Wednesday, October 25, 2023

Generative AI and Worship Imagery

Many churches and congregational leaders have had plenty of experience finding imagery to put on the various screens used for worship: in the sanctuary, on Zoom, and via streaming platforms like Facebook and YouTube.

While online searching for imagery has become easier and easier, there is still the issue of getting copyright clearance for using images you find. If you are using the Fair Use Guidelines for Educational Multimedia, and are using a particular image in your worship space (e.g. your church sanctuary), you should be legally and ethically good to go.  Things get more difficult if you are live-streaming or re-broadcasting the service, and thereby extending your worship outside the confines of a particular worship space. 

Many churches have purchased licenses for live-streaming and this is good. When it comes to imagery, however, depending on your license, you might need to find additional permissions for using art and photography. Ethically you should be finding the original source of an image and request permission to use the image from that artist or photographer. 

Many image searches on various web platforms will locate the particular image or theme you're seeking, and you may be prompted to look at the source. In many cases the source is simply someone else who found and posted the image, who is not the originator of the image. This is where it gets time-consuming, tracking down the original source of a particular image, finding out how to contact that source, and then waiting for their permission. 

There is now a way through this!  The way is through image generation courtesy of AI (artificial intelligence) that is just recently widely available to anyone using major platforms like Google (Google slides will find and insert an image you want to use), Microsoft Edge, Canva, and others. is another source, although this requires a subscription. 

Recently in my preaching I had a story to tell about a snowy drive through the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and I wanted to find an image to illustrate the story.  Of course I did not have a photograph of this experience, since it was well before digital cameras were available, and I was driving, and alone. I wondered if could help.

I went to the site and entered in this command: "view from inside car, driver side, driving at night in snowstorm, lots of snow hitting windshield, mountain highway completely covered with snow, very dark, heavy snowfall visible, windshield wipers moving on windshield, visiblility near zero, no light outside" and here is the image I got.

An August ruling by a U.S. Court in Washington, D.C. ruled that imagery created by artificial intelligence cannot be copyrighted. This image that I had the AI generate cannot be copyrighted. You can use it!

I have spent some time generating imagery to varous biblical stories and have received amazing results. I may well decide to offer lectionary-based imagery here through this blog. Saving you the time and resources of finding something you can legally, and freely use!

Wednesday, January 19, 2022


The latest National Congregations study, Congregations in 21st Century America,  was released yesterday. Posting survey results since 1998, this study “...contains a wealth of information about multiple aspects of congregational life, including worship, leadership and staffing, ethnic diversity, technology, civic engagement, and much more. On all of these subjects, the report documents what is changing, what is staying the same, and the differences that exist among religious groups.” 


You can find the study with this link.

I’ve valued the research over the years and have used it in my workshops and courses, as well as in my books, Silver Screen, Sacred Story: Using Multimedia in Worship (2002), and Feeding Imaginations: Worship That Engages (2015).


Since I've advocated using screens and projectors over many years, I'm encouraged by the latest information that 46% of churches are now using them, and that in addition to song lyrics (42%) and sermon outlines, some have used video (18%).


In the future it would be interesting to see how many churches also use art, photography, and other imagery on screen, and Mark Chaves, director of the study, has indicated to me that they will consider this.


Using visuals (more than just words) on screen is still the next level for many churches, but, I fear, most clergy are vaguely suspicious of using visuals (iconoclastic theologies) or just haven't been trained in how to understand, and preach, with visual language.  


It's been my view that younger generations who know visual language just don't find it in church, partly explaining why worship has little interest for them.  As Mark Chaves wrote in his report on the 1998 study, "...producing worship in the United States means getting people together to sing and listen to somebody talk."  Has this changed much? The above chart from the NCS shows congregations are adding a bit more than that to worship these days, with projection equipment the biggest change.


Zoom worship has opened up new possibilities for sharing imagery and video clips, and it'll be interesting to see post-Covid surveys on use of screens as well as what kinds of visual content, if any, were added.

Thursday, January 6, 2022

On Epiphany and Insurrection

Today is the day of Epiphany, an early date for the birth of Jesus, which later was observed as the day the magi arrived to visit the infant. It's also the 12th Day of Christmas, a time of celebration in many Latin American, Caribbean, and European countries. In the United States, while noted in churches on the First Sunday of Epiphany on or after January 6th, the date is now associated with the fresh memory of the insurrection of January 6, 2021, when supporters of a defeated president tried to interfere with and stop the U.S. Congress from ratifying the results of the Electoral College. 

Rather than a grand celebration of the angels' Christmas message, "Peace on earth, good will to humans..." the date now reminds us of anything but peace and good will.  At least for a while, January 6 will stand as a reminder of divisions within families, communities, states, and the nation as a whole. 

Just as George Lakoff asked, "Whose Freedom?" in his 2006 book about contrasting American viewpoints on the meaning of freedom, we might ask, "Whose January 6th?" 

In a recent Christian Century article (January 6, 2022) "Christian Nationalism Vandalizes The Imagination" professor Lanta Davis noted the many Christian symbols and slogans mixed with placards, signs, red hats, banners, and American flags. 

"Christian nationalism offers a powerful imaginative framework. Its mythic origin story depicts America as uniquely blessed by God. But that relationship is under threat and must be defended by strong, protective heroes. Christian nationalism has slogans (God Bless America, MAGA, Take America Back for God); songs (“God Bless the U.S.A.,” etc.); and an assortment of images that often include Jesus’ name, the Bible, or the cross combined with American flags, eagles, and even guns. It is persuasive because its imaginative framework provides a cohesive sense of identity and purpose: I am part of this special place blessed by God and have been tasked to protect that relationship."

The problem, she says, is that this comes at a time when American churches continue to overlook the power of symbol and imagery, the origin of which is in the iconoclastic periods throughout history but notably during the Reformation. 

Lanta asks, "When we whitewashed our church walls, did we unintentionally leave our imaginations open to other markings, markings that left impressions on our souls?"

Movements such as Christian Nationalism have successfully created group identities with imagery that supports their ideology and distorted Christian theology. 

Epiphany is counter-story in the midst of empire. Originally a term for the divine blessing of a ruling emperor, it came to be associated with the birth narrative of Ixthus, Jesus Christ, God's Son, Savior. 

This blog has long advocated using screens and projectors to stimulate and feed imaginations with photographs, art, film clips, icons, and symbols.  Screens enhance the visual arts of fabric, stained class, and architecture to tell and retell the stories that build congregations of people empowered to bring peace, love, and joy into a broken world. 

Icon and symbol point to, and encapsulate, stories and narratives. As theologian Paul Tillich wrote, "The language of faith is the language of symbols."  

Whose January 6th? Whose Epiphany? Whose imagery and symbols?  

The Season of Epiphany is a good time to reclaim symbols and imagery with teaching and preaching. The alternative is to cede this language to the marketers, propagandists and ideologues, who have already found effective ways to shape culture, politics, and theology. 

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.