The following article originally appeared in The Gospel Advocate in September 2010. I have edited it slightly for the blog context.
Envision the Gospel
Have you heard the phrase “Death by PowerPoint” recently? Basically it refers to the overwhelming boredom that can be caused by a terrible PowerPoint presentation shared by a poor presenter. Then it gets worse when you show up at church on Sunday and the preacher fires up his laptop to show something so similar to what you saw on Friday that you feel like you never left.
Some preachers “solve” this problem by refusing to use PowerPoint. Dr. David Fleer has said that he doesn’t use or teach the use of PowerPoint to his preaching students. He has seen “Death by PowerPoint” kill too many sermons and Dr. Fleer doesn’t think that PowerPoint should be used in preaching at all. Unfortunately that’s like saying that you should never use a microwave because people often cook bad food with a microwave.
God Created our Brains
It’s not the tool that’s the problem. The problem is that our brains can’t deal with that much information all at once. We will end up paying attention to only one source of words at a time – so, either the PowerPoint slides get ignored or the preacher does. In the book Beyond Bullet Points author Cliff Atkinson points to research proving that when we see the same information that we’re hearing our retention and application actually decreases. In other words, when a preacher reads the information that is on the PowerPoint slide the church retains less of what he says.
Other research (found in the book Brain Rules by John Medina M.D.) shows a huge increase in retention and application of information when there is separate, visual communication that compliments the words of the speaker. That means that if a preacher projects a picture that supports what he’s saying the church will be able to retain much more of the sermon content (only 10% is retained with just speaking but an astounding 65% is retained with the combination of speech and images).
Another reason that preachers avoid using PowerPoint is the time it will take to learn the skills. It’s not simple to put together a good presentation. It takes time and effort to find the pictures and make it all line up with the sermon. But just a little math will show that the effort is well worth it. If a preacher is about average, he will preach a thirty minute sermon and will take about ten hours to prepare for that sermon. If he only speaks in the sermon, the church will retain about three minutes of what he said (10%). That works out to about two-hundred minutes of study for every one minute of sermon retained by the church.
However, if that preacher were to use images that complimented and connected with what he was saying, the retention would jump to nineteen and a half minutes of his thirty minute sermon (65%). Even if it took an extra five hours to prepare for that sermon with images, he would still have a huge increase in the benefit for the church and the efficiency of his time. That would work out to about forty-five minutes of study for every one minute of sermon retention. What other way could a preacher increase the value of his study fourfold? It’s not just about being efficient, however, the preacher speaks the Gospel. Faithfulness is more important than efficiency.
How Did Jesus Preach
God is the one who made our brains. The research is just pointing to the creative work of the one who made us all. God made us to be visual people who learn and apply things to our lives based on what we see and hear. Jesus never used a projector or showed a PowerPoint presentation (he also never used a microphone or a Bible), but he was masterful at using images to make his message memorable.
When Jesus is teaching his disciples in Luke 20 he asks for a denarius (vs. 24) and he uses the coin that people saw every day to drive home his message about giving to God. Later he points to a poor widow approaching the collection place for the temple treasury (Luke 21:2) and the image of her two small coins following the wealth of those ahead was a powerful teaching tool. The image of woman willing to sacrifice everything for her love of God is dramatically portrayed with two coins. Just after that Jesus points his disciples’ eyes to the temple behind the widow (vs. 6) and tells them that it will be torn down. They were sitting in the shadow of the greatest building in Jerusalem, the center of the Jewish faith, and the pride of Israel. They were staring at the home of God on earth, and Jesus told them that it would be destroyed.
Jesus also used bread, fish, children, and a withered fig tree to vividly drive home his message. He knew what we are now learning: images cement the message. Even a casual perusal of the Bible will show that there are images described on nearly every page. Even Paul used metaphors like the body of Christ, the body as a temple, Christian life as a race to be run, and the fruit of the Spirit. For us to continue to preach the message of Jesus we need to preach like Jesus did – with vivid, compelling imagery.
