Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Putting The POWER[point] Back In Preaching

I've been thinking quite a bit about preaching lately. Not so much the next message, but the message after that. Pondering issues around communication, presentation, process etc. One of the outcomes has been to instigate the creation of a preaching feedback loop for our 4 main preachers at cessioncommunity - me, Melissa, Rhett & Frank. I'm hoping that will lift our level of supportive critique

One thing that has stuck with me for a few months is a comment that made its way to me, to the effect that there is a small group within the community who never expect to understand a message in the context of Sunday worship. That has been quite a sobering thought. I suspect the reasons are many and varied and that at least some of the fault is on the attitude of the listener. That kind of thought process can pretty quickly become something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. But it also demands a considered response - how can we communicate better? How can we provide tools for people to find greater personal application? How does one promote a value which says listening and applying preaching is a personal discipline and not a consumed item?

Anyways one of the things I'm interested in is the role of visual media in preaching. We already use a ton of the visual in our wider worship gathering - pictures, video clips, powerpoint "poetry", self-made videos etc. But what about as a specific amplification of the preached message? Is our general commitment to touching auditory, visual and kinesthetic communication styles, adequately reflected in those times we specifically engage the application of the scriptures?

A starting point for me has been to investigate what others think of powerpoint. For a start there is a mass of opinion that is largely uncritical of the use of powerpoint - bigger and flasher is better - its an extreme "informational" approach, where fill in the gap outlines are supplemented by fill in the gap powerpoints. The very real danger is that its the powerpoint that drives the message rather than the passage. Then there are those who say "no" to any kind of powerpoint.

As I've looked at a few approaches I think you can divide them up into 3 broad categories:

Anyways it seemed like the sort of practical topic that people might have a few ideas on. So what do you think? Is there a balance and if so what does it look like? Or is powerpoint a needless distraction that undermines the preacher's true craft to apply truth to the gathered congregation (as opposed to the one gathered around the preachers computer at 11pm on a Saturday night!)


servant said...

I've got a few thoughts.

I think powerpoint can be extremely useful with certain preaching styles.

If someone works their way through a few definite points that have definite applications then a slide(s) can be good at the beginning of each point to keep the congregation focussed on that point, with the applications placed within that in bullet points.

I struggle with powerpoints with my natural style though.... because I am more comfortable with working through a train of thought flowing from a start point to a finish point. I tend to trip when I try putting in points a, b and c. Mostly I want people to grasp a way of thinking about something rather than clear bullet points.

I struggle with what that cell group has said and I think catering to it provides a bit of a danger. How many of us have fully grasped the teaching of Jesus and the things he spoke about? We have a problem if we think it's supposed to be packaged neatly and clearly so everyone 'gets it'.

I also struggle with a cell group expressing that to one another, confirming it with each other and in so doing not spurring each other towards a greater understanding. It makes me beg the question, how much are they looking at things, thinking about faith, life and scriptures and grappling with what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.... what are they doing to move beyond the milk to the meat?

There is a danger of catering to the lowest common denominator.... how low do you go?

In saying that, we should always be seeking to communicate better... but should it be a reaction to people who may not want to push themselves, or should it be to compell people push themselves.

I know that when I have struggled to understand something I've simply gone away and looked it up... spent the sleepless nights grappling with stuff. I've shed tears over trying to work out some of the stuff Jesus said. I expect others to do the same. How much would I have lost if Jesus dumbed it all down. We need to be comitted to doing the hard yards, not just in our actions, but also in our learning.... we're studying the Creator of the universe for goodness sake ;o)

BJ said...

I should clarify - this wasn't a small group as in "cell group" but in a slice of people. However, I suspect there has been some mutual reinforcement of the negative kind between some people.

But I'm glad for the misunderstanding because I think you raise some good points about the nature of receiving truth. Its not something to be consumed - it is something to wrestle with. How often is the struggle laid down for an easier (or no) answer?

Rhett said...

I think powerpoint is great, especially if I can use fancy fonts :-).

I don't know who said what but I don't have any problems with it... there have been times when I have said to Sarah on the drive home, "What was that really all about?" Personally in preaching I struggle with providing application points, so for me this could be a good thing.

