Tall Tales of Visual Worship

Posted by Stephen Proctor on August 01, 2012.

Author: Stephen Proctor

Introducing artistic, visual worship elements that illuminate blank sacred spaces can produce many kinds of reactions. This can make for some timely conversations about the role of art in communal worship. If you’re stepping into the realm of leading visual worship, this article is for you.

When humans experience something moving, powerful, and mysterious, we want to explain it away. Our Western mindset has been conditioned to answer all questions and draw lines in the sand. We long for the mysterious, but we hate it at the same time (ie LOST).

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to understand why an experience is powerful. We need understanding and wisdom. We need to ask “why?” But sometimes the conclusions we draw lack understanding. And if we seek to fully explain the Mysterious, we end up with shallow philosophy and theology.

If we seek to fully explain the Mysterious, we end up with shallow philosophy and theology.

I’ve heard many ideas on this ancient practice of visual worship. Some have challenged my thinking and have formed my approach. Others I strongly disagree with. Many of those are well-meaning statements, filled with cliché Christianese phrases that sound nice. And they unknowingly undermine and devalue the mysterious power of worshiping God through our eyes.

Here are a few of those popular, well-meaning conclusions that have turned into myths, urban legends, and rumors of what visual worship is all about.

“Visual Worship is for the next generation.”

At the dawn of visual media in the Church, youth groups embraced new technologies, and it slowly trickled down to the adult worship services striving to be more “relevant.” As art re-integrates with the Church, and as the visual media industry matures, so do our opportunities to include the entire family in visual worship. God has given us eyes so we can worship Him through what we see – both in life and in church services.

Sure, some people are more wired for visual language and beauty than others, but age and culture have little to do with it. I was convinced of this when I VJ’d for Travis Cottrell in a small, country church filled with elderly people. They were a very conservative crowd. I lead visually the same way as if there were college students in the room. I’ve never gotten so many positive responses to a visual worship experience in my life as I did that night.

When the visuals point to Christ (whether literally or abstractly), the gaze of your soul (young or old) is aimed upwards and your eyes are fixed on Him.

When the visuals point to Christ, the gaze of your soul is aimed upwards and your eyes are fixed on Him.

“Visual Worship is for reaching the lost and unchurched.”

Visual Worship is not a gimmick to help grow your church. It’s not about entertaining or impressing people. Sadly, I see many churches treat it as such. It’s all out of good intentions, but there is such a greater opportunity at hand. We can use the same tools that can scream Lights, Camera, Action! to declare Father, Son, Holy Spirit!

We can use the same tools that can scream “Lights, Camera, Action!” to declare “Father, Son, Holy Spirit!”

Visual art and media in a worship service should serve everyone: churched and unchurched. And art will lead everyone in different ways. But if you make it all about “reaching the lost,” it will quickly become inauthentic and bottlenecked. All are invited to His table of Beauty.

“The fate of souls hinges on the perfection of our service programming and execution.”

I’m a perfectionist. Ask anyone who’s worked with me on an event. I’m a slide nazi. Typos, late slides, and poorly formatted lyrics are like out of tune instruments. Whether or not I’m running lyrics, I will politely but firmly make sure it’s corrected.

I desire to experience worship services that flow well – filled with moments that compliment each other and transition smoothly. I can’t stand it when a gathering gets complicated and overrun with disconnected information. #LessIsMore

But I’ve heard if a worship service is full of distractions, we’ll lose people’s attention and the fate of their souls hangs in the balance. I hear about all the new and unchurched visitors who might never come back because a service was full of hiccups. (This is where I slam on the brakes.)

If someone doesn’t join your church because your service wasn’t perfectly executed, that’s probably a good thing. Church is about community living life together. And for crying out loud, I think God is big enough to speak to someone and save their soul despite our mistakes, distractions, technical failures, and lack of artistic abilities.

I’ve been part of worship experiences where everything was executed perfectly, and the emotion in the room was as dead as a doornail. And I’ve been part of events where everything you can imagine went wrong, and the Holy Spirit had His way with His people! The Holy Spirit is neither enhanced nor disrupted by our ability to pull off a well-executed worship service.

The Holy Spirit is neither enhanced nor disrupted by our ability to pull off a well-executed worship service.

I am all for excellence, though. God is very delighted in our excellence to minister to Him. But it’s very easy to confuse excellence with perfection.

“I must have the latest, greatest technology in order to effectively lead visual worship.”

If you’ve ever read “Rework”, you’ll already know gear doesn’t matter.

