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Leading with Light, Part 2

Understanding the Role of Visual Media in Worship

In “Leading with Light: Practical Ideas for Using Video Projection in Worship” (RW 76, p. 39), Steve Koster outlines various ways to use projected images that enhance rather than detract from worship. In this article Koster asks further questions: What does worship media look like? What can it be compared to? What is its unique identity? Koster suggests that our answer to that question will further influence our use of projection media.

—JB

What is the screen like? How do we think about a projection screen in worship? What does it do? What models do we use to filter our thinking? Is it like a songbook? A movie theater? A bulletin?

In the early days of movies, many directors simply set the camera in front of a stage. The camera didn’t move around; it sat like an audience member at a theater watching a play. All the action happened in one place in front of one camera that didn’t move, turn, or zoom. It was theater in pictures. It took some time before people started moving the camera into the action itself, or editing different shots together.

The same thing happened with television. Since radio was the dominant entertainment medium of the time, many early TV shows were simply photographed radio shows. From variety programs to crime dramas, it was, as Linda Ellerbee called it, “radio with pictures.” It took a few years before new patterns emerged, like Lucille Ball’s three-camera situation comedy I Love Lucy.

I think we’re in the same position with video screens in worship. We still largely think of the screen as something else. We still haven’t figured out what worship media looks like as its own medium. In many ways, we’re still discovering what the screen is in worship because it is like many things but nothing in particular.

Some Models

Screens have been controversial in worship because we “project” (pun intended!) other things onto it. No one wants to “watch TV” in church or have worship turn into Hollywood entertainment. In short, part of the problem is that the screen does not naturally have a strong model that’s already part of worship.

So what is the screen used in worship like? If it’s like a big songbook, then we’ll project lyrics and maybe music. If it’s like a bulletin, we’ll project announcements, or maybe the order of worship and responsive readings. If it’s like television, we’ll show video programs that tell stories. If it’s like a movie theater, we’ll make the screen the center of attention and expect to be entertained. We might even show ads and promos before the service starts to take advantage of the captive audience and to keep them entertained while they are waiting for the main event. If it’s like a business presentation, we’ll emphasize outlines and graphs, teaching and motivating people about our “product,” whatever that might be.

Some of these models might offer some possibilities, but none are a perfect fit. None of these models both takes full advantage of the capabilities of the medium and reflects the purposes of worship.

One helpful approach to considering the role of visual media in worship is to look at what visuals we already use in worship. Digital screens might be new, but visuals certainly aren’t.

Architecture

One of the most fundamental visuals in worship is the architecture of the worship space. Whether your sanctuary is ornate or plain, it visually says something about what’s important in worship. The very space focuses our attention in some way. If the screen is an architectural element, it should function in conjunction with the room, not compete with it. Maybe that means placing the screen in a position that’s as unobtrusive yet visible as possible. The ideal screen disappears when not in use, not so much by retracting but by blending into the background. Sadly, most screens are framed by a big black television-shaped rectangle that calls for attention even when blank. Perhaps blending with the background means using a default color palette for graphics that matches the room. Whenever the screen should not be the focus of attention, it could display a plain, simple image that reflects the style of the room rather than leaving a stark white rectangle on the wall.

Liturgical Furniture

Another fundamental visual element in worship is liturgical furniture. Like architecture, the furniture declares something about what we value in worship. The placement and arrangement of the pulpit, baptismal font, communion table, and cross, for example, is not just a matter of utility but gives shape and definition to the tasks of worship. Such things help distinguish worship spaces from concert halls or an auditorium.

The screen is often a de facto piece of liturgical furniture, serving as a focal point for leading worship. And as with architecture, the goal is to avoid having the screen compete with other elements. In many churches, for example, the most functional place for the screen is centered on the front wall, often right over a cross. Since Christ’s cross crystallizes the very reason we worship, covering it is not an insignificant problem, but neither is it insurmountable. If the cross must be covered, it should reappear somewhere else. Some churches project an image of the cross on the screen in place of the one behind the screen, but that has always struck me as an insubstantial representation. I think a better option might be a free-standing cross to replace the one on the wall. That removes the competition for wall space and also moves the cross into the action.

In any case, the way we think about the role and interaction of both architecture and traditional liturgical furniture can inform us about the role of the screen and how it interacts with the worship space.

Stained Glass

A more straightforward example of traditional visuals in worship is stained glass. If the screen is like stained glass, we’ll project simple symbols or Bible stories. These are intended to remind us of the symbols and stories that shape us as God’s people. The thing about stained glass is that it is static. The same images are part of the worship space for years, effectively becoming part of the architecture. The positive side of that permanence is consistency. Such images are a “cloud of witnesses” that remind us constantly of who we are. Maybe the screen could emulate this consistency by projecting such images repeatedly. Maybe the screen could expand these images somewhat by telling one story through a series of images rather than using a single image. Maybe the screen could focus our attention on particular symbols or stories depending on the season or occasion of the church year. The key here is identifying the role of visuals as shaping our worship through enduring symbols that shape our identity.

Banners

A more contemporary variation on worship visuals are banners. Like stained glass, fabric or printed banners portray symbols and images from Christian history in order to give thematic shape to our worship. More flexible than glass, these visual elements change frequently, often using seasonal colors and symbols for special occasions such as baptism, Advent, or Lent. Of all the visual elements listed so far, the screen is most like banners, but even more flexible. Imagine someone coming out with a pole, taking down one banner and replacing it with another throughout the service. Instead of simply conveying the message “It’s Christmas time” with a single banner, we could use a series of banners to tell the Christmas story. Thinking of the screen as a versatile and powerful banner that sets the tone and tells the story gets us a long way toward appreciating its potential for leading worship in a way that complements all the other aspects of the environment.

Pipe Organ

There is yet one more traditional element in worship that can guide our thinking about the screen. If the screen functions visually like a banner on steroids, it behaves rather like a musical instrument. In fact, a pipe organ might be the best corollary for how a screen is used in worship. Like the screen, a pipe organ is a big lump of expensive technology. It too needs to be installed in a worship space in a way that complements the surrounding architecture. It too is used primarily to lead worship, particularly congregational actions. It too requires expertise to operate and maintain. It too is operated from a keyboard from a corner of the room. It too requires not just technical know-how but also aesthetic talent, familiarity with the body of historical religious artistic works, and probably some training in liturgy and theology. Just as a piano tuner is not necessarily the best person to manage a full music ministry, a “computer geek” is not necessarily the best person to run a media ministry. The same sorts of questions and thinking that go into choosing music for worship should be used to guide a visual ministry.

In short, the screen is like a lot of things, both secular and religious. But maybe the best way to think about the screen is that it applies the power and preparation of a musical instrument to the visual role of an infinitely flexible banner.