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The Power of Low-Tech Visuals

Sometimes a marker and easel can outdo PowerPoint.

PreachingToday.com: Kevin, it seems like more and more churches have the ability to go high tech in their visuals, using PowerPoint. Is that true?

Kevin Miller: I just saw a study done by Facts & Trends magazine. They surveyed senior pastors of Protestant churches throughout the U.S., and one of the biggest increases they found was in the use of PowerPoint. Five years ago [around 1999] only five percent of Protestant churches were using PowerPoint or some similar program at least once a month in their worship services, and now [2004] it's 36 percent. So high-tech visuals are up dramatically in that time frame.

Talk about low-tech visuals. How does that pan out?
As we all race toward increasing use of high-tech visuals, we shouldn't leave out simple, low-tech visuals, which are easier for most churches to pull off and can be just as powerful, oftentimes even more powerful, than high tech PowerPoint or video presentations.

When you say low tech, is this the overhead projector? Is this puppets? What do you have in mind?
I'm mostly talking about the use of physical objects. What sparked my thinking about this was the Willow Creek Leadership Summit. And of course Willow Creek has all of the high tech video equipment that you would expect, and used a lot of that during the conference. But one of the most powerful sessions was when Bill Hybels came out with a blank easel and a black Magic Marker in his hand. He would draw up there on the easel. And I thought, Why is a white flipchart and a black Magic Marker so powerful? One reason was you knew it was happening live. Bill could instantly draw or change or tear off a sheet or add on in response to questions from the audience or his own inner muse. It felt like there was a live drama, which you don't get in a PowerPoint, which has to be developed ahead of time. It had a different tone. When Bill was up there with the black Magic Marker, it felt like he was a coach giving a pep talk in the locker room, drawing X's and O's upon the chalkboard rather than like a salesman trying to sell something. Sometimes PowerPoint can have a little bit of an airbrushed feel to it, whereas the low tech thing feels a little more personal, a little more intimate, a little less staged.

I have used PowerPoint with sermons. I have liked the impact that it's had, and I'm not giving it up. But what I'm trying to do is offer another way to go with your visuals.

I'm getting them to engage at an even deeper level than if they were just looking at a PowerPoint slide

You're saying that high tech can sometimes seem a little too slick.
Yes. And there are places where it actually is not as engaging as using a low-tech object or a visual aid.

For example, I'm teaching a message entitled " How Are You Medicating Your Pain? " One of the things I want to bring out is that all of us have various pains within our souls, and so we seek ways to soothe those. Oftentimes the ways we seek are counterproductive — overeating, overshopping, Internet pornography, whatever it is. I'm trying to encourage people to give up those ways and instead turn to God, their Creator and the lover of their soul, as the only ultimate healing for that pain. At the beginning of that message I'm going to pass out a Tylenol caplet to every person in the audience [since conducting this illustration, I have been advised that giving out medication in church is a bad idea, so do not follow my example]. Several times during the message I'm going to refer to this tiny white pill as a symbol of the ways we medicate our pain rather than turn to God for true healing. At the end of the service, we're going to have a chance for people to respond and come forward if they're at a place where they're ready to turn away from those things and throw away that little caplet. By holding that pill in his hand or her hand, they're thinking about it, they're looking at it, I'm referencing it, and so they have to do something with it. I'm getting them to engage at an even deeper level than if they were just looking at a PowerPoint slide of Tylenol.

Let me give some principles I've developed over the years in experimenting with different types of low-tech visuals. Each point starts with the letter S.

The first one is strategic. Whatever visual you would use in a sermon you want to make sure it's strategic. You don't want to illustrate a secondary point in your message, because whatever you illustrate will engage the listener, will be remembered. These people are going to remember holding that little Tylenol in their hand when they go home. I want them to remember what Haddon Robinson callsthe big idea. I want them to remember the core concept of the text. Whatever object I use must directly, clearly tie to the central image or idea of the text.

