Tall Tales of Visual Worship
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.
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.
“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!”
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.
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.
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?)
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.