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Getting Started with Liturgical Media Arts

Whether you think of it as digital storytelling or liturgical media arts, your congregation probably has—or has thought about buying—multimedia equipment to use in worship.

Whether you think of it as digital storytelling or liturgical media arts, your congregation probably has—or has thought about buying—multimedia equipment to use in worship.

And it’s possible your discussions about new purchases or feedback on new technology in worship have already drawn some fire.

Here’s a starting point for introducing liturgical media arts in your church, along with tips from three experts who each have real life experience in combining digital images and sounds in worship.

Begin by seeing yourselves as co-creators with God the Creator, suggests Eileen D. Crowley, who teaches worship at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago.

“Media art that we see on a video monitor or media screen can move us to action, bring us new insight, break through our prejudices, call us to love one another. It can do this, but we must be receptive.

“When we open ourselves to God, the Holy Spirit breathes new life into us. In such Spirit-filled encounters with media, we can be inspired to be the hands and feet of Christ in the world,” Crowley writes in her slim yet substantial book A Moving Word: Media Art in Worship.

Get the pastor onboard

Tracy Radosevic is a biblical storyteller, educator, and retreat leader who included a special emphasis on digital storytelling in her doctor of ministry degree.

“Churches need support in getting started with digital storytelling. It helps if it’s from the top down. I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to have the pastor on board.

“The old days of a senior pastor in charge of everything doesn’t work as well. You need a ministry team. Often a great number of youth do know how to do this stuff. What a great way to keep them involved, do intergenerational ministry, and utilize the gifts of the many!” Radosevic says.

Tim Coombs co-pastors Trinity Presbyterian Church in Scotia, New York, and is the digital culture ministry specialist for Albany Presbytery. He’s earning his doctor of ministry degree in biblical storytelling in digital culture.

So that church leaders don’t get hung up on the suitability of certain technologies in worship, Coombs often speaks about how images can act more powerfully in worship than words can.

“I begin by naming non-digital experiences, like the act of baptism and the breaking of the bread during communion. Some of the most profound experiences in worship have been wordless.

“Recently, I experienced a new form of praying called ‘enacted prayer,’ where a group of people through mimed actions set to music embodies the intent of a named prayer concern. I confess that I was initially skeptical when the process was first explained, but after having witnessed it performed, I admit to being moved to tears,” he says.

Coombs finds that an experience of only a few minutes can demonstrate multimedia’s power for good. For example, he pairs a Luke 1:26-38 reading (or telling) of the Angel Gabriel visiting Mary with the brief sonogram video clip “Let It Be,” produced by Lumicon.

Sometimes he plays two brief videos (1 and 2) to show how digital storytelling speaks to people of different generations in his church.

Coombs also explains what digital storytelling has in common with other worship arts.

“Digital storytelling, as I understand it, involves the telling of a sacred or biblical story through the use of digital presentation technology, such as projector and screen or audio backdrops, or in support of a ‘live’ telling or liturgical drama.

“In this way, digital storytelling, biblical storytelling, and liturgical dramas all have the same end—to get the words off the printed page and give them life and breath so that people can experience them as real-time events. Digital storytelling places greater emphasis on visual and sound possibilities offered through technology,” he says.

Start with simple equipment

If all you plan to do is project words, you don’t need to spend a lot. Radosevic says, “My friends Len Wilson and Jason Mooresay in their book Digital Storytellers: The Art of Communicating the Gospel in Worship that using a screen just to project words is like taking a jumbo jet to the grocery store.”

Crowley says that if you don’t have a screen, it’s easiest to project images on walls in a darkened space. That’s why evening services are good times to experiment with projection. You can also project on to scrim (lightweight fabric used as theater scenery). You can get by with an inexpensive projector or even an overhead projector.

Coombs recommends a specific order for prioritizing multimedia purchases. First, he says churches should improve their sound system. “Bad sound can kill even the best visual experience,” he says.

