“The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world” –
2 Corinthians 5:4
“For the people of the world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light” –
What is the relationship between spirituality and technology? Lingering Luddite reservations about new technologies have often kept evangelicals and fundamentalists from prompt utilization of radio, film, television and the Web. Yet ultimately conservatives have marched to full usage and even dominance in some of the media. Always hanging over us has been Marshall McLuhan’s insistence that “the medium is the message.” Hence we must choose our medium with care.
In the worship revolution some moved to the screen in the post-hymnal era and some preachers turned the pulpit into more of a lectern with the enhancement of projected outlines, cartoons and other visuals. What this does for the blind and others with problems of vision has seldom been discussed. But now a gargantuan new technology is all over us.
PowerPoint which was invented in 1984 (!) was acquired by Microsoft in 1987 and with its competitors moves the speaker beyond slides and overheads to pages and bullet points from a computer disk. These unbelievable graphics are used in 80 percent of the presentations by business school students and everywhere in the business world. The approach is overwhelming education. 300 million users worldwide including many preachers will not be dissuaded. 1 How shall we view the phenomenon?
The upside to PowerPoint
The very widespread use of the technology all around us puts the preacher on common ground with many hearers. The flannel-graph and the opaque projector are museum pieces. Can’t you hear Scripture being quoted – GET WITH IT! PowerPoint “has revolutionized the worlds of business, education, science and communication, swiftly becoming the standard for just about anyone who wants to explain just about anything to just about anybody else.” 2 Formidible indeed.
In a culture where the preference is for images as over against ideas, we have the technology right here. Not so much hinges on the preacher’s ability to hit the oratorical Richter Scale. This is a peerless teaching tool for those who treasure the teaching sermon. The expository sermon is the prime beneficiary.
Bill White in PreachingToday.com lists three pluses for PowerPoint:
1. Helps set the mood – it can furnish the unifying image and keep it before the audience. Beauty and mystery step in.
2. Enhances the big idea with pictures which are worth 1000 words each. Serves to sustain focus and heighten emotion.
3. Holds the essential sequencing of a didactic text cleanly and sharply before the congregation. Can’t miss the outline! 3
While fit to a “T” for those with technological prowess, the technique is simple enough to be used confidently even by those plagued by the perpetual nightmare of technological disaster. This is the quintessential opportunity to take the complex and doctrinally abstruse epistles of the New Testament and simplify them for average congregants.
In so many respects, PowerPoint is the communicator’s dream methodology. Why should the adversary have it for the furtherance of his infernal and deadly objectives?
The downside of PowerPoint
Increasingly in both business and education warning voices are being heard and limitations for its use are being established. A rousing message “freewheeling, full of digressions and personal chemistry, to change hearts and minds” may be more effective. 4 PowerPoint can do little justice to mystery and poetry and story which are critical for the preacher.
PowerPoint becomes another piece to what Lewis Mumford called “our technological compulsiveness.” It can deflate real creativity. Is this the best way for a child to learn? It facilitates making a point but not an argument. 5 Luther called preaching “an acoustical event.” Some allege that PowerPoint “comes between the teacher (or the customer) and his or her students.” Is it another slide show of the entertainment genre? Does the machine become the teacher?
In preaching last year to a large denominational assembly, I preached in a semi-darkened room with a screen on each side of the pulpit. I had a minimum of eye-contact with the first few rows of the audience, but I stood somewhat lonely and in the dark giving a presentation which could as easily be made by the showing of a film. Is this really the dynamic dialogue we call preaching? Instead of the preacher and the listeners we have a technological triangulation which might seem to bring me closer to my auditors but which actually distances me. Is not the preacher himself a major gesture in the presentation?
How does PowerPoint advance the personal dimensions in preaching? How does the recession of the preacher advance the wonderment of the treasure in an earthen vessel? How does the disinvestment in the preacher aid the communication? Some visual may deepen the impression of a story – but the rhetorical aspects of discourse are severely discounted in PowerPoint.
A cultural caution on PowerPoint
Broader cultural warnings have been issued to the effect that “bits, bytes and techno-boosterism” may be part of “the triumph of entertainment over life itself.” 6 Jacques Ellul, the French Christian who has alerted us to some of the implications of modern technology, gave us a startling book back aways entitled The Humiliation of the Word. He worries about our addiction to images and what he calls “the death of the word.” 7 In PowerPoint the visual preempts the spoken word. Ellul laments that “the text is progressively retreating.” 8 Images are the quick solution and they spawn spectators. They exclude discourse. We must beware lest we are part of a much broader move which is effectively dismantling meaning.
So the thoughtful theologian, Donald Bloesch, warns against the movement from the pulpit to the screen, from audible to visual, from word to image. We must beware lest preaching be reduced to Bible study. 9 Preaching is so pivotal to worship – what effect does PowerPoint have on that absolutely critical equation?
In a somewhat overheated and overstated book, Arthur W. Hunt III joins the issue with the question: “Is image everything?” Arguing that ours is a word-based heritage, Hunt speaks of The Vanishing Word – the Veneration of Visual Imagery in the Postmodern World. The issue is: word or spectacle? He shows how our culture “has an insatiable appetite for visual stimulation.” 10 We can indulge this too far. Just as being user-friendly can go so far as to give away the Gospel and its meaning, so we must recognize that technology is not neutral. Pictures tend to dumb down and push “rational discourse – linear logic – into the background.” 11 Users of PowerPoint need to bear in mind the cultural context in which we use it and the issues that it raises.
Achieving a balanced perspective
Given the obvious pluses and weighing some negatives, perhaps the issue of PowerPoint is not an all or nothing issue. Those who use PowerPoint should give consideration to varying its deployment – some Sundays not at all, especially if in a narrative section of Scripture. Those who have never used it might want to introduce it at some service other than Sunday morning and allow for some orientation to a new approach. One pastor used some shots of the given Church in Asia Minor (
Perhaps there are junctures in the sermon where the PowerPoint should be abandoned and more direct confrontation with the will and mind be sought. Total predictability in preaching is lethal and a variety of usages will over-all increase effectiveness. PowerPoint should not be used in every sermon and the pattern of its use should vary in each sermon. It can be a helpful tool but it must be employed wisely and creatively. For some, not at all.
David L. Larsen is Professor Emeritus of Preaching, Associate Director of the Professional Doctoral Programs, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Deerfield, Illinois.
1. Julia Keller, “Is PowerPoint the Devil?” Chicago Tribune Magazine, January 5, 2003, 8.
2. ibid. 10.
3. Bill White, “Strengthened by PowerPoint” in PreachingToday.com, 4/8/03.
4. Julia Keller, op. cit., 10 .
5. ibid. 12.
6. Quentin J. Schultze, “Lost in the digital cosmos,” in Christian Century, February 16, 2000, 178ff.
7. Jacques Ellul, The Humiliation of the Word (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985).
8. ibid. 116.
9. Donald G. Bloesch, “The Demise of Biblical Preaching,” Touchstone, Fall, 1995, 14.
10. Arthur W. Hunt III, The Vanishing Word. The Veneratiion of Visual Imagery in the Postmodern World (Wheaton: Crossway, 2003).
11. ibid. 12.