A few years ago, my home church installed a brand new projector system. The rural, Southern church community had been using an overhead projector for years, and it was time for an upgrade. After several fundraisers, a little research, and some quick installation, our church was armed and ready for visual media ministry. Sunday morning rolled around, and as the service began, the new screen dramatically descended from the ceiling. The reaction? Laughter. This strange scene has stirred my interest in the welfare of small churches as they tackle the ominous new technology of visual media.
After several years, this exciting piece of equipment has become nothing more than a glorified overhead projector. Our enthusiastic volunteers have all but scattered, and the pastor’s fifteen-year-old son grudgingly mans the sound booth. The “stock photo-esque” graphics, crooked screen, and occasional typos scream a lack of professionalism, and one must wonder if my beloved church is clumsily wielding a powerful medium.
Small churches may have trouble facing the emergence of new, expensive, mainstream communication tools. The observable success of megachurches, whose adoption of cutting edge media has often attracted astounding numbers, has prompted congregations of smaller communities to consider the implementation of visual media. Though visual media is a powerful communication tool, small churches should not adopt visual media without carefully considering the unique culture of the congregation and the implications of introducing new media into the traditional worship service.
Part 1: Critique of the Relationship between Visual Media and Small Church Culture
The problem with many small churches lies in their resistance to change. Christians often approach new cultural goods with a sense of reluctant duty. In the name of cultural relevance, the church inspects the new technology, acquires a minimal understanding of its workings and implications, and immediately retreats to tradition. Unchallenged and unchanged, the body of believers resumes the predictable worship services and attempts to escape an inescapable culture. This is truly a loss. As men and women who are “not of the world,” they often assume that cultural goods which have achieved the widespread popularity of the world must be overtly worldly, and therefore should be completely avoided. This mindset, though praiseworthy for its concern with holiness, quickly fosters judgmental and even fearful attitudes toward mainstream culture. These churches must understand that cultural goods created by nonbelievers are not necessarily evil or destructive, but may be wisely incorporated into church culture for the betterment of the community.
On the other side of the spectrum, some small churches are obsessed with the concept of “relevancy” to mainstream culture. These churches make a desperate attempt to mimic “secular” visual media, hoping that their creative projects will captivate the masses, attract unbelievers to the church, and keep the congregation engaged during worship services. Though their attempts to engage the culture are admirable, the projects often fall flat due to a poor understanding of the medium. Impulsive purchases of expensive multimedia equipment may lead to nothing more than poorly produced videos which feel uncomfortably disjointed to the church culture.
Churches must realize that the adoption of visual media can quickly create undesirable consequences. Terry Taylor has written an excellent article about this subject. In addition to being potentially emotionally manipulative, videos also run the risk of becoming mere “eye candy” (Taylor). Church volunteers may find themselves producing transitional videos which demonstrate sophisticated animation but have no practical purpose whatsoever. Though it can be argued that art must not necessarily be practical (there is certainly a place for decorative beauty), at what point does a video become a mere distraction from the worship service?
Also, a common issue with small churches is the “technology dependence trap” (Taylor). Often small churches integrate video into every aspect of the worship service: the announcements, the worship, the sermon, and the missionary presentations. If the church were to experience a power failure, would they be forced to cancel the service? Though utilizing video technology is valuable, a church must not become utterly dependent upon it, and the budget should be carefully monitored. Projectors, screens, computers, and software are extremely expensive. Small churches usually have small budgets, and some have unfortunately made impulsive purchases without analyzing the costs.
Next, the “time trap” occurs when church leaders fail to delegate media ministry responsibilities to skilled members of the congregation (Taylor). If elders and deacons become obsessed with the new video equipment, then they will fail to devote adequate time to their God-given leadership responsibilities. Instead, the caretakers of media ministry should be creative Christians within the church. The final trap, the “closed Bible trap,” occurs when the church projects every passage of Scripture onto the screen (Taylor). If the congregation is never asked to open their Bibles, then they will rarely turn to parallel passages or read the surrounding chapters to gain context.
Part 2: Construction of a Proper Relationship between Visual Media and Small Church Culture
Some small churches need to become more open to change. To their surprise, they may find that there is biblical justification for the use of visual media within the church. Obviously, videos and PowerPoint were never mentioned by biblical writers, and no prophetic word specifically concerning modern media has been given to the church. However, Scripture does paint God as the Creator of all things beautiful, a God who equips His children with unbridled imaginations and artistic abilities. As Francis Schaeffer aptly argues, “[I]t is important to note that on Mount Sinai God simultaneously gave the Ten Commandments and commanded Moses to fashion a tabernacle in a way which would involve almost every form of representational art that men have ever known” (20). These events are recorded in the Book of Exodus, and years later, we find similar circumstances surrounding the construction of the temple, as recorded in II Chronicles. Clearly the Lord values artwork which reflects His own originality, creativity, and beauty. If the tabernacle and temple, both places of worship, contained representational art, then visual media may have its place in the modern church.
What about graven images? Many congregations are hesitant to display artwork during a service which is devoted to the worship of God alone. Francis Schaeffer offers excellent commentary on this issue, explaining that the commandment forbade the Israelites to worship artwork, but did not forbid the creation of art itself (19-20). The problem lies not with the graven images, but with the value which man attaches to them. If an artist forgets the source of his creativity, if a church becomes obsessed with cutting-edge media, if a congregation exchanges the exposition of the Word for fleeting entertainment, then the biblical mandate has been broken. Small churches can avoid this problem by wisely and sparingly incorporating into worship services media which serves to encourage the body and honor the Creator.