Preach the Gospel
Notice that Jesus often let the images speak for themselves. When he is referring to the denarius, he asks people to identify the image on the coin. Jesus isn’t about spoon feeding the message to people, but challenging them to think through for themselves. When his disciples ask him about his use of parables he answers that the stories obscure the meaning for those who are not willing to listen (Matthew 13:10-17).
It may seem counterintuitive for a teacher to make the lesson more difficult to understand, but Jesus wasn’t interested in conveying knowledge, rather he was interested in transforming lives. In fact, he deliberately taught things that would alienate the uncommitted and test the commitment of his disciples (John 6:66-69). Reading a list of bullet points from a PowerPoint slide or from an outline on the pulpit does nothing to convict or transform the lives of the church. Jesus’ preaching was a challenge to all who heard it.
One way that images could challenge the church is to project a picture of the person who was standing at the intersection with the sign on the way to the building. Many of the members passed him; most probably ignored him. Jesus said: “I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.” (Matthew 25:45).
Jesus used emotion to convey his message. Because he is creator (Colossians 1:16), he knows that our brains will retain more information when that information is tied to emotion. Though the research is just starting to show this to be true, Jesus already knew. He knew that images convey more information than words alone – a picture is truly worth a thousand words. Images can evoke joy – think of the sailor kissing the girl in Times Square at the end of World War II. Images can bypass words – a baby laughing will bring a smile to every face in the room. Images can allow each person to feel the message for themselves – a picture of a child with a father will evoke vastly different feelings in each person who sees it depending on how they view their own father.
PowerPoint may not be the only way to use images to preach the Gospel. Jesus never used a computer, that is true, but Jesus never had access to a computer. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if your church decides to use a projector and a computer to aid the preacher. You won’t convert more people or keep the younger generation from leaving by installing thousands of dollars worth of technology. A computer is not the answer to the problem.
The problem is that preaching often lacks vivid, emotion-laden imagery that connects people to the Gospel and challenges them to hear the words of Jesus. Some preachers are fantastic story tellers that can paint a picture with their words (Dr. Fleer, for example). However, for those preachers that are not, their churches are suffering. Their message is falling short – not because of a lack of study or effort on their part, but because there are no images to hold the message together.
Envision the Gospel
Technology is not good or bad, it’s a tool, a tool that can be used to preach the Good News of Jesus, if we are willing to give it a chance. Just like any tool, however, preachers need to learn to use it well. If your church does decide to use projection, or if you have in the past, it is imperative that your preacher learns to use the tools he has to preach the eternal message of Jesus.
Too few resources exist to help churches employ projection well for preaching. Sure, a lot of churches have moved to projecting their songs and announcements, but most preachers have had zero instruction on the use of PowerPoint or similar tools. It’s not reasonable to expect that someone would give a good sermon without first learning how to preach, and it is just as unreasonable to expect a preacher to use PowerPoint well without first learning how to use it.
Secular books such as the previously mentioned Beyond Bullet Points and Slide:ology by Nancy Duarte are great resources for learning how to pair an image with a message. There is as much art as science involved in finding the right image and showing it in the right way at the right time. The church has a lot to learn about using images well, and the current experts are in the professional world.
Richard Jensen wrote a book entitled Envisioning the Word: The Use of Visual Images in Preaching that explains the history of images within the church and has some recommendations for how to use images in preaching. The book is really about laying a theological groundwork for using images rather than any practical advice on how to do so.
If we are to continue to preach the Gospel to all creation (Mark 16:16), we need train preachers to preach like Jesus preached. We need to recognize the way God created our brains to process information and to connect emotions with vivid images. The message of the Gospel is too important for us to let the world take the lead in this form of communication. It is time for our preachers to preach vivid, Christ-like sermons that capture the hearts of men. It is time for us to learn how to envision the Gospel.
Atkinson, Cliff. Beyond Bullet Points: Using Microsoft® Office PowerPoint® 2007 to Create Presentations That Inform, Motivate, and Inspire. Redmond, WA: Microsoft Press, 2008.
Duarte, Nancy. Slide:ology: The Art and Science of Creating Great Presentations. Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly Media, 2008.
Jensen, Richard A. Envisioning the Word: The Use of Visual Images in Preaching. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Press, 2005.Medina, John. Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School. Seattle, WA: Pear Press, 2008.