For me it's not a case of catering to people, it's more a case that sadly 99% of Christians don't read commentaries and theological works; most of them don't even read! Sure, it would be great if everyone was seriously interested in learning more about their faith at a deeper level, but to a large extent we need to meet people where they are at. Also, I don't think it's for us to badger people into doing this stuff.

I'm sure we've all heard a lot of sermons in our lives, my opinion is that the sermons at Cession are intelectually at a higher than average level. I also think that the points are often much more subtle; perhaps to do with tieing them into the more "arty" stuff going on... movie clips and music and theme etc.

However I love that we do themed series... it means I can actually remember what we've done in the past. Great tool.

All in all, I think we definitely should consider these issues when preparing sermons and yes I think generally powerpoint could be one part of the solution.

Still, in context I think we do pretty darn well at Cession with preaching!

servant said...

Great points BJ and Rhett,

A quick question, what does it mean to meet people where they're at? Does it mean hand everything on a silver platter right in their lap so they don't have to think about it... or does it mean know your audience and know where you have to pitch it to make them work it out?

I like the fact you've driven home and asked, "what was that really all about?" What I don't like is people then using that to fob it off and not grapple with it.

Could we say that most people don't read commentaries etc and maybe don't even read because they've been spoon fed for far too long and not challenged to study their faith?

Have far too many circles become so interested in providing a consumable product that is palatable to the audience that we are no longer interested in compelling them to think harder?

Didn't Jesus say stuff that made people walk away? How often did he say stuff that people plain didn't get or misunderstood?

Should our preaching example give people answers or compell them to ask questions? What happens if they're too lazy to grapple with the not understanding?

I'm not trying to offend.... just working through my own thoughts... and I know I would have missed out on a lot over the years if I didn't push further when I didn't understand something.

Sarah S said...

This is an interesting discussion, and something that I have actually been thinking a bit about recently. I'll can only speak for myself here and hope it might lend something to the discussion.

Personally, I am predominantly a visual learner, as opposed to auditory. I agree that Cession does a fantastic job at incorporating visual, auditory and kinesthetic learning styles into the service as a whole, however I think I would benefit from having message points laid out on a visual aid.

I am to believe that every message that gets preached has a certain structure - whether that be the old '3 points', whether it be a narrative, or something more subtle. I like variety! In saying that, I think it would be helpful (for me, if not anyone else) to have the basic outline on screen. It doesn't have to be anything fancy! Just something to reference back to, to understand what relates to what, to make it easier to follow.

Frank I completely respect what you're saying about grappling with ideas, wrestling with them, to try and gain a better understanding. What I'm saying is that if I had a visual aid accompanying a message it would give me a better platform to go and wrestle with the ideas. For some people it's easier to 'get' ideas when they hear them, for others it's not - that doesn't mean they don't want to go away and think about it. I remember things better if I see them written down, rather than hear them. I certainly don't want to just 'consume' my faith, I want to think about it and talk with others about it.

I can see some downfalls. It may be distracting to people who don't find it helpful. It lessens the 'eye contact' a preacher might have with the congregation. For some it may attempt to simplify a point that should be complex. Maybe the last point could be combatted somehow by the language used in it?

Overall, what's the harm in giving it a try and getting some feedback? Frank, you mentioned 'knowing your audience' and 'where to pitch it'. I completely agree! Personally, I don't think a visual aid would make me a lazy thinker, I think it would help me to grapple with the issues raised.

I'm glad this topic came up! Keen to hear more...

BJ said...

Interesting. I don't think there's a necessary disconnect between using visual media to enhance communication in preaching and creating a point of "struggle for truth". And I don't think anyone is really suggesting there is.

I think the wider issue of what we struggle for exactly is an interesting one. Is the informational enquiry really the struggle for every Christ follower? ie is there anything wrong with people not diving into commentaries etc. Or is that actually the biblically prescribed role of the pastor/teacher(s)? (I don't mean THE pastor). By which I mean, because you are a teacher Frank your struggle extends into that area.

Is the real area of struggle the area of application to life? Which of course requires that one has a platform or launching point for the struggle of basic understanding of what's going on. And that requires a decision to actually TRY! As well as being critical of our communication.

As an aside, Melissa is soon to launch a short course on Sundays on How to Read the Bible which I think is part of providing the basic tools for people, what ever their gifts.

