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Digital Storytelling: Use multimedia in worship to enhance, not replace

Biblical storytellers Tracy Radosevic and Tim Coombs and liturgical media arts expert Eileen D. Crowley explain how to tell God's stories in a digital age. They show how to add layers of images, sounds, and experiences to enhance worship. A feature story exploring the use of multimedia in worship.

Like everyone else walking into the sanctuary, Tracy Radosevic received a bluebook and pencil. There was a desk on the platform. The screen upfront showed students, desks, bluebooks, pencils, and a blackboard—as viewed from the back of the classroom. The only words on the screen were TEST TIME.

For the call to worship, a live band sang, “Don’t know much about history, don’t know much biology…” After that, a worship leader welcomed people to a service about being tested.

The order of worship and the sermon itself were fairly traditional. Yet the digital elements of that service about Jesus being tested in the wilderness were so powerful that, a few years later, Tracy Radosevic still remembers the experience.

She and Tim Coombs, who like Radosevic, is a seasoned biblical storyteller, give three keys for telling Bible stories effectively in a digital age. The secret is to plan well-grounded worship that uses visual metaphors to enhance how worshipers experience Scripture. You can apply this secret even if your church is a total beginner at digital storytelling.

Where is it grounded?

Radosevic was at that service because she’d been asked to tell the sermon text. She already knew the power of internalizing and telling Scripture. More than silently reading printed words or hearing them read aloud, biblical storytelling helps worshipers experience God’s actions as real-time events.

But before Radosevic told about the devil goading a hungry Jesus to turn stones into bread, the congregation saw a short clip from the sci-fi comedy Men in Black. It was the scene where actor Will Smith has to take a recruitment exam. He has only a chair, no desk, so must use his leg as a writing surface. His paper rips and his pencil breaks.

After the movie clip, there was a short skit. “A guy walked in wearing a letter jacket and backpack. He sat at the desk. He’d prerecorded a verbal monologue that we listened to, as if we could hear his thoughts. ‘A train leaves Chicago at 1:20 p.m. traveling west at 65 miles per hour. Meanwhile, another train leaves San Francisco…’

“The whole point was to elicit feelings of anxiety before hearing the story told of Jesus in the wilderness. Churches can create a digital experience that’s exciting or flashy—but is it grounded in the Bible and authentic theology?” Radosevic says.

What does the visual metaphor do?

The classroom image stayed on screen while the minister preached. Near the end of his sermon, he asked people to open their bluebooks and journal about three questions:

  • How are you being tested?
  • How’s that going?
  • What do you specifically need to ask God’s help for?

“We were asked to come up for communion and lay our bluebooks on the altar. It was immensely powerful,” Radosevic recalls.

You might wonder why worship planners didn’t simply project classic art about the Temptations of Jesus or aerial photos of Old Jerusalem.

“Digital storytelling works best when it incorporates metaphors or offers complementary sounds and imagery to a story. There are aspects of stories we don’t get because of our distance from biblical events. A visual metaphor works like a bridge from our world to the biblical world and culture,” says Tim Coombs, who co-pastors Trinity Presbyterian Church in Scotia, New York.

He describes himself as a cultural missionary. He’s found worshipers absorb more when he tells Scripture rather than reads it aloud. He adds digital media—whether PowerPoint graphics, a still image, a film clip, or soundtrack—when it will “lift people out of their ordinary experience into the reality of the story. When the story ends, they come back, but they are a little changed.

“I start with the story and what the Holy Spirit is attempting to say to me or us through it today. Once I identify that theme or message, I ask how I can communicate it digitally so it will be faithfully rendered and received well,” Coombs explains.

After asking himself what in today’s world might connect worshipers with Isaiah 43, where God promises to do a new thing through Christ, Coombs made a video of his son walking on stones across a stream.

“Just about everyone has tried to work their way across a stream on stones. They have trouble, lose their balance, and have to pick a new way,” he says. He showed the video while telling the passage.

How does it enhance worship?

In the three or four years since Radosevic told the story of Jesus being tested, everyday experiences—flipping through radio or TV channels, shopping in a campus store—have triggered visual and musical memories embedded in that service. “I’ve been immediately transported to a moment in that service. Basically, I’ve ‘reworshipped’ it at least six times,” she says.

Radosevic and Coombs advise looking on digital technologies as a way to enhance, not replace. That’s why it’s vital to ground digital storytelling in the Bible and theology.