This past Easter I preached from 2 Corinthians 5:1, in which Paul says we know that when this earthly tent we live in is taken down, when we die and leave these bodies, we will have a home in heaven, an eternal body made for us by God. What is the central image of the text? Paul is using a metaphor that the current body is like a tent, but our eternal resurrection body is going to be like a home. He's contrasting the flimsiness of a tent with the permanence and beauty of a home. That is a great metaphor. So I brought in a large tarp you could have used as a tent. I also brought in a brick. I said, " Someday, we're going to die. " I took the tarp, folded it up, and took it down and set it off to the side. I said, " But then God is going to give us a resurrection body that is so much more permanent, so much more beautiful and lasting and solid that it's like moving from a tent into a home. " And I held up the brick. I didn't want to illustrate any other thing in that message except for the core idea, which is how solid and beautiful and permanent our resurrection bodies will be when we leave these bodies.

The second quality that you want in a visual is that it be simple. The best visual aids are not elaborate. They should have immediate understanding, and you shouldn't have to overly explain it. It shouldn't have tons of moving parts, because usually that means something's going to break and not work out right for you.

I preached a sermon once from Matthew 12 in which Matthew says that Jesus fulfills the ancient prophecy of Isaiah that " a bruised reed he will not break. " We don't live in an agrarian society. We don't go down to the Nile and see reeds growing up along the water. I wanted to make sure everyone understood what was meant by a bruised reed. This was the core of my message. It was about how Christ comes to us who are as bruised reeds. He will not break off the bruised, the weak, the hurting, but will actually restore and support that broken person.

I went to the drainage ditch near Interstate 355 and I clambered down to this marshy area where the water runs off the highway, and I picked a couple of pieces of grass that had to be over four feet long. That's all I brought into the pulpit. When I got near to that part of the sermon I held it up and swayed it back and forth in my hand. The reed was flopping all over the place because it's very flimsy. In Bible times, calling someone a reed was like calling them a weakling or a wimp, and that's why Jesus asked the crowds, When you went out to see John the Baptist, what did you expect to see? A reed swaying around in the wind? John was not like that. Then I said, " But there's a state that's even weaker than being a reed, and that's being a bruised reed. " I reached up and snapped the reed so that the top part didn't totally tear off but bent over. Then I said, " What do you do with a fragile, flimsy reed that gets broken? You throw it away. You forget about it. But for some reason, Jesus does not do that. Isaiah said he's so gentle that when he finds a bruised reed he won't break it; he won't snap it off. Instead, he'll put his hands around it and he'll splint it and he'll keep it growing until it grows large and strong again. " It was just one blade of grass, and yet it had a tremendous impact in communicating this Bible concept.

But what about the size of that reed?
The only reason a blade of grass worked was it was over four feet tall. So everyone could see it in my congregation. Of course I don't preach to thousands. Maybe if I did, I'd need an eight-foot reed.

That brings us to the third point: it has to be sizeable. Whatever prop you use has to be large enough to be seen easily and immediately by anyone in your congregation. I learned this lesson the hard way.

I was preaching on the passage of the woman caught in adultery, in John 8:1-59. I brought a rock into the pulpit with me. I talked about how we all want to throw rocks at people in our lives, but before we cast a stone we need to examine our own motives and our own heart. Why is it that we want to throw this rock? And I held up the rock thinking it would be powerful. Afterward I was talking with my wife in the car on the way home, and I said, " What did you think of the rock? Did that work or not? " She said, " You couldn't see it. " The rock I had chosen was about the size of my fist. By the time I put my hand all the way around it and held it up, you couldn't really see the rock. Later I had a chance to preach that message at another congregation as a guest speaker, and I got a rock three times the size of the other one. I could hardly hold this thing up. But the beautiful thing was, it was so large that as soon as I held it up I could tell people were with me. I could sense that there was energy in the room, because they could see the rock.

Make sure your visual is sizeable. The exception is if you're going to give everyone the visual, like the Tylenol caplet. Because I'm giving it to each person, it's still large enough to make an impact.

The last is that the visual should be striking. It should be dramatic, but not so engaging that it overwhelms everything else in the message.

Recently I had to give a devotional primarily to business people, sales people. They're active, high-energy people. My message was encouraging them to slow down long enough somewhere in their week to listen to the voice of God and not to be so busy. I brought a two-liter pop bottle with me, and I talked about how busy people's lives are these days. And every time I talked about some activity or busy thing, I would shake this pop bottle. After the sixth or seventh shake, I talked about when we finally quiet down and open ourselves to God, and then I cracked the lid on this pop bottle a little bit. There was foam and fizz and pop flowing out of this bottle onto the table in front of me. I talked about how we have to give ourselves some time to let all the anxiety and foam come out of our souls so we can listen and hear what God may be saying to us.

