How is it that we can join a hundred anonymous people, sit in a dark room, and stare at a screen for two hours laughing, crying and cheering? The German film director Werner Herzog said, “Films are the thing most like our dreams.” No other medium has the ability to inform, incite emotion, and capture people like moving images on a screen. We are by nature visually stimulated, and in the United States, we are an increasingly visual culture, fascinated with the image.
In the 1920s, a Russian filmmaker named Sergei Eisenstein explored ideas in Montage theory. Montage is what we would call film or video editing. He would place different images next to each other on the screen and study the effects on the audience—a man’s face, then an image of a bowl of soup or the same man’s face, and then an image of a book. His findings were profound, as he discovered simply changing one image could elicit a completely different emotional outcome in the viewer.
If a picture speaks a thousand words, how many words do two images next to each other speak? This is what motion-based media are—one still image after another comprising a moving image. Then, we cut those images together (editing) to have an intended outcome. It is powerful, complex, and vital to communication!
For many reasons, the church has forgotten its visual history. Traditionally, icons were used by the early church and are to this day by our Orthodox brothers and sisters as a means to theological truth, storytelling, and the worship of God. We are reawakening to the truth: visual- based media via technological means (i.e., video) can be used in our worship to bring us closer to God, to inform and teach us, and to tell our stories. The screen is becoming a powerful norm for communication in worship, but we must become literate in visual media as pastors and leaders, because many of us are infants when it comes to understanding the use of it.
A Two-Headed Beast
Video production/ministry at its essence is two things: technology and creativity—technology as the tools (how people see it) and creativity as the substance (what people see). When a video ministry is developed and nurtured in the church, both of these elements are essential and must be given ample attention.
First, video ministry must have tools. Can you build things out of wood without tools? Not unless you’re a beaver. Projectors, screens, cameras, and computers are some of the tools you’ll need to “do” video successfully. How do you navigate this complex world of gadgets and gizmos?
The first step is to define what your church intends to do with the medium. Did you ever meet one of those guys who had the ultimate woodshop and built really cool stuff? Ever meet one of those guys who had all kinds of tools, but only used them for the odd job around the house? Everyone has different needs and different uses for the same tool. Some people need a complex tool, others something simpler. You must decide what is best for your church. The best place to start is by projecting words on the screen for singing and scripture and to build from that point.
The best place to start is by projecting words on the screen for singing and scripture and to build from that point.
Choosing the right tools for your video ministry is very similar to buying a used car: it scares some people, but if you do your homework, it can be a winning situation. You must do your homework and be prepared. Some people who sell video equipment can see the ignorance of the church (or anyone) as a way to make more money. Be cautious. Seek input from numerous sources and find someone who can be trusted, and with whom you can develop an ongoing relationship. This process is just like buying a new AC unit for the church, or a new audio mixer, or building an addition on to your church. You probably don’t have much knowledge or experience in any of these areas, but you do your homework, get some help from within the church, get multiple bids, and make a wise decision.
While I served at the local church, we often encountered vendors who wanted to sell us things that we did not need. We eventually discovered a vendor in Oklahoma who had decades of experience in video production within the local church, and who cared about his clients. He was a gem! He became a trusted friend and gave outstanding service—his business was his ministry. You can find such partners both near and far, but it can take some looking.
Finding and procuring the correct equipment for your sanctuary is the first step. A projector and screen and all the other equipment (computer, DVD player, etc.) will position you to put words on the screen and to play videos. The next step is the creation or discovery of appropriate content.
Content is King
When you can touch a group of people with visual presentations, it is pure beauty. Finding or creating these images, however, is not easy and takes time. Never before has such a vast amount of video been available. In fact, so much is available that it can be overwhelming. Where do you begin?
Have you ever read and bookmarked something to use later in a sermon? You can do the same thing with video. Search online at YouTube or Sermon Spice. View DVDs at the Christian bookstore. Bookmark these videos to use when the time is right. You will be amazed at the sheer amount of film and video available, but you will also be surprised at how meaningful a great piece of video can be for your topic.
Next, watch movies in a new way. Movie clips are very powerful. One night, my pastor was watching The Legend of Bagger Vance—a great movie and great book! As he saw the scene where a character has the chance to cheat and does not, he made note of it and over a year later used it. He simply bookmarked it in his head as a great sermon illustration. As a filmmaker, I know the enormous amount of thought that goes into films. What actors wear, the colors, the composition of the shot, all have meaning. Watch movies for these intricacies. Books are also available that catalog great movie clips for use as sermon illustrations.
Finally, become a filmmaker. This was my approach when I became a minister of visual arts and developed my skills. Media was my fulltime responsibility, and my church had the resources for me to do it. As a pastor, you can find a way to learn some of this for yourself, or identify people and nurture a volunteer team. Writing, filming, and editing can be great fun! Tell the stories in your church, create touching pieces that stir your congregation, and direct it all back to God!
