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.


Anonymous said...

Amen, Brother, amen! AMEN! I too am a visual learner - I hold onto data much more readily if I can see it rather than just hear it - and I am rather fond of using PowerPoint when doing presentations for that reason. But I think the use of PP and all manner of drop-down screens during worship (such screens which are often dropped down in front of the cross in the worship space - just consider the implications of that "veiling"!) is an abomination. It seems just one more way the church is chasing after the prevailing culture ("We need to be relevant, we need to be relevant!") rather than holding to our own unique "Body of Christ" culture.
Thanks for this spot on post. Would that it were read and considered by every preacher using or considering the use of PP during the liturgy.


Camassia said...

Yes, I tend to think we can blame this one partly on sermon expansion. Homilies used to be a fairly short part of the service, but now they've puffed up, especially in evangelical churches. If your speech is only 10 minutes long you really have time to make only one point, but if you're going on for 30-45 minutes, people are going to get lost.

It's funny though, how some old church art resembles a PowerPoint presentation. In the L.A. County Museum of Art there's a carved medieval alterpiece that looks exactly like a comic strip. It has a series of little squares that illustrate the main points of the Christian story: Adam and Eve, the Fall, the birth of Jesus, crucifixion, harrowing of hell, resurrection, etc. Clearly it was meant to instruct the largely illiterate population about the basics. But that was not part of liturgy.

Slightly off-topic, recently I read Oliver Sacks' book Seeing Voices, about deaf language and culture. When I was reading it I wondered how a deaf person would feel about going to church, since for me the experience is so auditory -- all words and music. He says in a footnote, though, that churches have used sign language steadily for more than 150 years, and apparently it's quite beautiful in a liturgical setting. Some deaf churches have "choirs" that all sign in unison, which is quite a sight.

Anonymous said...

Gosh, that would be some beautiful choreography to see! There is a Lutheran "deaf" church not 5 blocks from where I live. Makes me want to attend there some day to see the Word!


Anonymous said...

The distinction between "sermon" and "education" is an interesting one. Multi-media is okay in "education" but not in "sermon"? Aesthetics at battle here, folks. Not theology.

When I design a publication, I do not primarily take into consideration my preferences. (Which for me, in a Mass, does NOT include PowerPoint, or bouncing balls, guitar masses, or... I would run for the nearest ambulatory/door.) I consider what I know about the desired targets (sorry, horrible jargon in multi-media/communications/advertising) and I design the publication to reach them, not me. It doesn't require expertise, but it does require looking beyond one's self. At its worst, it's manipulation, but at its best, it's loving sacrifice. Mode does not always equal intention.

Were I to "design" (write) a sermon, it would be very difficult for me to also contemplate the visual accompaniment, as that is something that has always been foreign to me in this setting. So do I always do what speaks to me, or what speaks to someone who isn't me? What if my auditors included someone who was learning-disabled in this way: he/she could not process information aurally, and had to have it visually or there was no chance of reception? (I personally know someone who has this disability.)

I'm left with these questions: If hearing a sermon is different from sitting in a lecture, or serving on a jury, or any number of situations that require one to process information aurally and somehow retain it, who's left out? Who becomes the outcast?

Is it a huge sacrifice to provide additional modes of communcation to potential brothers and sisters? Believe me, I wrestle with this one, as I have no interest in attending/belonging to a church that embraces fads at the expense of substance.

No answers, only questions (I think -- if I'm writing clearly). Thanks, Brother Dwight and Sister Dash. This is a discussion so worth having.