There was a drama because people were wondering, Is this pop bottle going to explode? Is it going to go all over the speaker? Is it going to go all over me in the front row? This was a smaller group, so everybody could easily see the pop bottle, and it worked well.

There are some visuals I could bring on that would completely overwhelm the message, and no one would hear anything else. For example, if I brought a motorcycle on stage, it would completely overwhelm whatever message I had, because in my church's culture, to have a motorcycle in the sanctuary, no one would hear what I was saying.

Let me give tips for what to do after you've selected a visual that is strategic, simple, sizeable, and striking. One is to decide, Am I going to keep this hidden until I'm ready to use it, or am I going to bring it out the whole time? For example, Dave McClellan, a pastor who wrote in Leadership, once started a sermon with a battered old chair sitting next to the pulpit. He didn't reference it until about halfway through the sermon when he was talking about how God has a passion for restoring broken down lives. Here's this visual cue, which people have been thinking about and wondering, Why is that up there? What is that? Where did he get that raggedy old chair? All of a sudden that came into play in the sermon. Sometimes you can build suspense by putting the visual out front ahead of when you use it. Other times you only want to bring it out when it is time, because it would be too distracting.

Second, you want to practice ahead of time if there's anything that could possibly go wrong with the visual. When I used the broken reed, I got three reeds, and I practiced breaking them off to see how high up should I reach, where should I snap. I got a couple extra in case I broke one bringing it into the building in the morning. So I had a backup plan.

Third, should I involve the audience in some way? I once used an analogy from John Ortberg, where he described our interaction with God. He said there are three approaches, and one was like a rowboat, where it all depends on us. We're rowing and pulling. Another approach is like a raft, where we do nothing and expect the current and the wind to get us there. Then he said the Christian life is more like a sailboat, where it all depends on the wind but the sailor is always trimming the sails, checking where the wind is going, holding the rudder, doing his or her best to capture the wind and go with the wind. I love that metaphor, and I thought it was great for giving people a good concept of how our effort and God's effort come together in Christian growth.

So I had three people come up, and I had three large easels in front. One person drew a sailboat. One drew a raft. One drew a rowboat. I let them draw the visuals that I was then going to use for this presentation. So it saved me from drawing it, and it also involved the congregation a bit.

I was teaching a message on true friendship. I used David and Jonathan as a model of committed friendship, and my message had two points. The first one was true friendship means I will defer to you in your areas of strength. I talked about how Jonathan recognized David's leadership. Even though Jonathan should have been the next king, he deferred to David's greatness, anointing, and tremendous leadership. I had this big poster board, and I wrote, True friendship means I will defer to you in your areas of strength. Then I turned the board over and wrote point number two: True friendship means, I will defend you in your area of weakness. When David was under attack, Jonathan was the one who protected him, saved his life, and helped him get away.

Now I could have just said that. I could have put it up on the PowerPoint. That would have been fine. But actually I found there was a good energy in the room when I used two sides of the poster board. People were wondering what I was going to write. When I flipped it over, they got a sense that there's a flipside to this: strength/weakness; defer to you/defend you. It made sense. It was like two sides of one coin. That reinforced what I wanted to say.

Anything else you can share with us?
You don't need to, and probably shouldn't, use a visual aid or low-tech prop or object lesson every week. What you want is maximum engagement from your listeners. If they know every time up you have a prop, you've lost a lot of the element of surprise. The other thing is that if I feel I have to do it every week, I'm going to be sorely tempted to force a visual in there even when it's not coming from the core message of the text, or might overwhelm the text. I'm in this one-upmanship where I have to outdo myself every week. I don't need more pressure. I have enough pressure trying to prepare a great sermon. So what I'm going to do is use the props when they seem natural and when I can fulfill my own goal for them, which is that they be strategic, simple, sizeable, and striking. Use them when they make the most sense for communicating the message God's put on your heart.

Kevin Miller is pastor of Church of the Savior in Wheaton, Illinois,

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