It doesn’t matter how new, expensive, or cutting-edge your technology is. If you have nothing to say, it will only result in shiny, entertaining gimmicks.

If you have nothing to say, it will only result in shiny, entertaining gimmicks.

You see, visual worship is about declaring who God is. And if you know who God is and what is true about Him, then you’ll have a lot to say. We have the greatest Story in Heaven and Earth, and the Author has invited us to go and tell it!

Once you figure out how you want to tell our Story, having the right gear certainly helps. But simply having the latest and greatest isn’t going to make you a better visual worship leader.

Excellence is about stewardship and being faithful with what God has given you. It’s also about loving people well, making room for growth, and not freaking out over mistakes.

“We need to be able to see the worship leader so people will be engaged.”

I’ve just come from the a worship convention in Orlando. 5,000 conservative, mostly older pastors and their wives packed the massive convention hall. And guess what. We didn’t use IMAG during the sung worship time! (By the way, IMAG stands for Image MAGnification – when the live camera feed is on the screens.)

It was extremely refreshing. People in the very back of the hall were completely immersed and engaged. They didn’t need to see the worship leader on the screen to engage. This isn’t a conclusion based in own opinions. It comes from countless worshipers and leaders placed all around the room. It even shocked them!

Of course, it helps to have imagery that creates atmosphere and tells a story, but even visual silence can be more powerful than IMAG.

Let me share Glenn Packiam’s quote:

When the worship leader and the Object of our worship occupy the same visual space, the worshiper is easily confused consciously or subconsciously about Who the Center truly is. (from What Does the Visual Layout of Our Worship Service Say?) 

Rant Over

In all seriousness, my intentions are to help you become a stronger visual worshiper. And to do so by provoking some discussion and debate. I hope I’m doing so in a loving way that builds up the Church.

And at the end of the day, none of us fully “get it”. But I am striving for understanding and wisdom. I want to ask better questions and offer up some strong opinions/convictions on strong, Biblical visual worship.

At least that’s the rumor I’m trying to spread.

About the Author

Stephen Proctor
Stephen Proctor is a VJ, media producer, and curator of visual worship who travels all over the world seeking to illuminate the Church's imagination through moments of wonder and astonishment. He's based out of Nashville and shares resources, stories and his passion for visually creative worship on his blog, worshipVJ.com.

15 Comments

  1. Excellent article, Stephen. At my church I am responsible for designing backgrounds, announcement graphics, plus the projection of the lyrics, etc. Of course, like everyone else, I made some mistakes, but that’s how we learn.
    God is more concerned with our hearts than with perfection.

  2. That’s excellent. I’m guilty of saying it’ll bring in the unchurched ppl… ):

    But I’m excited to see where this goes. I want it at my church but man…it’s so hard to get to that point…some day!

  3. I’ve struggled with this. I really love the “less is more approach”, and we are a small church in L’viv, Ukraine with an even smaller set of volunteers. I’m the worship leader here and my pastor has asked me to get backgrounds for all of our slides… I have two qualms for this:

    1. All of our slides are in power point format, and we are using Open Office to project them. It’s only with some mental acrobatics in an already less-than-flawless system to put a background behind each slide.

    2. I don’t want to be distracting in any way to the congregation.

    An additional difficulty is that aloof our lyrics are in Cyrillic, which most free lyric-projection software either is only in beta for or doesn’t support.

    I want to make this transition and follow my pastor, but I want to do it well! Are there any lyric-projection softwares out there for free (or cheap… We’re a missions church plant…) that suppport Russian and Ukrainian fonts?

    1. David-

      Thanks for your comment. I really appreciate what you are struggling with, and the fact that you are struggling to add motion backgrounds (technically and creatively). You seem to be asking the question “WHY?” as I hear it in your comment.

      First off, yes to everything everyone else has chimed in with.
      I would also check out EasySlides – http://www.easyslides.com
      It is very popular around the world (outside of America) and supports the use of many different languages. Many of my visual worship leading friends in Hong Kong use it.
      Also, IT’S FREE!
      Of course, you get what you pay for…so it’s not the most professional software available (in light of ProPresenter) but it still gets the job done.

      as for not wanting to be a distraction… I understand. And actually agree. I think doing motion backgrounds just for the sake of doing them (or b/c “it’s the thing to do now.”) is a very poor reason to WHY it should be done… and it CAN become a distraction very quickly if you do it for those reasons (even if the pastor is asking for them.)

