Screens in Worship: Top 10 Questions

Posted on May 7th, 2012
Image © FirstHattiesburg | Flickr | Creative Commons

No matter what happens at seminars and conferences on images in worship, when it comes to Q&A time, it's always the same basic set of questions. These are the basic concepts that everyone needs to know in order to use screens more effectively in worship. Consider this a crash course on screen use in your church.

Q: How can we afford to use a projection screen?

A: Separate worship screen expenses into manageable accounts.

What’s behind the “can’t afford it” question? Let’s break it down a bit. Don’t ask me to do your taxes, but basically, there are three types of expenses: a) capital, or extra-budget acquisitions; b) cost of goods, or money spent on production; and c) operating, or overhead. For the sake of argument, as one department in a larger organization, let’s reduce screen use operating expenses to wages – paying someone to create the images. So we have: upfront equipment, production costs, and labor.

For churches getting started with screens in worship, the concerns are mostly capital. This may require a donor or other special consideration. If you’ve already gotten an equipment setup, you need to pay for image acquisition and/or artists to do the work. Starting with pre-produced images is relatively inexpensive. Allocate $100-150 a month for production right away, and begin to set aside funds for ongoing capital upgrades.

Ultimately, you may want paid production staff. This indeed requires a much greater investment. But you don’t need paid staff to do good stuff. Read on.

Q: We have screens but just use them for song lyrics. How do we begin to do more with them?

A: Experiment with the screen as a canvas for art.

“You’ll love the screens, Myrtle Bea. You can’t read the book anymore anyway.” Many churches initially justify their screens in worship according to what my former partner in ministry Jason Moore calls the “big piece of paper” defense. We appeal to personal benefits for the longtime saints of the church, and the grandkid argument ("It will make your grandkids want to come to church") doesn’t work as well as the big piece of paper defense.

While transitory, the argument is right – using screens instead of books helps us see lyrics and spoken word elements better, draws faces upward, and generally increases worship participation.

Of course, screens are not a print but a visual medium – an entirely different communication system. Many churches intuitively get this after a while, and begin to experiment with art.

Most art falls into one of two types, or on a line somewhere in between representative and abstract.

Typically a church will start with representative art, or what we might describe as illustrated text. We craft our sermons and our services as before, and then look for opportunities to illustrate. Usual suspects include Renaissance era paintings, nature footage, church-y artifacts and pictures of people. Eventually this becomes tiresome or insufficient to capture a concept. Not knowing what else to do, churches swing to the other end of the spectrum and project abstract “holy blobs of color.” Abstract, amorphous shapes, lines and bursts of color morph across the spectrum of design, and make some in worship nauseous.

Perhaps blobs are meaningful to some, but it seems the primary benefit is their supposed lack of interference with the “foreground” of text. This in itself is telling – we refer to text as foreground and image as background. Even with such lowered expectations, much of the time blobs fail the lack of interference test. Neither approach gets past the AV Mentality, which sees the screen as background for the main feature, text.

A third way is interpretation—images based in reality but not directly illustrative of our concepts. This is the essence of metaphor. We connote rather than denote. We approach an idea through a comfortable side door. We don’t illustrate the kingdom of heaven with pearly gates but we interpret it with a kernel of wheat. This is Jesus’ method. And it works.

Q: We have screens but they just seem distracting. How can they enhance worship in a way that feels natural?

A: Move from illustrating propositions to telling stories.

As hinted above, when our main concept(s) in worship are propositional—when they seek to prove arguments, as a scientist making a case—we’re reduced to ornaments and illustrations. Such an approach is indeed distracting from a good case, like histrionics in a courtroom.

Making use of the screen leads us to re-evaluating our entire communication strategy in worship. Is the goal of worship to make a case, like a lawyer? Whether theologically right or left, most churches are still quite scientific in their worship design.

Instead of thinking of the screen as proposition illustration, think of it as story opportunity. Many in ministry associate art and story with beauty, in a negative way: myths and fantastical tales that are nice ornaments to the real work of systematic theology. Yet in some ways story is more reality than abstract theological proposition.

Consider the Pixar film Up. The crux of the film's narrative is a beautiful scene near the end when the man, after one last moment remembering the beauty of his longtime marriage, looks around his house and realizes he's living in the past. His story is literally weighing him down and preventing him from saving his new, young friend. He pushes the big pieces of furniture out the door, the balloon-hoisted house lifts off, and they are saved. The clip preaches well on a variety of topics, from living in the present to accepting God’s grace to dealing with grief.

Effective use of screens in worship means a reevaluation of our very communication approach in worship. Are we more comfortable with propositions, or can we (re)learn to let stories inform us as Christ followers? The distraction question is symptomatic. The real answer is to start learning communication strategy from the visual storytellers of our culture.

Q: How much is too much? We’ve had Sundays where we felt assaulted by a thousand random pictures and videos.

