Someone recently said to me: “You used to show pictures and put the Scriptures up on the screen as you preached. Would you please do that again?” I felt very conflicted when I was asked this, and I’d like to explain to you why.
I always have tried to do something a little special, a little out of the ordinary, when it comes to Christmas and Easter services. In part it’s because preachers are faced with telling “the old, old story” without telling it the same old way every year. When those wonderful seasons start approaching, preachers start asking each other: “What are you doing for Christmas?”, or “What are you doing for Easter?” We’re always looking for fresh, new ideas to help proclaim the message of the Incarnation, the Cross and the Resurrection.
But as we approached Easter 2015, I felt like I was fresh out of new ideas. At a loss for anything else to do, I decided to just prepare a PowerPoint presentation to go along with my morning message. I use PowerPoint when I teach on Wednesday nights, and I had used PowerPoint before in the Easter Sunrise Service, but never in the 10 o’clock service.
So I used the projectors and screens to show pictures and display Scripture texts, first on Palm Sunday, and then the following week on Easter Sunday. My intention was to then go back to simply speaking after Easter.
But I hadn’t reckoned on the response I got.
So many people commented that they loved the texts and pictures displayed on the screens while I preached. Even my own family told me they liked it. And I noticed that people seemed to be paying more attention, with their heads up during the sermon. (Funny thing, they weren’t looking at me, they were looking to either side of me, at the screens. That’s okay; I look better on the radio, anyway.)
But I wrestled with whether to keep on using PowerPoint for my morning sermons, or not. I wrestled with it because creating a PowerPoint presentation to go along with my morning message adds about 3-4 hours to my preparation time. I knew if I got this started, it would be difficult to stop doing it. (It’s like a young husband doing the dishes for his wife: if he does a really good job, she’ll expect it every time.)
In the end I thought, “Hey, maybe this is what it takes to get people to come…? So, I guess I’ll do it.” And I did. For many months.
Then several things started happening.
I’m not as young as I once was, and I have been experiencing a growing amount of joint and muscle pain for the past year and a half. (Some of you are thinking, “Cry me a river, whippersnapper!”) The longer I sit, and the more I work at my desk, the worse the pain gets. The problem is, I sit a lot. I sit and read, I sit and write, I sit and work at my computer, I sit and drive, and I sit and talk to people. Interspersed with brief periods of walking to my truck, to my study, to a hospital or nursing home, etc., this is the nature of what I do. And I told my wife, “The things I do make me feel bad now.” I don’t mean this to be whining. Other people have it far worse than me. I just wanted you to understand my situation. Creating a PowerPoint presentation meant a few more hours of intensifying my pain.
Then someone who ministers on university campuses cautioned me about using PowerPoint when I spoke to college students. I was told that college-age students (and younger) aren’t all that impressed with PowerPoint anymore. When they’ve watched movies or played video games with advanced CGI effects, still pictures and words that spin and bounce just don’t impress them anymore. In fact, for really important things, they’d rather you just talk to them.
Then I noticed that none of the major ministries or prominent preachers on television or the internet use PowerPoint presentations during their sermons. A few years ago, I’d go to pastor’s conferences and some of the speakers would use PowerPoint, or a video, or even lasers and fog machines (No joke!) during their messages. Frankly, I found these things distracting at best or just lame at worst. It interrupted the flow of the message. Most of the speakers simply preached to us without using these things.
Then I also noticed that secular communicators do not use PowerPoint presentations during their speeches. For instance, at the Republican and Democratic conventions held a couple of weeks ago, none of the speakers used PowerPoint. They sometimes showed videos before or after a speech, but not in the middle of one.
Then came my shoulder surgery in February, and for a few weeks afterwards I really couldn’t use my right arm to type at a computer keyboard. After some deliberation, I decided at that point to stop incorporating PowerPoint into my Sunday morning sermons. I prepared myself for the onslaught of disappointed comments, but to my surprise nobody said anything about it, at least until the request I got last week. I hate to disappoint anybody; I know some folks liked it when I used PowerPoint. But, for the record, one or two people said they didn’t like it. (Baptists: you just can’t keep ‘em all happy. Some of us will probably still be complaining in Heaven.)
On a typical week, I already put in 6-10 hours of reading and preparing a PowerPoint presentation for the Wednesday night lesson. When I came to the church, I started using hand-outs with my Wednesday night lessons. I wanted to use a chalkboard, too, but one wasn’t available. Then a brand-new technology came on the scene: the overhead projector! So I began making use of that, with transparencies and a projection screen. Then along came laptop computers and the PowerPoint program, and I reluctantly got on a steep learning curve to learn how to use those things. Sometimes when I’m setting all this stuff up for Wednesday night, I think: “All I really wanted was a chalkboard!”
(By the way: you should come on Wednesday nights. It’s good stuff. I’m not bragging. There are so many wonderful Christian books being published, I find it impossible to read them all. At any given time, I have a stack of really great books on my desk that I’m trying to get to. I figure if I can’t get to them all as a full-time pastor, most of you are even less likely to read them. So I cheerfully steal only from the best, giving full credit to the authors, and I use their material as the basis for my Wednesday night teaching. I have used Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology, Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ Spiritual Depression, Minirth-Myers’ The Healthy Christian Life, and currently J. I. Packer’s Knowing God, and many other books, as the template for our Bible studies. Again, it’s good stuff, and you would benefit from it. I’m just sayin’.)
Adding another PowerPoint presentation for Sunday in addition to my mid-week preparation was no small thing. Again, my purpose is not to whine. It’s just that some weeks there isn’t enough of me to go around. All it takes is a couple of mornings or afternoons out visiting in hospitals, or conducting a funeral, and time runs out very quickly.
There’s one more thing I wrestle with: some of the preachers I respect the most, both living and deceased, had a deeply-held conviction that nothing should be added to the simple act of preaching the Gospel. They believe that other things added to or put in place of preaching interferes with the Holy Spirit’s work. The Holy Spirit takes the Word of God and uses it to convince human hearts of the truth. Jesus and the apostles just preached to people, and it is still true that “it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe.” (1 Cor. 1:21b, KJV)
So will I ever use PowerPoint in my sermons again? Likely I will, from time to time. Even Spurgeon would occasionally hold what he called a “magic lantern” service, in which the 19th-century equivalent of a slide projector was used to show pictures while he preached. He did this for the poor people: they were ashamed to come to a regular church service because of their shabby clothing. They would come, though, and sit in the darkened sanctuary to see the pictures and listen to Spurgeon preach. In the dark, it was harder to see what they were wearing. But Spurgeon didn’t use the “magic lantern” most of the time.
The truth is, God’s Word is sufficient to do God’s work. “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” (Hebrews 4:12) It isn’t a picture, a chart, a video, a song, or anything else that converts people. It is simply the Word of God, proclaimed by a servant of God, activated by the Spirit of God in the hearts of those who believe. Paul said of the Thessalonians, “…when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers.” (1 Thessalonians 2:13) God’s Word is sufficient to do God’s work.
Some pictures God never intended us to see. In the Ten Commandments, God forbade us to make any kind of image of Him (Exodus 20:4). He never gave us any kind of picture of Himself at all.
But He did give us descriptions of Himself, in passages like Daniel 7:9-10 or Revelation 1:12-17. He gave us detailed word-pictures of Jesus’ sufferings on the Cross, centuries before it happened, in Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53. And in the very last two chapters of the Bible, He gives us a vivid description of Heaven (Revelation 21-22).
In those cases, the reverse of the old saying really is true: The Word is worth a thousand pictures!
As a friend of mine likes to say: you think about that!
Soli Deo Gloria!