      There MUST be some basic vision for “visual worship” and you must know and have a good answer to the question “WHY?” if you are to be effective in using backgrounds. If you honestly don’t feel that at the moment (it’s ok if you don’t) then it’s better NOT to use backgrounds.
      But if you desire to be more visually engaging and to create an atmosphere for worship that points people to Christ…then I would definitely start experimenting.
      But START SLOW.
      and take baby steps.
      Maybe start with stills and don’t go into motion yet. in fact, I highly recommend that approach if your church is new to imagery on the screens.
      You don’t have to have it all figured out and have some grand vision to start…but at least be pointed in the right direction.
      Maybe this blog post and video will help cast some basic vision for you:
      http://worshipvj.com/why-is-visual-worship-important/

      I hope this helps.
      and thank you for being cautious!

      1. Thank you very much! I know we aren’t called to do any motion backgrounds right now… That would be way over the top. I’ll look at easy slides. I would like to know more about how stable it is.

  4. Hello David,

    I believe ProPresenter supports Russian and Ukrainian fonts. My friends @kreativity (on Twitter) lead worship in Ukraine and are doing excellent work with incorporating visual in their worship services.

    1. Thanks a lot. I’ll pray about that. $400 is more than what we can afford right now.

      1. David – Have you considered teaching songs that are simple enough that overhead lyrics are not required? To accomplish your goal you may need to employ some unconventional tactics! Best wishes!

      2. David, I just saw a free projection software at http://www.openlp.org. You can read everything on the site in many languages, including Ukranian. I don’t know if it supports Cyrillic fonts, but you can find out. Also, it is open source application, which means anyone who knows how, can improve it and add to it.
        I hope this helps.
        God bless!

        1. Thanks a lot, everyone! I will check out OpenLP again. Last I checked, it was still in Beta for projecting with Cyrillic. I would hate to use something that unstable…

          As far as teaching simple songs in worship… we do have simple songs, but the congregation’s favorite songs are all 2-3 verses, 1-2 choruses, and a bridge. We sing very deep, meaningful songs that build one concept on another with builds towards the end. A lot of the songs we sing were written in Ukrainian by locals / missionaries, and a few of them have been translated into English. They’re so meaningful, so moving… almost like the old hymns, but with electric guitar and modern, 100%-understandable language and structure.

          If you guys would like to check out the ones we have in English, I can give you links to our worship site and my YouTube page.

          So… In other words, singing worship songs is almost an extension of the sermon at our church. It’s a way that we take the truths of God’s Word and distribute them to the body of Christ. The best, most impacting songs we have for that purpose are a mile long, so I’m going to keep using projection. 😀 I like a lot of simple songs, but if that’s all we used, both me and our congregation would get tired and feel that the worship was shallow.

  5. I just realized that the link in my name was invalid… Typing on the iPad strikes again… 😛

    Our worship site – worship.golgofa.com.ua

    One of my favorite songs in English – worship.golgofa.com.ua/index.php?option=com_k2&view=item&id=132:you-are-the-light&Itemid=21&lang=en

    My youtube page – youtube.com/psa234
    Look for the video “All Glory” for a translation of a song I did from Ukrainian to English.

    1. david –

      am LOVING these videos of you guys on YouTube. Your style is simple yet beautiful…reminds me a lot of my college years which has now carried over at Journey, my home church in Nashville.

      IF this is the style you guys normally lead in, then I don’t recommend normal motion backgrounds at all as they would be way too distracting.
      Still would work really well for this style.
      Check out some links to free media on my resources page: http://worshipVJ.com/resources

      At Journey, we don’t use motion backgrounds (or hardly any backgrounds at all). We have one simple still that never changes. But we get into “visual worship” in a different way, more through stations and creating an atmosphere for worship that isn’t driven by digital projection.
      here are some photos and a story for reference and examples:
      http://www.flickr.com/photos/worshipvj/sets/72157627136788606/
      http://worshipvj.com/visual-tactile-worship/

      1. Thanks a lot! Praise the Lord! That is our normal style. I really want to do a few things well rather than a bunch of things poorly, too… Very interesting stuff you have there. Are candles and art a normal part of every Sunday service, or is that only for special events and holidays?

        1. We always have candles but the art stations only happen on special events, holidays & sometimes they make their way into a Sunday Gathering once in a while. It fluctuates.

    2. Thanks for the link, David. I will check out the songs. I live in the USA, but I am from Hungary. I have a few Ukrainian friends here.


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