A: Create “dynamic stained glass.”

I visited a church once to lead a seminar. The host proudly showed me his PowerPoint file from the previous Sunday. In it he had 75 slides to punctuate the sermon, every major sentence animated with flying “word art.” Wham! Boom! Pow! Those poor worshipers. 

Less is more. This is a fundamental value of screen use.

Find a core image, hopefully metaphorical, and build your service around this common theme. Some variation of this image will be your ongoing visual representation, and will stay on the screen throughout the service, as if you were in a cathedral. The only difference is that screen art is dynamic, not static.

Q: We can’t afford professional designers. How can we create images that don't look cheesy?

A: Discover the power of references.

The secret ingredient to professional artists and designers everywhere is references. Biopics of Jackson Pollock flinging paint in his Florida room obscure the daily task of working in a culture of design. Most artists don’t work in brilliant, tortured isolation; they look at other artists. They keep browser bookmarks handy to reference for inspiration. This is standard protocol.

Some of my recent reference sites include theinspirationroom.com, bamagazine.com, behance.net, and bookcoverarchive.com.

When you visit these sites, don’t copy and paste. Pay attention to individual elements within items that strike you, such as font choice and placement, color scheme, use of metaphor, composition, and so on.

Say, for example, you want to use a water image for baptism but you want to avoid using somebody’s party photo album on Google images. Instead, go to one of these sites and look for ways others represent water. Use these concepts as inspiration for your own look.

Do this, and you’re on your way to becoming a designer.

Q: What if I can’t find the image I need online?

A: Learn to take a photograph.

You can survive a little while surfing Google, but you’ll hit a wall quickly, not to mention find it difficult to explain to others why you’re surfing inappropriate websites.

There are some good, royalty-free resource sites available. Subscription sites such as photospin.com offer an unlimited database for a single yearly fee. Or, consider a la carte websites such as istockphoto.com, which offer nice photos for as little as $1 each. In addition, flickr.com has an advanced search feature that allows the user to search images from the royalty-free Creative Commons database.

But, the best solution is: Learn to take a good photograph. You’ll also get what you need if you’re shooting it yourself.

Q: How to we deal with copyright?

A: Sidestep it.

I don't mean ignore it, unless, as Jason says, you want to start a full-time prison ministry. By sidestep, I mean don’t even bother with anything that might have a copyright on it. Make your own stuff, or find royalty-free resources online on the websites mentioned above.

Make sure you have the CVLI license, which allows users to show major studio motion pictures in worship. The fair use argument is weak; don’t use it.

Q: How do we avoid burnout for our best people?

A: Move toward a manageable production schedule with limits.

Name your best three or four volunteers as producers. These people are not necessarily the best implementers, but the ones who understand your vision the best. Set up a schedule for them in one of two ways. If you operate on a week-to-week basis, use the calendar to name a weekend of the month that is theirs to run. This gives them ownership and sets a manageable service expectation. If you plan worship in series, plan schedules so that each producer is on point for a mutually agreed number of series per year.

Treat the producer as the leader of the volunteer crew. At first the producer will be the one loading images and pushing buttons. Over time, the goal is that the producer will work with a graphic artist, video specialist, and so on.

Q: We use volunteers and we’re hit or miss. How can we get consistent quality using just volunteers?

A: Develop design standards.

Create a style guide for your designs, which creates standardization. Do you capitalize pronouns for God? Do you use punctuation on screen? Identify these grammatical elements. In addition, name what is acceptable visually. Do you always use black or white type, or is colored type acceptable? What fonts or font families are okay? How about color schemes, use of gradients, shadows, and so on?

Some of these decisions are flexible. Some I’ll get on a soapbox about, such as use of sans serif fonts, avoidance of punctuation on screen, and the use of a reduced color palette. Watch the graphics package of a favorite television program or product brand and you'll see the consistency of fonts, colors, and styles used.

Q: Producing a new service every weekend is simply too much work. How can we simplify the process?

A: Create themes and variations on themes.

Don’t try to create 52 unique productions a year plus everything midweek, too. Develop groupings around sermon series or liturgical seasons. This reduces the load to six to eight primary productions a year. For each grouping, create a primary theme and a few variations, in still and/or motion form.

While Creative Director at a church in Texas I identified a hand-written invitation on letterhead as the primary metaphor for a series on stewardship and giving. I produced a primary image that represented the series, in high res and screen res form. This appeared in posters, on bulletin covers, on the website, and so on. I slightly modified this primary image for each week of the series. Then I created two coordinating motion graphic backgrounds for the song portion of worship. These videos are simple dissolves and transitions between close up shots of envelopes and letters.

Even on a small budget and with a volunteer workforce, it is possible to create quality imagery and use your screen effectively to enhance worship and share God's story in inspiring new ways.

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