Monday, December 7, 2020

Using Sanctified Art

If you’re looking for ways to make your streaming worship services more engaging and memorable, using visuals is the way to go.  Not just putting words on a screen, but adding pictures or visual art that show those words and concepts. 

The visual medium of whatever platform you’re using for “distance” worship begs for pictures and visual art. Otherwise, you’re just doing a version of radio, streaming a lot of words. If we’re going to use Zoom or Facebook Live or other platforms well, and if we really want to connect with our people, adding visuals is a must.

Most worship leaders have figured out how to do that, but it can be tiring to come up with those visual resources week after week. This is where a group I’ve recently learned about comes in. The women at have figured it out.  

Here’s what they, and all of us, know about worship today:

“Pastors are overworked and volunteers are exhausted; when push comes to shove, creativity can often go out the door. Faith leaders need the support of artists and creatives to midwife artful, God-breathed ministry.”

And this is where they come in: their website is full of original art and music that stand alone or illustrate seasonal and theme-based worship services.  I’m very impressed with what I see here. Not only are the visuals beautiful and pleasing to the eye, but they also contain messages of inclusivity with a prophetic voicing that addresses the central issues we face as society and people, all rooted in scripture.

They provide music and hymn ideas for the season, an image licensing library, liturgy, poetry, and films, even resources for complete sermon series, all the while “...committed to expanding imagination around the divine image and providing resources with inclusive and affirming theology.”

Their stated core values are: 

The unique creativity of all people. 

Created in the image of the Divine Artist, every person contains the capacity for    creativity and imagination.

The inherent goodness of all humans, regardless of identity, race, nationality,    sexuality, status, or gender expression.

The good news of the gospel that calls us to work toward liberation and wholeness for all of creation.

I find their artistic standards to be right and true:

Expansive language for God and God’s people

Imaginative images for God and God’s people

Honesty and authenticity

Anti-oppression and anti-racism

Today’s online (and in-person) worship, often reduced to a lot of words, invites, in a visual culture, resources that capture attention, stimulate imaginations, and motivate personal and social change.  

A Sanctified Art! is one group you’ll want to explore.


Monday, November 16, 2020

Sanctuary Screen Use Quadruples in 20 Years!

How things have changed in worship over these last twenty years!  Where in 1998, worship in the United States meant “...getting people together to sing and listen to somebody talk…”, twenty years later we see how technology adds enthusiasm and active participation to worship.

This is from the findings just released in the latest National Congregations Study detailing “Changing Worship Practices in American Congregations.”  The 2018-2019 study included looking at worship practices of 1,250 Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu and other groups.

I’ve followed this study since highlighting it in my 2002 book Silver Screen, Sacred Story: Using Multimedia in Worship, advocating the use of projection and interesting visuals in worship. Since those early days we now find that the number of congregations using visual technologies in their main sanctuary-based worship service has nearly quadrupled, from 12% in 1998 to 46% in 2018. 


Over twenty years worship has become more informal, enthusiastic, and participatory.  

By “participatory” I mean being engaged with interesting visuals on screens, not only those in the sanctuary but in our hands in the form of smartphones.  Indeed, the new study shows 57% of congregations use smartphones by “...inviting people to record some part of the service (29 percent of congregations using smartphones), use social media during the service (16 percent), donate money (15 percent), engage with the sermon in some way, such as by filling in an online listener guide associated with the sermon (13 percent), and engage with the service’s music, such as by following along with the lyrics of songs and hymns on the congregation’s app (5 percent).”

While the use of sanctuary screens has increased in congregations, the typical use is to project song lyrics (42% of congregations), while only 18% projected a video.  

I continue to maintain that the technology allows us to do more than simply put up words to prayers and songs, but to also add video, yes, but also artworks, photographs, and symbols to capture attention, focus a message, and create more participation through memorable, and beautiful, worship experiences. I continue to encourage this after 3 decades of using screens, projectors and visuals in worship.

To be sure, things have changed when the pandemic moved worship out of sanctuaries and into online platforms.  These platforms encourage and allow using visuals in worship, and not just images of the worship leader or the prayers and songs, but also of interesting art, video clips, photography and other illustrative material that transcend words and evoke feeling and insight.