Last night at cell we did a lesson titled: How to listen to a message! It was very interesting...some of the factors that were identified:

> More visual media is a good idea (but not too much)

> Writing notes helps some people stay focused as well as process. It also provides a means to reflect later. There would be takers if videos or podcasts were available so messages could be reviewed more than once

> Choosing to sit somewhere away from distracting activity (eg if you play a role on Sunday night getting away from that area when its your night off) helps

> People like the takeaways, followup questions etc and would be keen to investigate online forums to further discuss things

> Practical things like more light during the message, the tables, series note sheets etc are all seen as beneficial

So for many, it wasn't just the visual it was also engaging the kinesthetic...

Vania said...

It is a well known fact that there are different styles of learning. We do very well I think to engage these different styles at cession. My opinion is that is is definitely helpful to reinforce the spoken message with a visual tool. Personally I find this is how I learn.

I tend to see things more in black and white rather than shades of grey (although the shading is increasing as I get older)and tend to need something more concrete and structured to start from. I find for me being able to have clear points that I can go on to unpackage later works. This has been so not just in my christian walk, but in my degree studies as well. Its how I learn. There is always the possibility I guess of having handouts with main points for those who want them so we don't have to use power point - may be to much extra admin however...

I agree with Rhett when he said that our messages at cession are often aimed at a high intellectual level - this reflects the deep thought, intellect and theological study/understanding of our preachers. There are however many in cession who aren't intellectual thinkers and who do struggle to understand the messages. There is a danger for people to zone out when they believe they simply won't understand what the preacher is saying... I don't blame them for zoning out on some occasions. The flip side is of course what has already been stated that those individuals need to make a decision to try and engage - equally we need to ensure that our teaching is not aimed at a select group of people who happen to all be quite intellectual...

I am glad that their are people like you Frank who struggle and wrestle with scripture and matters of faith. Part of me thinks that is personality and a desire/spiritual gift placed within you by God - which you are able to use to build the body through what you learn. I thank God for you and what I can and have already learnt from you. I think that thinking through ideas is different though to the deep desire you describe to wrestle with matters of faith.

Nice discussion, good points everyone...

BJ said...

A couple of comments on the intellectual thing and even a suggestion that we're aiming deliberately "high".

I don't think that's what's happening - I think there's a strong intention to interpret the Bible accurately and that there is in that a rejection of simplistic, sometimes heretical aspects of Christian thought. I think that's where the challenge is introduced. I don't try to aim high - I just try to get to the truth of a passage. I don't think anyone is playing mind games and trying to demonstrate their intelligence (which in my case is prodigious...)

But I don't think any lack of resonance with some, is because the messages are more or less intellectual - I DO think that I personally could do more to communicate better. Whether a thought is complex or not is not really the issue for me - it will be whatever it needs to be according to the text - however, the means of communication CAN be improved, in my case anyway.

Which was of course the central question for this post!

Take Rob Bell's podcasts - highly intellectual but very well communicated.

I also agree with the point I think Rhett was making - strong application covers a multitude of intellectual sins. Eveyone gets a good illustration and a call to appropriate personal action. If they've stayed awake that is...

Rhett said...

Ah of course it's not intentional but Frank, Melissa and you are super-brainy, so it's probably a natural outcome! :-)

Good points though.

servant said...

I've only done 2 sermons at Cession so far... so I don't know if I count. Were there people who didn't get what I was saying in either? Dunno... but there were lots of people in tears with the second one... good to know it wasn't just me blubbering like a baby.

BJ said...

Hmmm, so Rhett are you saying that you're not super brainy? You must be there to keep us grounded in earthy realness. And Frank, you must be there to keep us emotionally in touch with ourselves.

Ah, the body of Christ ;)

BJ said...

I'd be interested in some more comments on the real subject of this post - how to use visual media more effectively...

servant said...

Like I said, with my style, I'm not a big fan of using powerpoint.... I think it would detract from the flow.

.... what about recording some of the sermons Nooma style.... they don't have to be that flash, but creating them as a visual experience on a screen from time to time might help people to engage them simply because it's different.

For example, my sermon this week could have been filmed at home and in my place of work. The context would have fit nicely and given people more visual clues.

Dunno how much work that would be.

Rhett said...

That's a great idea!

I remember on the Zoo TV tour Bono said something like, "You all get to come to a rock concert and watch tv! What's better than that?".

Perhaps the same could apply to church? ;-).

servant said...

