Ever since the Iconoclastic controversy arose in the 8th century, Christian preachers have been worried about using images in church. Now I will be the first to admit that the icons St. John of Damascus defended in On the Divine Images are far removed from the kind of images produced by Hollywood, but one of the reasons given by iconoclasts for not using images – that all images are idols – is the same reason I would like to advance for using them. People in the West idolize Hollywood. That is why preachers should follow Paul’s example on Mars Hill by taking what people worship, and using it to lead them to Christ.
In examining the use of film clips in preaching, I recognize that some objections will need to be addressed, particularly the fear that images are supplanting ideas in the pulpit. I want to argue for the advantage of speaking and seeing, as opposed to speaking alone or seeing alone. Images are not only a point of connection with the secular world (and the entertainment-oriented Christian one as well); they can be outstanding visual aids, vividly supporting truth claims in the text. But clips must be used well to be effective, so I’ll make some recommendations for clip placement and the logistics of video or DVD usage.
Images, Idols, and Incorporation
For anyone wanting to reject the use of images in preaching, there are plenty of writers willing to support them. In a previous article in Preaching, David Larsen laments the lowered status of the text, arguing that when the text of Scripture is in decline, preaching loses its “edge.” He writes: “The contemporary preference for images over ideas must be challenged at its root: images without ideas are vapid and vacuous impressions to be wrecked on the shoals of subjectivity.” Cultural critic Neil Postman comments on how the ascendancy of visual imagery is responsible for the decline in linear, typographic thinking (44-80). Historian Daniel Boorstin presents the Eeyore-like assessment that there is no cure for our image-soaked culture (261).
When Paul walked through Athens, the Scriptures leave little doubt about his attitude toward the Athenians’ images: “Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was being provoked within him as he was observing the city full of idols” (Acts 17: 16 NASB). Paul did not like the idols. The idols angered him. But when he was given an opportunity to preach to the Athenians at the Areopagus he did not rail against the idols; he found a way to take the images and the art prized by Athenians and incorporate them – turning them into touchstones from which to present the Gospel of Christ. We walk through a culture awash in images, many as idolatrous as the Athenians. But if we care for the people who produce and consume these images, can we do less than Paul? If there is a way to turn these images to good use, can we neglect this great storehouse of cultural consciousness? I think not, but we must take care.
Speaking and Seeing
I do not think that focusing on the text is incompatible with the careful use of images. Robert Webber claims that “An art form speaks to us and acts upon us as it serves the text of worship” (113). The key to the use of media images in preaching is not exclusion but hierarchy. Images must serve the text or they are of no value.
Some preachers use images as a substitute for content. Beautiful PowerPoint slides and captivating video may leave congregations in awe of your technical prowess, but scratching their heads as to the meaning of the message. Images cannot rescue a poorly prepared sermon, but they can certainly make a good one better.
The best preaching is already visual. The purpose of parable or allegory is to create an image. When people can imagine the outworking of a story – if they can see how the biblical principle works or applies to them – the preaching leaves the realm of the abstract and finds a place in their lives. Unfortunately, not all preachers are gifted storytellers. Even those that are would be hard-pressed to find examples and illustrations as powerfully envisioned as those produced in Hollywood. Carefully reasoned expository preaching that incorporates the emotional impact of professionally crafted drama can create a lasting impression.
I once heard an interview with Donald Williams in which he discussed Sir Philip Sidney’s work, “The Defence of Poesie.” Sidney wrote it in 1580 – and what he had to say about literature then is just as true of movies today.
Sidney argued that stories were better at communicating the truth than either philosophy or history. Philosophy was great at providing abstract moral and ethical thought, but it was powerless to point to concrete examples of people who lived them out. History was shackled by what actually happened, so it could lead people to real world examples, but few of them were truly exemplary.
Stories have the strengths of both philosophy and history, and none of the drawbacks. Screenwriters and directors are free to take any ideal and create a character to embody it. In film, ideals and examples can come together to inspire people to become better, or to warn them about the consequences of doing wrong. These illustrations cannot supplant good expository preaching, but they can and should support it.
Careful Choices Yield Best Results
If film clips are to be used effectively in preaching, guidelines concerning number and placement need to be observed. How many clips should be used in a single message? For preachers who are new to video usage the prospect of illustrating an entire message with vibrant images can be very seductive. I warn against using more than a couple of film illustrations in a single message – one of which should be an opener or a closer. Movie clips are expansive. If the focus is to remain on the text, it is important not to overwhelm the congregation.
How does placement in the message affect the way clips are used? There are only three places where clips can be incorporated into a message – the introduction, the conclusion, or in support of a particular point in the body of the sermon. Clips for an introduction need to encompass the sweep of the sermon – but they do not have to be positive in tone. They can also afford to be lengthy. Imagine opening a sermon on greed. The lights go down in the sanctuary and the image of Michael Douglas as corrupt corporate raider Gordon Gekko, in the film Wall Street, appears. Gekko is thundering out his “Greed is Good” speech to investors. It is moving; it resonates. It may even illuminate the hearts of some in the congregation that find that they are inexplicably cheering (only inwardly, I hope). What a great setup to a discussion of that sin.
