon is to speak the gospel into the life of the hearer(s). That may involve instruction as a feature, but it is primarily a different thing. Liturgy is a conversation between the Word of God (mediated by the preacher) and the hearer. (In the beginning was the Conversation -- a valid translation of John 1:1 -- and that conversation continues today.) The sermon is a part of that conversation. And while some conversations include instruction (i.e., didactic content), the chief point of a sermon is not to do so. It is to relay God's part in a conversation.

Here's a detour to illustrate: When my SisterDash and I sit down for coffee (of course, she doesn't drink coffee, so it becomes very confusing to call it that -- but this is Minnesota, after all), I don't illustrate my side of the conversation with drawings, and note cards, and bullet points. Neither do I take notes on what we're talking about. And neither does she -- even though I notoriously wander off point and get abstruse. A conversation is person-to-person, not mind-to-eye or anything like that.

And so is a sermon. There is no place for PowerPoint magic slates, chalkboards, dry erase surfaces, or pictures (usually). It is an oral-verbal-aural event.

If a pastor needs a quotation that is so complex that it can't be understood in a couple of hearings (which means: read it twice), then the pastor doesn't need it. If the outline is so complicated that it must be written down to be absorbed, it's too complicated. If the pastor can't get the message across conversationally without props, then she doesn't have the right message. (Yes, I do mean that literally.)

A marriage proposal should never be delivered in writing. It requires a face-to-face, voice-to-ear encounter. And so it is with the proclamation of the Word of God, which is of the same order of communication.

So re-deploy the gadgets -- the drop-down screen, the computer technology, the Bethel-series easel illustrations (which one pastor I know used regularly), the dry-erase board -- to the education wing. There are enough other visual cues in the liturgy to satisfy that sense. And the pastor's presence in the pulpit is the only necessary visual illustration needed to carry the spoken/proclaimed word to the congregation.

The interpersonal nature of preaching can easily be, but ought never to be, underestimated -- and the interpersonal dimension cannot be over-estimated. The addition of "communications" trappings is ultimately destructive of that dimension. I know that we live in the ear of "sound bites," but the Church must certainly not fall into that trap. I also know that we live in a TV age, but that may be all the more reason for eschewing any of such trappings -- at least in the liturgy.