Worship leaders now, more than ever, need to be asking, not “how can I say this” but “how can I show this?”  This question,, while preparing and presenting online worship, will continue to be central to transforming worship once we return to using screens in our sanctuaries.

You can access the details of the study at the National Congregations Study website and the results of the worship and technology survey here.

Thanks to Mark Chaves at Duke University and his team with the National Congregations Study for sticking with this project over these many years!

Friday, November 13, 2020

The Screen: Still a Servant of Word and Light

The pandemic has accelerated the use of digital technology in many organizations, including churches.  Where once churches resisted using screen technology in their sanctuaries, Covid restrictions left them with little choice but to teach and worship using screens in their people’s homes. 

In this post I want to revisit church use of screens in sanctuaries, and then update how they bring learning, community building, and worship into our homes. 

“The Power of Film and Faith” was the theme for the Pacific School of Religion’s 101st E.T. Earl Lectures (2002). Hosted annually by the First Congregational Church of Berkeley, California, the conference planners faced a challenge shared by many churches: how to show films and pictures in a sunny, bright sanctuary. They researched projectors bright enough for any condition, and rented one with 5000 lumens. For comparison purposes, my own church at the time, with limited natural light, needed a projector with only 750 lumens. 

The large screen (9'x12') was placed in the center of the chancel, partly obscuring the central visual feature in the sanctuary: the organ and its ranks of pipes. High above these was a round stained glass window. The screen was used during the three-day conference to display slides and video in various lecture presentations, and for three worship services. 

The screen, with its aluminum frame and black cloth edging, stood awkwardly in a chancel clearly not designed to accommodate such a thing. It was clear to all that it was a temporary intrusion, yet that didn’t matter to the conference registrants who came knowing film and other visuals would be displayed. They were willing to suspend their sensibilities to experience all that the screen could offer. 

Throughout the conference many different images, words, and films were projected on the screen. The screen served as a medium for learning and worship. Lecturers referred to what was shown on the screen and during one of the worship services, a small group provided a short liturgical dance in response to a scene from a movie. 

The worship service I led began at noon on a bright sunny day. As it happened, it was the only time of the day when direct light came in contract with the screen, from the round stained glass window high up on the chancel wall. Blue light streamed through the rose window, shining through the top section of the screen, and interfering with the top portion of the words and images we were showing. 

I saw this as an opportunity rather than a crisis. I thought it important to begin the service by helping the congregation reflect upon the presence of the screen in the sanctuary. Throughout the conference, there was no mention of the screen and its relationship to the architecture and the learning/worship experiences. 

Since I was leading the final event of the conference, I thought it an opportunity to reflect with the congregation on the role the screen played for the last three days. As I summarized the conference theme and the purpose of our closing worship, I walked into the center aisle and turned my back to the congregation while pointing towards the screen and called attention to all that was arrayed before us in that chancel. 

The rose window shone its holy light from above. Beneath the window were the ranks of pipes for the beautiful organ that was centered in the chancel. Hanging in front of the pipes was a small cross. The large screen was set in front of this on the stage level, partly obscuring the pipes and cross, and clearly interrupting the visuals that were designed for that space. On either side of the chancel were thin banners, each with a word highlighted with a spotlight. The words were the theme of the conference: "image" on the left side facing the congregation, and "insight" on the right-hand side. 

I swept my arm across the imaginary horizontal line created by the words, and spoke of the "plane of theology," the words describing both the conference theme and our theological work. Moving my hand and arm vertically, I drew an imaginary line from the stained glass window at the top of the wall, through the cross(partly obscured by the screen)and down to the screen. I named it the "plane of theophany," the light of God streaming through the red and blue glass ofthe window, coming down all the way to the screen. 

The plane of theology and our words about God were crossing the plane of theophany, the light of God, and meeting in the small, fragile cross. All of the color of the window and the words of the theme were anchored in the cross, the symbol of the incarnation of human love and suffering, the courage and giftedness of the human spirit, and the power of God to raise new life out of the chaos of death. 