It also helps to retain orders of worship that mean a lot to your congregation. From there you can add layers of visuals, sounds, and experiences that help worshipers more fully and consciously understand and act on God’s Word.

“We don’t monkey with the order of worship. Still, we try to do each part so it communicates to the dominant culture. The prayer of confession will always be in the same place in worship, but one week the call to confession might be a video montage that pictures why we need to come to God and confess our sins. Another week the screen might show words and images of a responsive litany,” Coombs says.

Radosevic adds that effective storytelling in a digital age “doesn’t have to be high tech. It’s more important to keep it experiential and relational.

“My first art form is telling a well-embodied story. There’s me, the audience, and the story. Before I tell it, I’ve done my background research. I’ve practiced and prepared. So when I tell a story, I’m creating a visual image for worshipers.

“If I add a literal visual image—projected on a screen or art on an easel or pointing out a stained glass window—it adds another layer. How can that not be more powerful in enhancing the overall experience?” she asks.

Eileen D. Crowley on Planning Worship as a Moving Word

Picture an evening prayer service during autumn midterms on a college campus. You arrive worrying about how to finish your papers and keep your scholarship.

You hear the roar of harvesting machines. You smell hay bales before you sit on them. In the dark room, lit by candles flickering in canning jars, you see on one wall a projected image of crumpled paper.

As you sing, pray, read, and recite text and melody lines projected on another wall, you think about how hard it is to harvest—whether that means bringing in the corn before rain descends or synthesizing ideas, research, and quotes into a logical whole.

The closing prayer sticks in your head as you return to the library: “You are in our midst, O Lord, and you have named us yours; do not forsake us, O Lord our God” (Jeremiah 14:9).

Eileen D. Crowley describes this service in her slim yet substantial book A Moving Word: Media Art in Worship. In it and her book Liturgical Art for a Media Culture, Crowley explains that the best way to use media art and technology in worship is to start with the liturgy. She teaches worship at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago.

Start with the liturgy

For people who get geeked about decibels, pixels, IMAG (image magnification), animations, and the like, this is an exciting time to use the church credit card.

Contrary to what church technology magazines or websites may suggest, however, Crowley says the wrong place to start is “with the right equipment.” Starting with technology has two problems.

First, congregational discussions about media arts in worship go awry, with one side championing new technology (“We need to keep our kids and attract seekers!”) and another arguing for tradition (“I don’t come to church to be entertained by a screen!”).

Objecting to what’s new overlooks the fact that “Christians have always used aural and visual media of their day to glorify God in worship and uplift worshipers,” Crowley explains in Liturgical Art for a Media Culture. That’s how certain ways of lighting, dress, movement, gestures, posture, tastes, fragrances, and ritual speech entered Christian worship.

Second, falling in love with technology tempts people to amass their favorite products and clips and shoehorn them into worship, whether or not the media art fits.

“Since liturgy is the work of the people giving praise and thanks to God, people should be the starting point, not technology,” she writes.

Crowley’s books and presentations show how to develop a liturgical media ministry that “begins with liturgy, includes all the faithful in the creative process, and encourages the creation of locally produced liturgical media.” She calls this model “Communal Co-Creation.”

Consider the people

Since liturgy is the work of the people, effective digital storytellers begin by asking who will be at worship and how the liturgy will flow. They mark points in worship where worshipers will be “externally active in speaking, singing, or moving… [or] internally active in listening, reflecting, or contemplating.”

Churches most often use media technology to project songs, text, orders of worship, or images that march in lockstep with the words. These informative uses help people who can’t hold heavy books or read small fonts. Screens can be a real boon in bilingual congregations.

The Deaf Fellowship at Frederick Church of the Brethren in Frederick, Maryland, uses drama, multimedia technology, American Sign Language, and voice interpretation so deaf and hearing people can worship together.

As valuable as it is to inform and educate worshipers, Crowley inspires congregations to create media art that helps worshipers meditate or experience beauty. She says that when media functions as art, it reveals new things to worshipers and becomes “a moving word.”

This revelatory use, she explains in A Moving Word: Media Art in Worship, is a mix of images and sounds that “whizzes by our consciousness on a video monitor but that leaves a permanent impression in our memory.” These revelations give us “sights and sounds from worlds to which we may never travel bodily.”

