Portals, Icons, Thresholds, and the Internet

Using Visuals in Worship

My church has the smallest sanctuary I’ve ever seen. The front wall of the sanctuary used to be painted with a kind of 3-D archway or portal that was black inside. The painting was old, chipped, and mildewed along the bottom. I always wondered what it meant and who had put it there. When I started asking around, many parishioners admitted to being “creeped out” by the painting. Finally someone told me that the painting symbolized the tomb. Eventually we painted it over in order to brighten up the worship space.

Soon after, I went on a pilgrimage to Israel. When I returned, I wanted to share a few pictures from my trip with the congregation. I decided to try projecting pictures on the newly white-painted wall.

And so it began: one donated projector led to the next, and today our use of technology to display images is as common and varied as our church music.

Some Sundays I project a stained glass image with the Scripture of the day. Other times I choose an image that gives a feeling of movement or catches the imagination in some other way. Some Sundays there are a plethora of images, including YouTube videos or snippets of movies; other Sundays there are none.

Last Sunday an elder who was charged with talking about stewardship chose to show a five-minute home movie interview with her great-aunt describing the value of thriftiness. These simple images had great power to connect with worshipers.

I realized that we have replaced one generation’s iconography with another’s.

This led me to reflect a little on portals, icons, thresholds, and the Internet and how they inform our worship.


Preachers sometimes talk about portals (doorways) during the Easter season, when Jesus’ passing through the grave causes us to ponder the threshold between life and death and life again. Outside the church, other portals grab the popular imagination:

Dr. Who’s time-traveling blue box called the Tardis, or the Hogwarts Express departing from Platform 9¾. Each generation claims its own portals. So beware of ending your explorations with the starship Enterprise, which is the equivalent of telling only WW II stories in today’s pulpits.


It’s no accident that the graphic images used in technology are called “icons.” In the Eastern tradition, an icon is a representation of a saint, the contemplation of which allows the viewer to cross a threshold into a spiritual realm. In the computer world, we use the icons that flicker on our screens to cross more mundane thresholds: getting information, making purchases, paying bills.


If ancient icons and computer icons both allow viewers to cross thresholds, are the thresholds really that different? When we click on one icon to purchase movie tickets and another to find directions to the theater, just what are we hoping to find when we arrive at the theater? In a word: meaning. We want the filmmaker to help interpret the world for us, or at least to tell us a story we can use to create our own meaning.


Writer Leonard Sweet observed some twenty years ago that the computer screen is the new Gutenberg press. Or did he call it the new Wittenberg door? If he didn’t, he should have. The first generation of technology was mainly a way to disseminate information (websites, e-mail), but the second generation provides a way to dialogue about that information (blogs, comments on blogs, tweets, virtual chats, and webinars).

The human need to cross thresholds doesn’t change, but the iconography that allows us to do so does. What portals does your church use to connect with people? Which opportunities offered by changing technology have you embraced? Are there any down sides to any of them?

Let’s not be afraid to step over the thresholds we find and create ever-expanding ways to connect with God’s people.

Sola Deo Gloria.


Some of My Favorite Visuals . . .

  • photo of a dry, curling leaf as we considered a healing story, changing to a spring leaf as a closing image
  • a series of paintings of homeless children, women, and men, as we considered the “least of these”
  • photos from my trip to the Mount of Transfiguration and Jesus’ baptismal site as we considered those stories
  • clip from film The Gospel of John as we considered the raising of Lazarus
  • a montage (from YouTube) set to “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” by U2 as we considered “Ask, seek, knock”
  • images of women baking bread around the world on World Communion Day
  • using Google Maps to zoom from the globe, to the continent, to the country, to the rooftop of our church as we considered the Great Commission

Ten Tips for Using Visuals in Worship

  1. Experiment. Invite people to respond as to what is helpful and what is distracting.
  2. Choose a few images carefully. Less is more. Try using a single image as a contemplation point.
  3. Use a black background. A white background projects too much light and a colored background siphons power from the image. Better yet, let the edges of your image extend beyond the borders of the screen.
  4. Color tends to wash out in large spaces like sanctuaries, so choose images that do not depend entirely on color for their impact.
  5. Mix it up. Use great artwork of past eras, stained glass images, icons from orthodox traditions, newspaper photos, a child’s interpretation of a Scripture story, a photo of nature.
  6. Avoid clichés. An image of an offering plate during the offering adds nothing to worship.
  7. Become comfortable with the clicker. Timing is important.
  8. Limit the amount of text. Putting a sermon outline on the screen is not using visuals in worship. When using text, try white letters on a black background and choose a serif font. Use the largest font possible; pay careful attention to the line breaks. Check for typos.
  9. Pay attention to copyright. Do due diligence here. Showing less than two minutes of a film is usually excluded from copyright concerns, but always check.
  10. Logistics: Add a blank image to the front and back of PowerPoint presentations so everything can be ready with nothing visible. If using a clip, embed the URL and buffer it. If possible, provide a wireless remote so the worship leader can advance slides.
Reformed Worship 95 © March 2010, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.