At that moment, the screen, positioned large and central on the floor of the chancel, was bathed in the blue light from the stained glass window high above!  I then spoke of how the blue in the window represented the waters of life and the waters of the baptism and how the reds in the window symbolized the power of the Holy Spirit to call the church forward. Then I pointed to the ways that the blue colors now colored the top portion of the screen, “baptizing” the screen and incorporating it into the community of faith.

I named the screen as a servant of the Word and the Light, a means of revelation during our worship, and then proceeded to begin the worship service with the formal Call to Worship and Gathering Prayer. 

The screen, as a medium of God's revelation, can help us see and live differently. What can be seen as an architectural intrusion can also be understood as a participant in the holy trinity of word, light, and flesh. 

The screen is not a neutral, silent participant in worship. It is a medium for words and imagery.  

This is no less true today, as churches all over the country take their educational events, worship services, and community building sessions out of their church buildings and into our homes, where we gather around our personal screens on computers and smartphones. These screens serve Word and Light as effectively as those in our sanctuaries.

Sally McFague has written that our task "is to become aware of God's presence. We are called to see differently... and then to live differently” and the screens we bring into our worship spaces, and into our homes, can help us do this work.

As Marshall McLuhan has said, “the medium is the message.” 

Friday, May 8, 2020

Online/Remote Worship Is Here to Stay

As we’re already seeing, once Safe At Home orders are rescinded, it doesn’t mean a return to what once was.  Restaurants, shops, music venues, theaters, and places of worship will continue to be affected by social distancing measures and limits to the number of people on premise.

This means churches will continue streaming worship services and pre-recorded services to provide for those unable or unwilling to attend physical worship services.  It’s possible that some will prefer this new way of “doing church” and welcome being able to watch live or recorded services at their convenience. It seems new habits are being formed.  In the world of music, a recent survey found that 74% of music fans plan to continue watching live streams from musicians even as the live-show circuit resumes.   

How long before sanctuaries open? Many are watching public health guidance for how to handle worship and other congregational gatherings in the next few months.  As we are already seeing, federal, state, and local authorities are staging or phasing reopenings based on improving COVID-19 metrics.

Forward-looking worship leaders wanting to plan ahead will want to check their own state’s opening plans, as well as information shared by regional church leadership.
Whether you like it or not, there's no stopping it!

In my own region, the Wisconsin Council of Churches has offered specific guidance for the months ahead, drawing from Wisconsin’s reopening guidelines. You can find the Council’s very helpful  document, “Returning to Church” here:

In a nutshell, the Wisconsin Council of Churches recommends to its churches that online worship continues well into the future. Even when public worship can resume, social distancing and attendance limits will keep some people at home.  Others may simply prefer online worship, now that they’re used to it, and still other higher risk individuals (defined as people over 60, and those with underlying conditions) will be advised to continue to shelter at home (and experience worship remotely) until an all-clear is sounded.

This means churches will want to plan for online/remote worship for a long time forward.  In case you haven’t done this yet, you might consider getting a proper license for streaming worship.  There are several companies who offer these licenses, and the streaming video license is often simply added to the music license your church already holds.  

A Podcast/Streaming license permits both pre-recorded content and live-streamed content to be posted to your website, YouTube, Facebook, Zoom, Vimeo, Instagram, and other similar online platforms.  Check with the company whose license you already have for music, or simply search for church streaming licenses. One License and CCLI are examples of two licensing companies who work with churches.

The good news is that you’re probably getting quite good at screen-based, online worship!  If it’s still a struggle, consider these improvements:

--enlist others to help out by reading, submitting photographs, offering live music
--get people up and moving with physical responses to prayers and songs

--keep it visually interesting: offer full-screen visuals that keep your theme or main message in front of people

--don’t forget to promote different ways of giving, and do your usual offering rituals of song/prayer/ and thanksgiving

--check your denomination’s growing worship resource library for videos/music/imagery

--make sure you have your proper licenses and display your license number on screen

--keep the service time short: many are finding they just can’t process so much on-screen information

-- focus your theme and message: remember something as short (and focused) as a 30-second commercial can be interesting, memorable, stimulating, amusing, and persuasive. 

