I Preached With a Screen So You Don’t Have To

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I hate being scared of things for the wrong reasons, but this was one of those times.

I don’t normally use a screen when I preach. In fact, even though we have a perfectly functional projector in the sanctuary, it stays hidden in the ceiling most of the year. Many pastors have anxiety about screens in worship. Certain churches loathe anything that smacks of the megachurch down the street, especially things that can be misconstrued as entertainment rather than worship.

“If I wanted to go to a movie, I would have skipped church and seen Transformers 14.”

My regular preaching practice is a bit unique. You can read more about that here. After years of apprehension, and with great fear and trembling, I recently included a slideshow with my sermons for three weeks in a row, and learned things only possible in the moment. Here is the good, the bad, and some tips for the adventurous.

The Good

  • My sermon prep was orderly and natural. I was able to replicate the process of making flashcards for every large movement in the sermon, then digitize the content. Once I created a slide stack, I could rearrange them with ease, seeing how each idea moved to the next. This was a joy for my own practice.
  • Feedback from the congregation was mostly positive, with many saying they liked the ability to “see the scripture.” Now that most people do not carry a paper Bible on Sunday mornings, having the words on a screen reconnected them to the words as a visual medium. (This has an obvious downside too.)
  • My art background served this process well. In my manuscripting, I have been working to develop more refined and simple images to communicate the ideas. This work translated to the screen well, and it was as though people were seeing my visual manuscript with me. In my congregation, this has been a frequent request, and the screens helped with that.

The Bad

  • Screens are selfish, and demanding. In a battle between a screen and a person, the screen always wins. That is why smart phones are changing our physiology, bending our spines in permanent and disturbing ways. Technology desires our attention. Any preacher who does not take this into account will forfeit a battle they did not even realize was being waged. In my regular preaching, I have a flexible visual manuscript, which allows me to keep my head up and engage the energy in the congregation as I go along. If I am losing people, I can adjust, slow down, double back, etc. When the screen came down and the lights dimmed, I saw everyone lift their heads and many never looked at me again. No matter how bad the content is on the screen, it steals attention. Imagine preaching while a clown juggles on a unicycle just to your left. It is something like that.
  • The slides lock you in, with little room for adaptability. The next slide is the next slide. If I wanted to move a set piece in the sermon based on subtle congregational clues (i.e. audible snoring), I couldn’t. The slides were dictating the unfolding sermon, not the preacher. I was a tool in the screen’s sermon. My preaching relies on improvisational elements, and I lost those moments with the screen dictating my next line.
  • Technology is as unreliable as a squirrel in traffic. I am a millennial in my mid-thirties. I know how to link a tablet to a computer to a projector. I know how to coordinate the lighting cues and the slide changes without disrupting the flow. I am the master of the robots, I think. Yet when I was relying on the screens for guidance, I was terrified that a glitch would leave me helpless. I developed the visual manuscript as a way of escaping this exact kind of problem. If the lights go out and the printer breaks, I can still preach the sermon. But not with the screen. It was saying to me, “If I break, you are lost and alone. You should start sweating and praying to the wireless gods. And did you charge me last night?”

Tips for Screen Usage

  • Charge all batteries. Batteries never die when you want them to, like during a phone call with a creditor. Half of all presentations I have witnessed ended in someone fiddling with a powercord they had all along. Why didn’t they start with the thing plugged into the outlet? Maybe running a presentation off battery power is the most risky thing they will do all month.
  • Test all of your hardware multiple times. Have a backup plan if some part of the chain breaks. And it will one day. See ^
  • Understand how computers work with projectors. Nothing is worse than a pop-up alert appearing on the screen, announcing that your rash cream prescription is filled. Or an intimate text from your spouse that is accidentally shared with everyone. Are you terrified now? Good, you should be. Years ago pastors had to make sure their microphones were muted while they used the bathroom or gossiped about that SOB deacon or cried into their trashcan before worship. Now things are more dangerous. Technology magnifies our idiocy. And while we are on the subject, you can follow me here and here.
  • Respect your context. Some churches will only allow a screen in worship over some dead bodies. And people take a while to die, with no regard for our future preaching hopes.
  • There are some fonts that should be deleted from your computer. Never use Papyrus. It does not make things look ancient. The same with Comic Sans (see Dan Gilbert’s sick burn), Curlz (the “z” should be a clue that it is an abomination), or anything that looks unique. Keep it simple with your fonts. And be consistent. Do not have more than a couple of font choices in your slides. Using a bunch of different fonts is like preaching in a bunch of different accents. Don’t do that either.
  • Limit your words. A picture is worth a bunch of words, so don’t show the pictures and all the words. That is redundant and gratuitous and annoying and repetitive (like this sentence).
  • Ask a designer/artist to critique your slides. It will be brutal. But it will make you better.
  • Watch TED talks to see how this works well.
  • Never use sound effects for slide transitions. Also, never use visual slide transitions, except maybe a subtle cross fade. Steve Jobs could pull that off. But you are not Steve Jobs, which is why black turtlenecks make you look creepy.

Final Thoughts

People generally liked the screen. They said it engaged other parts of their brain and helped them learn better. All decisions are a cost/benefit analysis. I left behind the screens after three weeks. I might bring them back depending on the sermon content. Don’t be scared of looking like the that shiny church down the street with the rock band and the questionable facial hair choices. That is a terrible reason to (not) do anything. But be aware of the complexities, and the competitive nature of screens. It can be a useful tool in your chest. Preaching needs to be freer to experiment, to fail, and to learn from the process. A screen might help with that, or it may ruin everything. Try it out and see what happens. I bet you survive, and learn something along the way.

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