Considering the people who will participate in a certain liturgy helps planners choose sounds and images. Crowley notes that people who come to a healing service are looking for peace and assurance that God and others care for them. So it’s more pastoral to use low-key biblical images instead of dramatic, intense, flashy scenes that seem to promise instant cures.

The key to evaluating whether you chose helpful sights and sounds, simple as they may be, is to discover whether your choices helped people contemplate God’s grace in a way they would not have done with words or music alone.

Make connections

The art of using media technology in worship depends in part on making connections. “No liturgy has to have media technology or media art incorporated into it. It is an option to be chosen with great care and to be executed with ongoing discernment, prayer, and attention,” Crowley says.

This includes steering clear of using images in a way that leads worshipers to unfortunate connections. For example, when churches use image magnification (IMAG) to project larger-than-life images of preachers and musicians, it works against the idea of liturgy as the work of the people. Instead those projected seem like stars and worshipers feel like spectators.

Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Burnsville, Minnesota, uses IMAG in their large sanctuary to help everyone see and hear important moments—children sitting on the floor for the children’s sermon, the face of someone being baptized, oil glistening on hands and foreheads while everyone sings “There Is a Balm in Gilead” during a healing service.

Kent V. Wilson, senior pastor at Zion Lutheran Church in Lima, Ohio, told Crowley how his congregations have used media art to make two-way connections between worshipers and people not able to physically attend worship. Possibilities include getting permission to visit and record homebound parishioners as they:

  • Explain what favorite Bible passages or songs mean to them.
  • Recall experiences of baptism, communion, or Easter memories.
  • Say what or for whom they pray and how they’d like the church to pray for them.
  • Read aloud an upcoming lectionary text.

These still photographs, audio or video clips can be woven into Scripture reading, congregational prayers, or church announcements.

Learn More

Book Tracy Radosevic for a retreat, storytelling workshop, worship service, or performance. Attend her seminar at the 2008 Academy for Biblical Storytelling, sponsored by Network of Biblical Storytellers (NOBS).

Book Tim Coombs to offer a workshop or media-rich worship and post-worship discussion. View video clips he’s made on digital culture and children or older adults. Read why he decided to go digital in worship.

Radosevic and Coombs credit Tom Boomershine for their ideas on effective storytelling in a digital age. Boomershine concisely describes links between oral and digital culture. Because he’d like for every congregation to have a cadre of people internalizing and telling Scripture, Boomershine offers, for free, online access to his book Story Journey: An Invitation to the Gospel as Storytelling and instruction on how to learn and tell Bible stories.

For excellent scholarly thought on hermeneutics, interpretation, methods, and more of biblical storytelling, check out NOBS Seminar archives. Read Eileen D. Crowley’s paper on media art in worship.

Gather a group to learn how to effectively tell biblical stories in a digital culture. These books will help you learn:

Get step-by-step training from Midnight Oil Productions, which also offers seminars, free resources, and metaphor-based visuals. Other sources for multimedia ideas, video backdrops, video “raw material,” or training include Digital JuiceFaith Visuals, General Board of Discipleship (United Methodist Church), Highway Video, Lumicon, TextWeek, and Worship Films.

Browse related stories about biblical storytellinglectionary dramastechnology in worship, andworship aesthetics.

Start a Discussion

Talk about creating multimedia that serves the liturgy:

  • How does media technology in your church make worship more hospitable for everyone—including people who have trouble seeing, hearing, or moving?
  • In what ways does your church use wordless resources or digital media to enhance worship? What would you like to add or change to help worshipers participate more fully in worship or meditate more deeply?
  • What do you think of the idea that visual metaphor works better in worship than images that more closely match the words?
  • How might you build community in your church by using media technology in new ways?

Share Your Wisdom

What is the best way you’ve found to enhance worship through liturgical media arts?

  • Did you visit new museums to get ideas for effective media use that might work well in your congregation’s worship? If so, please let us know what you observed at which museum and how you applied those best practices to your church.
  • At end of her book A Moving Word, Eileen D. Crowley challenges readers to fill a gap she sees in media for worship—parabolic media art. She asks, “How might you contribute to the evolution of liturgical media art that can be tomorrow’s liturgical media parable?” She’s looking for art that, like Jesus’ parables, “leaves us with questions that continue to haunt us long after the story has ended…take unexpected turns…feature unlikely protagonists…turn upside down the usual way of seeing a situation.”
  • Did you talk with parish nurses, social workers, and members with illnesses about images, psalms, songs, or stories that give them hope—and might be good to use in a healing service?