Persuasion is a matter closely linked to intimacy. Remember the old communication formula for persuasive speech comes in zones, chalked off in feet and inches:
• 12 to 25 feet is the public distance. This is the distance at which we make speeches, direct traffic, teach and share information.
• 4 to 12 feet is the personal distance. This is the distance at which we socialize, sit at dinner, interact with conversation, accept or reject counsel.
• 18 inches to 4 feet is the private distance. This is the distance at which we sign documents, get conversational, decide whether we shall invite the world in or take ourselves out of it.
• 0 to 18 inches is the intimate distance. This is the distance at which we propose marriage, agree to hear and keep secrets and welcome others into our intimate circles of friendship and trust.
Preaching occurs at all these distances, but life-changing commitments occur when our voices are low and we agree to soul-bond in trust and conversion. In lieu of this, I’ve often wondered if Jumbotron worship isn’t in some sense working against the issue of persuasion in preaching. Jumbotrons always operate at the public distance while decisions are made at the intimate distance.
Movie screens these days are set at about the same distance from the audience as church screens. Most mega-churches these days operate their visuals at a greater distance than the movie houses, which for the most part set their screens at no more than 50 feet from the audience. Why is this of any importance? Because faces sell the message. People read persuasion more from the face of the persuader more than from his or her body.
For scenes of high romance (and certainly of intimacy) in the movies, move the camera in so close that the face of the movie star fills the entire frame and the eyes of the actors can separate up to 20 feet apart on the movie screen. Why do directors permit such wide-screen, wide-facial close-ups? They want to bind the audience to the screen to build the emotive power of the viewer to the tale they are spinning.
We never would do to news anchorpersons what we do to preachers. We wouldn’t force them to stand at a 25-foot camera distance to report the news of the day. We want their faces to give us the information of the day as talking heads. It’s the important business of “getting our heads together” that makes the news really work. The weakness of church Jumbotrons is they usually do not create these kinds of close-ups. They would seem odd or too theatrical in church.
I noticed throughout my long career of winning people to Christ that when I actually got down to the point of sharing the Savior, I was always very close in proximity to the person to whom I was presenting the gospel. In fact, when I asked a believer to repeat the believer’s prayer, my face was always within 18 inches of the candidate. It is just a natural corollary of persuasion. In fact, I don’t know if I have won anyone to Christ at the public distance; yet this is the only distance we really see each other from pulpit to pew during the sermon.
Great communication is always the work of talking to people so face-to-face that the argument of the speaker crosses all the other distances (public, personal and private) and sets up a powerful one-on-one ratio so that the audience member is convinced that the preacher is talking personally to him or her. This feeling of intimacy steals its way into the psyche of the hearer and persuasion digs into soft turf of reason and takes its stand up close in order to stake its claim.
So why bring all this up? Am I suggesting all giant screens be eliminated from the theater of persuasion? Not at all. Our church was one of the first in Nebraska to put Jumbotrons in the worship service. However, I never appeared on camera during the sermon. We projected the hymns we were singing (I’ve always been convinced people sing better once you get their faces out of the hymnal and onto the screen). The liturgies and litanies also were projected. Before the services began, we could project the various church programs and “opportunities for service” for the coming week.
I reserved for the sermon the right to look people in the eye and try to reduce the audience (our auditorium was one of the largest in the city, seating 2,400 people) to a large gathering of single conversations where our faces were in full encounter. What has deluded us into thinking persuasion can be done in any other way? It was always impressive to see Rose Bowls full of people coming to Christ during a Graham crusade. When the setting was right, it had a Woodstock fascination about it as thousands came to Christ. In reality, most people I know who came to Christ came only as this intimate distance of persuasion had been achieved.
Perhaps none of us are really convinced that altar calls really work anymore. It is possible they are used too frequently and bring about a drop-off of mood that ends a victorious service with a sense of “no sale” failure. This overwhelming sense of failure marks our services because people apparently have no open business to do (or are willing to do) with God.
Yet if these gospel invitations have a place at all in church, they need to be studied and offered when the moment is right to those who have had an eye-to-eye meeting of the minds and furnished with the rapture of loving God up close. Then
Most camera operators are sensitive enough not to turn the camera on people in the act of these encounters. Somehow, what is most sacred at altars looks obscene at the public distance. Maybe we ought to bring it all down to a small arena where only God and the penitent heart are welcome. Maybe the secret to large church vitality is making a place for the intimate distance.
Maybe in the long run, this is what makes a place for true passion and lasting change in the human heart. Maybe everything can’t be big even in big churches. Maybe it’s the stuff—that whispered stuff—that gives the blare of grace a right to its own small whispered celebrations. Maybe there are places where the Jumbotrons should just sit it out as quiet things are bringing the world before God.