Monday, May 4, 2020

Show and Tell In Worship

After 7-8 weeks of offering church services online, many churches have settled into routines, typically changing little from their usual in-sanctuary church service.  What this means is that people sit and listen (churches are primarily auditory spaces: see my article on this here). In a visual culture where people are also used to watching fast-paced images in advertising, films, and television shows, just seeing one person talking isn’t going to grab their full attention. Showing what you're talking about goes a long way towards helping your viewers understand the heart of your messaging.

One great irony of worship in the time of Covid-19 is that churches have now turned to screens to broadcast their services, and yet some have missed the point that a screen is meant to show something more than one or more people talking to a camera. When the screens that people use each day are rich in visual content, we in the church need to pay attention to that, and try to figure out ways to visually enhance your viewers' experience.

Finding ways to keep people visually involved can be challenging. Sure, we are seeing one another if we’re using Zoom and other visual tech, and we’re seeing the worship leaders and the backdrop they’ve selected (the worship sanctuary, maybe a home office) but there are ways to add more visuals to worship.  

One way, with Zoom, is to Share the Screen and put up a PowerPoint or Google Slides program that not only shows the words to prayers and hymns, but also integrates visual
Green arrow=Share Screen
arts.  Some churches are doing a fine job asking church members to submit photographs during the week that can be shown during worship, or asking children to draw pictures that can be uploaded and added to the slides.  Other churches are adding original video or online video to the slide set to illustrate messages.  

For those churches using their sanctuary for video worship, and who already have a screen and projector in place, the leadership could position themselves near those screens and project the imagery and lyrics that would ordinarily be used in their service. Many churches are doing this effectively.

One caution is that while churches may enjoy a worship exemption in US Copyright law around the proper use of copyrighted material, these protections do not automatically extend to your broadcasting these materials over the Internet, radio, or television. Until there is further guidance on this matter, you’re better off using materials that you know are in the public domain, are original to you and your members, or have been already cleared through some of the online sources you may be using.

A key question for worship leaders planning to upload their services to visual platforms is this: how can we SHOW what we're talking about? Sometimes this means we set aside our natural bias to TALK about something in church, and instead find a picture, a video, a film clip, or a drawing to show the point you want to get across.

This will increase your viewers' comprehension of your message, enhance their memory of what you're doing, and stimulate their response.

Sunday, May 3, 2020

Couch Potato Church in the Zoom Era

Back in the 1970’s someone (maybe a cartoonist) used the phrase “couch potato” to refer to those watching long hours of television while sitting on couches or easy chairs, maybe eating potato chips, and possibly turning their bodies into a potato shape for the lack of exercise! 

The phrase came to me again on a recent Sunday as I sat on my couch and watched a Zoom-based worship service. Since I could also see other participants sitting on couches and chairs, I realized, I’m a couch potato in a couch potato church service!

Like many who have been “safer at home” for these past 50 days, I have done a lot of sitting.  I also know I need to get up and move around more frequently. After participating in several recent Zoom-based worship services, one thing I’ve come to notice is I can’t just sit on my couch for more than 20-30 minutes without needing to stand up.  Sure, there is lots of sitting in a typical in-sanctuary service, but even then those who are able are invited to stand for singing, praying, and greeting each other.   

With sympathy to all those who are scrambling to adapt their church services and ministries to these days of Covid-19, I’d gently suggest worship leaders ask people to stand during the livestream (or recorded) service, even in the comfort of their own home. 

Stand to pray together, stand to sing a hymn or song, stand to do some sort of unison action (maybe an echo pantomime where the leader calls out a phrase and demonstrates an action, which then the rest say and do).  

Of course, with video church seen at home, the participants have the freedom to get up or not, but I think worship leaders could find ways to keep people more physically involved in worship. 

It’s just a small detail that has been overlooked in the effort to provide worship experiences in this strange time.  I hope worship leaders will find a way to bring standing/sitting/even kneeling back into at-home screen-based worship.