.. and when we film the preacher, we could do it on a blue-screen, dress them up in hippy clothes and have a psychedelic swirling background of neon colours ;o)

When speaking to a TV generation....

Uncle Jakey said...

An interesting discussion. You can see I have been away from blogland for a while.

BJ [just for you Frank ;-) ], on the PPT question I definitely think it could be used in helpful ways, but don't think it has to be a rule of thumb. I think that there will be some messages that will better suit working in with PPT slides. You can do the simple text thing with main points but personally i prefer a mix of text and image.

You can use appropriate pictures to symbolise a point or even an illustration, eg: Frank might display a picture of a cassock or a bishop’s mitre to illustrate his point that we are all priests.

I like the idea of doing an occasional pre-videoed sermon as a different way of engaging people. There will be ideas where this could more naturally fit though. I wouldn’t see it as something to do just for the sake of it. You could also interact with yourself live – kind of like you (Brett) did that year in the Gifts for Jesus service when you had an audio recording of yourself that you interacted with live on the night.


BJ said...

Thanks Uncle Jakey - it does all come down to the communications goals and how best to use visial media. It would be a surprise if cession just opted for the one size fits all approach and dumped a heap of information on the screen! I think there are some messages that suit visual aids better, but I think pretty much any message that has been planned could be supplemented visually - the "rule of thumb" should be to consider all communications strategies including visuals - and I like your suggestions for Frank's message as an example of going a little outside the box. I don't agree with Frank's assessment of preaching styles in his first comment that certain types of preaching suit powerpoint and others don't. His two examples are both logical planned approaches, so I'd have thought visual media whether words or images could be used without difficulty in either case. In fact, the issue for me would be to avoid the reiteration of points and sub points (as if it were a lecture) and look for visual hooks to hang a message on. Here are some practical ideas for visual aids in messages:

Pictures instead of points - especially where word pictures are already being used or there are good contrasting images available.


Pictures of people you're talking about

Headings and sub points

Quotes that are used from people (not scriptures so much as I'd rather encourage people to bring their bibles)

Scripture references to make it easier for people to find what you're reading


Pictures of things you're talking about eg. a wine press or a tomb etc

In all of this I think its imperative that we don't lose the verbal skill of preaching. So there has to be balance. And for me this is just part 1 of a wider discussion...I think presentation is important as well...but how important?

servant said...

Loving those ideas! I have to admit, my thoughts were flowing on from my default idea of what powerpoint is and how I have seen it used.... to give points, sub points etc. I have no interest in that.

I have never seen it used beyond that.... so your list was refreshing and exciting BJ. I stand corrected :o)

Uncle Jakey said...

I did think of suggesting that Frank could have started with an image Ronan (his guilty pleasure). He could even have embedded the particular shameful song he indulged in... ;P

Glen O'Brien said...

I discourage the use of power point in preaching (though I use it in the classroom) because I believe it tends to a laziness in the development of the oral skills needed in good preaching. Let's not forget that for most of human history orality was exactly that - oral discourse. No print, no words, no projected images. Yet story telling (and thus oral discourse) has been highly valued and at the heart of hunman culture since time immemorial. A good speaker doesn't need visual aids because the brain is very well equipped to create its own pictures. The skill of the speaker is to use words in such a way that the concrete pictures emerge naturally in the hearer's mind. Have you noticed that people still listen to the radio? (go Frank) even though some felt that TV and cinema would replace it, that video would kill the radio star. But it didn't happen. Why? Because people enjoy the experience of listening, letting the mind create its own images unique to the hearer, which is a contrast to TV and cinema where the images are provided for you.

The reason why many people find our sermons boring is that the way we preach tends to mimic what we read - the written word. In a world oriented around printed words, sermons tend to borrow their style from written text, such as the essay form. They contain logical development, clear argument, thorough treatment, points and subpoints, which leaves people cold who are not familiar with the bookish world of the typical preacher. But a sermon is not a “speech” so much as it is a “speaking.” A person passionately speaking an urgent message laid upon their heart just bursting to get out will always transfix an audience, and the speaker won't need an IT degree to run "the presentation."

BJ said...

So I ventured into a wee powerpoint experiment on Sunday using one slide - the slide contained a list of 7 tensions I wanted to introduce between a predominantly capitalist worldview and competing biblical principles.

Lots of people wrote the stuff down :)