Next, when you’re ready to use a screen in worship, he advises buying “a modest set-up of a laptop computer, a 2,000-lumen projector, and a screen big enough so that the person in the last pew doesn’t have to work to see the visuals clearly.”

Learn as you go

After you’ve got your hardware, Coombs suggests mastering one piece of software before you buy another.

“Build your presentations slowly. The first few times may seem like more work than it’s worth, but with experience, your preparation time will decrease markedly. If you’re using PowerPoint to start, then try to learn at least one new feature each time you use it.

“Do only as much as you’re capable of doing. Don’t worry about making it a profound visual experience every time. At first, maybe you’ll just put up a few images. Next you might learn how to keep a slice of the main visual metaphor on screen while you project lyrics or Scripture.

“The learning curve may seem steep at first, but once a certain competency is reached, you’ll feel like a pro in no time,” he promises.

Though you can buy a multitude of worship graphics, video clips, and more, Coombs reminds worship leaders to start with the Bible story, let the Spirit speak, and then start brainstorming about how to produce or find visual resources.

Or, as Crowley explains in her books A Moving Word: Media Art in Worship and Liturgical Art for a Media Culture, keep your focus on the liturgy and the people involved in it.

That focus will keep you from being overwhelmed by all you could buy or do or produce. In fact, if your congregation is very traditional and highly liturgical, Coombs notes that “cutting edge soundtrack and video probably isn’t going to work well. A little sanctified common sense goes a long way when it comes to building acceptance for digital technology.’

Value visuals

Starting small and learning as you go will help you do a good job of introducing liturgical media arts. Better that than over-reaching during your first attempts.

Radosevic notes that congregations are often most receptive to multimedia experiments when they’re offered on “special Sundays,” such as a youth service, fifth Sunday, or a service led by a guest pastor.

“If your sermon uses digital media, then do it right. Put money in the budget to hire someone who knows how to do it or else send people to continuing education events so they get trained,” Radosevic says.

Besides paying for training, valuing visuals means choosing images with the most potential to help worshipers meditate or see God or faith in a new way.

That’s why Crowley cautions against being too literal in matching images and words. For a reading of the creation story (Genesis 1:1-2:4a), your first impulse might be to find stock photos or film footage of sunrises (“Let there be light”), flowers and fruits (“Let the land produce vegetation”), birds (“Let birds fly”), and so on. Crowley says this would simply be a visual cliché.

She says the power of media art comes from juxtaposition, because the way you set images, words, or sounds against another changes what they mean. Crowley says, “We can produce media art that invites people in, because they need to interpret it. They need to wrestle with this art. In their effort they may find new meaning emerges.”

So with the creation story, you might choose “stunning video footage or a single image of star fields or galaxies might be played throughout the passage. Gazing at the heavens typically moves us to awe and wonder. This kind of attitude is apropos when listening to the creation story.”

Engage more people

Digital storytelling engages people in two ways. It involves more people in planning worship and it helps worshipers worship more deeply.

“If liturgy is the work of the people, this has made our worship at Trinity more liturgical,” Coombs says. “Worship planning used to be me, the organist, and choir director. I’d sit at my desk, grab prayers for resource books, open hymnals, and write my sermon.

“Now that the screen is a presence in our worship, easily twice as many people are involved. People sit at the computer, run the sound system, brainstorm visual metaphors, produce or act in videos. The people who are predominately visual learners are very happy,” he says.

During his doctoral research, Coombs found that his congregation reported being even more engaged while listening to biblical storytelling than when singing a hymn.

In Liturgical Art for a Media Culture, Crowley explains how simply producing art that might be used in worship engages people more deeply in actual worship.

She tells about 73 seventh graders at St. Bede the Venerable Church in Chicago who each made a PowerPoint meditation for possible use in an International Day of Families liturgy. Every student had to reflect on the liturgy’s theme, Scripture, and music as well as learn basic production skills. Many asked family members to help them.

Though the art of only two students was used in the service, the class viewed every student’s work. And when the religious education director invited students to help plan the next year’s liturgy, about half the class volunteered.