Post Script: I shared my thoughts about "couch potato church" with the pastor of the church I've been attending, and in this morning's service he invited us to stand four times during the one hour service: during a short prayer/doxology at the start of the service, for a short song he taught with hand motions, as a stretch time before the sermon/message, and at the end of the service to repeat the short song and hand motions learned earlier. These were simple ways to get the Zoom congregation up and moving and to be more physically engaged.

Thursday, April 30, 2020

Screen Preaching: Everybody’s Doing It

When I Google “screen preaching” the first thing that comes up is an article from 2013, “Why I Object to Screen Preaching.” Curious about why someone so strongly opposed projecting hymn lyrics, prayers and theme-related imagery on a screen in a sanctuary, I had to read further. What the writer was objecting to is a practice where a church that doesn’t have a preaching pastor puts on-screen a live or taped video feed of a preacher speaking from another location.  The writer prefers preaching that comes from a live person who is physically present. He left open the possibility that a live preacher might use a screen to boost participation and understanding during a worship service.

There have been other objections to using screens in worship, but all of that has faded in the face of Covid-19 with stay-at-home orders to flatten and crush infection rates. Now, most preaching is done via screens. Even churches who once adamantly refused to use screens
in worship are now making their services available on all the screens available to them: computer screens, smartphone screens, tablet screens.  For now and the immediate future, screen preaching is the primary vehicle for congregational worship.

Clergy and churches have had to scramble to adapt to this unique situation.  Some have turned to platforms like Zoom, Facebook Live, Skype, and YouTube to broadcast their worship services.  For many congregations, worship means setting up a camera in a sanctuary and live streaming/recording a typical Sunday morning worship service. For others, the recording is done via computer or smartphone from the comfort of a pastor’s study or home office.

A quick survey of YouTube videos of Sunday services shows clergy in full clerical garb preaching in their worship sanctuaries, often with some live or recorded music to accompany hymn singing. Some have added slides with the words to prayers and hymns to the video. Some of these churches include other socially-distanced worship leaders in the sanctuary (depending on their state’s policies) or later edit them into the recording.

Some clergy, rather than live-streaming or recording from the sanctuary setting, are presenting services from their homes or offices, using visual foregrounds and backgrounds including lit candles, colorful flowers, fabrics, sacred objects and symbols to provide an attractive and visually rich environment. 

As worship leaders know, there are immediate technical challenges everyone has faced in the quick transition to screen-based worship.  Once these are overcome, and this is still an ongoing process, a next objective would be to steadily increase the quality of worship by tightening thematic focus, adding visual interest and opening up more participation of others. 

One of the unexpected benefits of all of these adjustments, is that if you are sharing your religious services via social media platforms, they are now accessible for the whole world to see, and your outreach, and potential support network, has increased in ways you might never have dreamed.  

While at first the focus for many was to show members the familiar backdrop of their worship sanctuary, it became clear that with online sharing of the service, people from all over the country and world are tuning in online at their convenience. What once was a local worship experience now is reaching a global audience!  This means wider participation in your message and ministry and might also result in the expansion of your support base with online giving opportunities. 

Having a wider audience might spur you to consider how to make your services more visually interesting and thereby memorable, and it might mean you’ll plan to continue your new online worship presence as a way to keep reaching new “members” of your worshiping congregation.

With every indication that Covid-19 will be with us for the foreseeable future, at this writing most federal and state health guidelines anticipate a gradual and phased reopening of public spaces.  Even with this phasing, older church members, those 60 years of age and more, will likely need to stay away from public gatherings for a longer time, perhaps until a vaccine is widely available. 

This likely means you’ll be keeping your screen preaching ministries for some time.  You will continue to provide for the needs of those who must still minimize their public exposure, and it will continue to open your churches to a national audience. 

Over twenty years ago, when I started demonstrating to clergy groups across the country the many ways to effectively use screens in worship, one participant at one of my workshops asked me, “is this just a flash in the pan, or will this be around a while?”

I said it then and I say it now: screen preaching is here to stay.