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At a pastor’s conference this past summer I was asked what I thought about using “multimedia” (film, Youtubes, drama, art, music, etc.) to enhance sermons. I replied that I am very interested in anything that might contribute (and not detract from) the communication of the gospel.

Elsewhere, in my book Mashup Religion: Pop Music and Theological Invention, I have written about a larger concern, what might be called “parahomiletics” – i. e. modes of theological invention with homiletical impact occurring within the networks and flows of popular culture. Leaving that aside for a moment, what can we say about the sermon as a kind of multimedia “mashup?”

Before beginning, a brief definition: I’ll be using the words “medium” and “media” in a rather pejorative way here, as simply a particular means of communication in the broadest sense (video, Internet, television, digital media such as twitter, email, etc.). I will also, and perhaps more predominantly include in this term what might better be called “forms” of communication: drama, music, video, film, etc. I aspire here to street usage – or what pastors typically mean by these terms. Apologies ahead of time to my nit-picky communication scholar friends.

Let me make only a few observations from my own experience here.

First, to do it right, I find that multimedia preaching takes time, training, and coordination with whoever is in charge of seeing to it that all additional media are managed well. It usually takes a full team of people to plan and execute this kind of sermon.

Second, adding other than oral/aural media to a sermon can be distracting – splitting focus. If we have lots of other media vying with us for attention, we will lose audience focus. In other words, I find it helpful to give any other medium of communication its own space and time during the sermon. With the possible exception of running sermon “points,” I don’t like to have another medium active at the same time that I am speaking. The only exception for this occurs when I provide “voice over” or “commentary” for the photo, video, or other media event while it is being presented – i.e. when my focus is directed, along with my audience, directly onto the media presentation. In short – I don’t just have lots of other media “stuff” happening in the background or alongside my regular sermon. I give another medium its own space and voice in the sermon itself.

Third, before I use another medium of communication, I gauge my purpose. Do I want to make sure everyone is able to track my main points? Do I want to illustrate? Do I want to enhance the congregation’s geographical knowledge of first century Galilee? Do I want to increase dramatic impact? Do I want to introduce the sermon? Do I want to conclude the sermon? Do I want to enhance my sermon’s theological clarity or impact? Etc.

Fourth, I don’t limit my idea of multimedia to “presentation” media – i.e. visually projected media. There are many forms of communication to consider – music, drama, dance, digital media (twitter, other social media), etc.

Fifth, I don’t try to do all of these in every sermon. In fact, in order  to lessen distraction, and to keep a sermon moving, it is likely that within each sequence of thought in a sermon I will only be able to use multimedia support for one aspect of any sequence of thought. When preparing a sermon I like to break these aspects up into four primary possibilities (I admit the influence of my book The Four Codes of Preaching here):

  1. support the sermon’s message or outline. This is not my favorite usage. If it is done, it might be done throughout the sermon.
  2. support the theological clarity or impact
  3. support the experiential impact (illustration, narrative, culture)
  4. support the sermon’s relationship with the biblical text

With the possible exception of the first (support of message), I typically only use one of these per sequence of thought in a sermon. If the multimedia event is time consuming, it may be advisable to use only one such event for the entire sermon. The brief use of different mediums of communication in a sermon with three sequences of thought, therefore, might look like this:

MESSAGE  (Perhaps )    (Perhaps)  TWITTER (feedback)

There are many other issues, of course, for multimedia preaching – copyright infringement, generational tastes, keeping abreast of technology changes, cost of production and presentation equipment, and so on. This kind of preaching is not to be entered into haphazardly or without a team of support. It can be effective, however, when it is done well.