Building a Philosophy of Projection

Worship leaders and planners are well aware of the pervasive use of projection media for songs, prayers, litanies, art, and advertisements in worship services. Googling “worship backgrounds” returns about six million options. While examples of digital worship visuals are plentiful, there are miscues everywhere, including slides that are cliché, distracting, or poorly designed.

It is time to discuss the thoughtful and effective use of projection as a visual mode of communication in the context of the deeper meaning and purpose of worship. Once we have a good grasp of this foundation, we can move on to discuss content, style, and mechanics. Only then will our projection practices enable the full, conscious, and active participation of the people.

The following article offers some building blocks for creating a “philosophy of projection.”

As you incorporate projection into worship services, here are some important principles to keep in mind.

Remember that worship is an enactment of the full story.

This is true for individual services and for the cycle of the Christian year. Put projection practices into this arc. Just as you keep track of your music selections to cover the “whole story,” do this for projection. Ask yourself if you’re using a rich variety of biblical images and metaphors, not just crosses and sunsets. Most congregations could expand their exploration of imagery and metaphors for topics such as peace, justice, loneliness/alienation, reconciliation, refuge, brokenness, cleansing, fear, folly, and hospitality. Each has its place in the arc of God’s story.

Recognize that visuals have more than one use.

There is a broad range of roles the visual arts can play in worship. Digital visuals can also take on different levels of focus. Continually ask yourself what art form is the primary mode of communication and which is secondary at each moment in the service.

When the visual acts as adornment—decorative, beautifying the space, stimulating the senses—it should not compete or be distracting but create a mood like seasonal banners do.

The visual can also take on an educational role when it is used to teach or communicate knowledge or to narrate the story. It can be meditational—guiding or stimulating memory or encouraging the congregation to enter into prayer. In the example below, the art is a reminder of the overarching theme of the service: the global intergenerational church.

The visual can also play a transformational role; it can help people heal, or evoke eschatological hope. Or it can be motivational, taking a prophetic role where the demands of the gospel are depicted to challenge the congregation. The visual can also serve as mediation by presenting an element of the liturgy. In the example below, the visual becomes the primary mode of communication. It is not a background, but the message itself. If images are chosen well, words are not always needed to supplement their message. Here, a photo (one of a series of slides) guides the congregation in a visual intercessory prayer.

Practice the balance of discipline and creativity.

I often see churches overcompensating for their felt lack of artistic ability when designing projection slides. The best advice is this: keep it simple and keep it focused. Not all ideas can be used at once. Be creative but keep in mind the deeper meaning and purpose of worship and how it can be visualized.

Show worship as dialogical.

Worship is a dialogue between God and the people. Show this by placing words or images in the top section of the screen (when God is speaking to us) or in the bottom section of the screen (when we’re speaking to God). When congregants are speaking to each other, consider moving images or words from left to right.

Portray worship as communal.

How can we deepen our appreciation of worship as a communal act in which we together offer praise, pray, listen, and make promises? Broaden your image selection beyond the cliché of an individual in front of a sunset to include a whole community. Choosing a more abstract piece of art can also help you incorporate God’s creation into your communal expressions.

Model the fact that worship should be hospitable.

How can digital images make room for guests and communicate the diversity of God’s people? Look back at the images you have selected in the last year. Do they recognize the worshiping body as including not only your congregation but also the local community, the global community, and all generations?

  • Practicing hospitality also means considering technical matters so that your visuals are as pleasing to the eye as possible. Are you correctly using the dimensions of your screen and projector? There are different aspect ratios—4:3 (10 x 7.5) or 16:9 (10 x 5.63)—that give you maximum viewing space without waste.
  • White words on a black background are easiest to read. Stick to this so all participants can see well.
  • Choosing fonts that provide maximum readability is key to creating the environment where all can participate, regardless of age or ability.
    For example, Calibri is a very readable font; Vistorian Script is not.
  • Limit the number of fonts you use on a given slide to no more than two, and stay within a font family.

Hospitality also includes thinking about how music is projected. Reading music is important to some people, particularly if the song is unfamiliar. When possible, include it on the screen. Test the readability of the words from the back of your worship space. Add larger text if necessary.

Recognize that silence has a place in worship.

We are bombarded by images every day, and many of us spend hours in front of a screen. We are in desperate need of moments of “rest.” Projected images or words make it hard to bow one’s head, and in this case a printed prayer or a hymnal can be more beneficial. At times the screens can be blank, or a single word or image can be used to direct people’s thoughts.

Recognize how the visual “speaks.”

Here are two examples of this practice:

  • In a projected litany, the words “leader” and “all” only need to appear on the first slide of the series for the congregation to understand who should speak with clearly larger, bold font.
  • To signal that we worship with all of creation, bring the outside world in. Balance images of nature with sights of the city.

Know your context.

Not all projection practices are appropriate for all spaces. Some images are too complex to be viewed in a couple of seconds. But even if a design is simple, that doesn’t mean it’s appropriate. An example of this is the difference between worship and boardroom slides. If the slide would feel more at home in a boardroom, then it’s probably not appropriate for worship. If you want to portray the global community, for example, discard a corporate-looking globe image in favor of a more artistic rendering of community through colors and shapes.

Elizabeth Steele Halstead ( is Resource Development Specialist for Visual Arts at the Calvin Institute for Christian Worship, Grand Rapids, Michigan. She is the author of Visuals for Worship (Faith Alive, 2006) and illustrator of Rings, Kings, and Butterflies: Lessons on Christian Symbols for Children (Ausburg 2006).

Rev. Paul Ryan has mentored emerging worship leaders for twenty years at Calvin University in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he is the worship pastor overseeing daily chapels. He also is a resource development specialist with the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Paul is married to Sheila, is father to two high school boys, and is coach to dozens of middle school track and cross-country kids.

Reformed Worship 109 © September 2013 Worship Ministries of the Christian Reformed Church. Used by permission.