There is an “i” in Video, but Just Ignore It.
It takes a team and time to learn video production and to search for material to use in worship, but fortunately for us all, it is now easier and cheaper than ever before. You cannot do this alone. Let people use their gifts and desires for your church and for the kingdom. As you build your media team, identify two types of people to assist: techies and “creatives” or storytellers.
Techies are those who love technology and know how to use it. These are the people who will run your video equipment. Often, they have amazing knowledge of the tools you provide. We had a tech at our church who could navigate menus on our projectors and cameras at incredible speed. He knew right where to go to fix a problem, and he spent hours learning and utilizing our equipment. Such people are indispensible and very talented. They are in your church—use them! On our team, we had volunteers that worked for the Federal Aviation Administration, the power company, a contractor, a college computer science major, a human resource director, and a middle-aged mother of two. Techies love technology and God, so let them bring those loves together!
The second type of person you need on your team is the storyteller. If you imagine the media team as a NASCAR team, the storyteller is the driver. It is (relatively) easy to put together the pool of specialists a team owner/ manager can pull from to hire his motor, chassis, and suspension people. But the driver is a different story! Very few people have the gifts, talents, and experiences to drive a car and team to the winner’s circle. Similarly, it is going to be harder for you to find the storytellers for your video team. These are people who look at things and say, what does this mean? How is this meaning carried out? They can make connections; they mine for emotion and deep meaning; they know how to move and transform. It may be more difficult to find these people, but they are in your church. Often, they may have no connection to motion-based media or technology, but they do have the gift to communicate and create. They may not know it; you may not know it; but God knows who they are, and they will surface when you seek. Find them and let them be the creative force behind your worship and video ministry. Let them create and blossom. They will often help in other areas too: music, drama, design, etc.
No matter the size of your church, you will need a team to deploy video images successfully. Identify what your team is good at and move them in that direction. Sometimes, there are people who fall into both camps, techies and storytellers, but more often than not, it will be important to identify the strengths and limitations of your team members. Nurture them. Let them critique. Let them fail. Let them learn. Let them create.
Visual imagery is not a new form of communication, but it has become more and more prevalent and must be reenergized in the church.
“If You Want It, You Gotta Work for It.”
Developing a visual media ministry is not easy. If you are already using video in your worship service and not experiencing success, or if you are thinking about implementing a video ministry, remember this—it takes work! Give it time to develop and give it time in your life. Visual imagery is not a new form of communication, but it has become more and more prevalent and must be re-energized in the church. The screens in your sanctuary can be windows to heaven allowing God’s message, his stories, his creation and his love to be poured into the souls of your congregation.
“That is way too loud, turn down the screen”
Ever go out to eat and count the screens? I was eating lunch the other day with a friend and realized the restaurant had 14 flat screens! Can you have deep, focused conversation in that cafe? Distraction is everywhere. Images can be noise. Don’t overdo it. It may even be necessary to turn off your screens in the sanctuary. Let the ministry purpose drive your use of images; don’t let images drive your ministry.
“The following motion picture has been approved by your church.”
Every congregation has a tolerance level. Find out what your church’s level is and honor it. Remember, this is worship, and if an image/movie/video is too intense or graphic for your congregation, don’t show it. Introduce these things slowly. Be patient.
eBay all the way
Pastor, once you or your video ministry team become confident in the world of video, utilize eBay or Craigslist for video purchases online. Stay well-informed and cautious, but many churches buy software, projector lamps, even cameras on eBay for incredible savings.
Cool is not always cool
Bruce Mau says, “Cool is conservative fear dressed in black.” Avoid the need to be cool. We all like cool stuff, and we like to be visually stimulated, but this is not the end all for video in the church. Sure, make some fun videos about student trips, use some crazy motion graphics on the screen to make a point, but realize this is just the surface of the medium. Go the extra mile to develop transformational and transcendent use of your video ministry. Tell stories, touch people with a powerful movie clip, build an ambiance of worship with religious iconography—these are the deeper levels of this medium.
Making movie stars
My friend Troy is a children’s pastor and a great communicator. Each year he and his team produce a VBS promotional video. Each promo has his senior pastor or executive pastor in an interesting situation: the senior pastor as a cowboy on a horse or both the senior pastor and executive pastor coming up out of a lake in scuba gear. The congregation gets a huge kick out of seeing their pastors on the screen. It makes the promo personal and fun and believe me, people remember that VBS is coming up!
Some rocks to look under
GREGORY SHEFFER is a filmmaker and producer through his company INVERSION (www.inversionproductions.com). He holds a degree from Nazarene Theological Seminary, is an ordained elder in the Church of the Nazarene, and has spent 12 years in local church staff positions.