Also, these small churches which are resistant to change must realize that Christians have a responsibility to preserve the best of culture. Many evangelical writers such as Andy Crouch have encouraged believers to become bold creators of new cultural goods. This challenge can be easily misinterpreted, for it implies the necessity of radical originality which rejects the external influences of existing cultural goods. This mindset will leave creative Christians isolated and utterly frustrated with their artistic endeavors. Preserving the best of culture and integrating it into new goods is necessary and praiseworthy, even if the borrowed cultural goods did not originate from the imaginations of fellow churchmen. Refusal to accept “secular” culture which is brilliant, beautiful, and useful—this stubbornness is not righteous, it is arrogant and ignorant.
Some small churches on the other side of the spectrum need to re-examine the concept of “relevancy.” They should temporarily set aside video technology and evaluate the fruitfulness of their ministry, for an authentic relationship with the unsaved community is far more important than creative, visual media. Another issue also deserves consideration. In recent years, churches have adopted visual media to become culturally relevant to an increasingly visual society. How will these same churches remain relevant during the economic recession? If members of the congregation are struggling financially, even losing their jobs, should these churches continue to integrate expensive media productions into the weekly worship service (Zerby)? They should certainly think twice.
There are certainly valuable aspects of visual media. Video clips, when produced well, are a delicate intertwining of spoken word, images, and sound. Whether they tell a story, illustrate a principle, raise awareness of a painful need, or promote an upcoming event, video is captivating, and video is memorable. Creative Christians can become culture makers by producing original videos which tastefully enhance a sermon, worship, or church announcements within their unique community.
Part 3: Creation of Practical Guidelines for Small Churches
Here are some guidelines for small churches debating the integration of visual media. First of all, there is an important, financial aspect to the adoption of video technology. Churches should evaluate their budgets and consult knowledgeable media experts. What equipment do they need? How much does it cost? Which name brands are reliable? Churches need to hire expert installationists and schedule training sessions for their volunteers. The size of the congregation is also a factor in this decision. Should volunteers spend hours on a video project which will be viewed by only a handful of church members? Perhaps the financial plunge into visual media should be postponed until the church has experienced more growth.
Before adopting visual media, a small church must understand the unique culture of the community. What is the overall attitude of the congregation towards mainstream culture and visual media? If the majority of the church members label media as distracting, irrelevant, or even sinful, then integrating video into the worship service could cause major dissension within the church. An equally important matter is the history of the church. How well does the congregation react to change? If minor changes have consistently triggered emotional overreactions and bitter conflicts, then perhaps the integration of new technology is not worth the drama. Furthermore, the congregation must be surveyed to discover if there are men and women willing to be caretakers of the media ministry. If those who are talented and creative are disinterested, or if those who are untalented (or worse, controlling to a fault) are dangerously enthusiastic about the technology, then the church should reconsider the purchase of the expensive video equipment. An excellent article about church media and the importance of volunteers can be found here.
Here is some advice for small churches struggling to produce quality visual media. First of all, churches need to recruit volunteers. The responsibility of compiling and projecting visual media is often left to a smattering of inexperienced—or worse, unwittingly coerced—volunteers. Passionate caretakers of church media will not step forward if the need is not clearly presented to the congregation. Creative Christians must feel that that their media talents are wanted and needed for the cultivation of church culture. Also, the church leadership must grant these creative Christians a degree of artistic license. Undeniably a video artist cannot produce a quality clip if he is subject to excessive restrictions or continually monitored by paranoid, unknowledgeable church members.
As often as possible, creative Christians should produce their own visual media for the church. They are to be culture makers who demonstrate originality and a humble sensitivity to the uniqueness of their small congregation, faithfully creating artwork which is suited to the culture and history of their community. If church volunteers continually borrow media instead of creating media, they risk copyright violations and eventually lose any sense of authenticity within the church community. However, if church volunteers completely shirk outside media, then they will fail to give proper recognition to brilliant artists. Combining original artwork with visual media from other sources is a delicate balance.
Whether produced by church volunteers or borrowed from a website, video productions should be evaluated before being thrust before the congregation. In an article entitled, “Should There Be A Video Standard For Churches?” Gary Molander addresses the difficulty of wisely incorporating media into worship services. He suggests these three questions, “Does the video convey theological integrity? Does the video offer artistic beauty? Does the video add to what God already wants to do in your service?” If the church honestly adheres to these standards, then the congregation will be spared from exposure to videos which potentially contain theological error, embarrassingly poor craftsmanship, or an uncomfortable disjointedness to the unique church community. Incorporating visual media into worship services is no easy task, and it is impossible to please everyone. Each video, slide show, music composition, and graphic must be carefully evaluated before being thrust before the church. Though these guidelines will protect the church from many errors, prayer and the seeking of counsel are essential to success in this area.
Crouch, Andy. Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP, 2008. Print.
Hipps, Shane. “Is Video Technology in Church Manipulative?” OutofUr.com. 10 July 2007. Christianity Today International. 10 Apr. 2009 <http://blog.christianitytoday.com/outofur/archives/2007/07/is_video_techno_1.html>.
Molander, Gary. “Should There Be A Video Standard For Churches?” Collide. 5 Jan. 2009. Collide Magazine. 10 Apr. 2009 <http://www.collidemagazine.com/article/163/should-there-be-a-video-standard-for-churches>.
Taylor, Terry. “Computers in Bible Teaching: Video Projectors in Church.” Heartlight. 2000. 10 Apr. 2009 <http://www.heartlight.org/articles/200007/20000712_tech_video.html>.
“Why Use Videos?” Sermon Media. 2007. 10 Apr. 2009 <http://www.sermonmedia.co.uk/why.htm>.
Zerby, Jeremy. “Relevancy and Recession.” Weblog post. Relevant Magazine. 4 Mar. 2009. 10 Apr. 2009 <http://www.relevantmagazine.com/component/content/article/52-community-blogs/16199>.