Clips for a conclusion can also be lengthy, but they must reinforce the thrust of the sermon. You should choose clips that mirror the sermon’s tone and content. If I were ending a sermon on the Prodigal Son, or the parable of the lost sheep, I might end with a clip from the film Finding Nemo. In the scene, Nemo – a clownfish captured by divers, who is now on display in a dentist’s office – despairs of ever escaping and rejoining his father, Marlin. Just when things are at their worst, a pelican appears on the office windowsill. He begins to recount for Nemo all of the dangers that Marlin has gone through to come to Nemo’s rescue. In fact, Marlin is in the bay just outside the office window. The recognition of his father’s love motivates Nemo in his struggle to escape his captivity and get back home.
In the middle of a sermon, lengthy film clips can be distracting, and any clips should be used sparingly. In support of a sermon point on renewing the mind, setting the mind on Christ, or the rewards of self-control, there is a moving clip from A Beautiful Mind. The film chronicles the story of John Nash, a brilliant mathematics professor who overcame his battle with mental illness by committing himself to a “diet of the mind,” avoiding entertaining those thoughts that would trigger his illness. The careful, and sparing, use of video clips increases their impact on a congregation.
The last issue concerns the use of film clips: should they be used before or after a truth claim? Preachers should introduce a claim first, and then illustrate it with an example. The parables of Christ follow this pattern of propositional truth followed by illustration. Teaching what is true is often not enough to move people to change their minds or behavior. The idea that human beings are strictly rational creatures is a myth, as any counseling pastor knows. People are unlikely to act until they are emotionally moved. Dramatizations can take the rational claim and add to it passionate motivation. Tell people the truth, and then motivate them to live it out.
The Nuts and Bolts of Using Film Clips
There are tremendous advantages to helping people see the truth through the use of film clips. The disadvantages lie entirely within the logistics of using the clips. By making good choices in hardware and software, and by adhering to some simple rules, preachers can use this technology seamlessly.
There are two types of playback units for screening film clips in sermons: VHS video and DVD. The benefit of VHS is that if you are using multiple clips from different films, it is easy to cue them all up in advance. If you were using more than one scene from a single film, however, you would need as many copies of the video as you had clips to show – fast forward is too slow. VHS also produces an inferior image compared to DVD, and that is why VHS is on the decline and DVD is on the rise at video rental locations.
DVD produces clear digital images of the film. Skipping from one scene to another is simplified through the use of bookmarks, which allow you to identify places in a film that you can quickly revisit. I am partial to the Power DVD software which allows you to save and import bookmarks that link to titles, so that if you want to use a scene again it will be simple to cue up.
If you intend to project clips, I will assume you have a screen. Placement of the preacher and the screen is important to maximize the reception of both. Visual support is, by its nature, arresting. Contrary to popular theories about multi-tasking, when dealing with complicated or abstract ideas, people focus only on one thing at a time. When your sermon illustration clip is running, no one is paying attention to you. Spatial separation between the screen and the speaker is helpful.
Just as you would not cue a soloist or start a worship team without a sound check, you need to make certain that your projection equipment and the volume controls have been checked and set – and checked again. Once, at a local church, I was using a clip as an opener, everything was perfect – except I forgot to tell the sound man. He switched everything back for the worship team. The clip was repeated three times before sound was restored. The congregation understood, but the impact of the illustration as an attention-getter was diminished with each failed viewing.
Who has the remote?
When using stand-alone VHS or DVD playback units, you have to rely on a volunteer to start and stop the clip. I was preaching at a conference at Valley Bible Church in San Marcos, and I reached a point where I wanted to illustrate waiting on the Lord. To show what most of us are like, I used a clip from The Rookie. My friend Bill Farrel, the pastor, was my volunteer. He happens to be a sports nut. Bill got so caught up in the drama of the clip that I had to call out to him numerous times to hit the stop button. Finally he snapped out of it, hit the stop button, and everyone laughed. Fortunately it reinforced my point – sometimes you have to wait.
If you use a laptop, you can control the clip. You will even have your own monitor so that you won’t have to turn to the screen. Each clip you cue up should have either a word or a concrete image that designates the start and stop time. If you are likely to be captivated by your own clip, you can use the counter.
Any New Tool Requires Practice
It’s amazing how many preachers believe that visual aids will take care of themselves. Visual support is not something slapped onto a verbal message – it needs to be integrated. Moving from one medium of communication to another can feel abrupt if the transition isn’t handled smoothly. Achieving that result means practicing. Everyone involved in the incorporation of the clips needs to work together. The persons who dims the lights, controls the volume, starts and stops the clip all need to be on the same page. With a little work, the only way congregations will notice the shift is by the increased comprehension and motivation they experience when they attend to a sermon.
The Final Reel
We shouldn’t shy away from incorporating “native culture” into our sermons. Modern Americans are far removed from the farm – agricultural metaphors are not enough – but they are adept consumers of entertainment. To reach them we need to speak their language, but we must speak it fluently. By careful use of film clips as sermon illustrations, and by adhering to some practical guidelines, we can make our way on the Mars Hills of our culture, and introduce the Savior in a new light.
Marc T. Newman is Professor of Speech Communication, Palomar College and President of MovieMinistry.com
Boorstin, Daniel. The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America. New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1992.
Larsen, David. “The Decline of the Text: When the Text Recedes, Preaching is Placed in Peril.” Preaching, March-April, 2003 online.
Postman, Neil. Amusing Ourselves to Death. New York, NY: Viking Penguin, 1986.
St. John of Damascus. On the Divine Images. trans. David Anderson. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1997.
Webber, Robert. Ancient-Future Faith. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1999.
Williams, Donald. “C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and the Tradition of Christian Poetics.” Audiocassette. Hillsdale College, 1995.