Friday, February 26, 2010

Understanding Media Types

Answering the question, "What do I use—and where?"

NOTE: This article appears in the resource The Pastor's Guide to Visual Media.

Sometimes it's strange to think about the church media landscape of the past—as I was growing up, it was a rare thing for the pastor to mention a film in a sermon, much less show a film clip or a video illustration. PowerPoint was for corporate gatherings only (aside from some awful high school speeches I took part in), and I'd never heard of anything called "MediaShout." Maybe my church was a late adopter, but I think it was probably more normal than we might remember.

Think about your own church's past—fifteen, ten, even five years ago. Would there have been a ripple of recognition if you'd talked about starting a media ministry? Would people have known what you were talking about when you discussed the resolution of the new projector you'd just asked for? Would you have gotten anything other than a blank stare if you started waxing eloquent on the merits of HD versus SD?

The point is not to criticize any church community for being "behind the times." Far from it—in fact, it would be remarkable for a church of any size to have kept up with the day-by-day changes to technology and media terminology. So if you're just starting to explore the possibility of a media ministry, how are you even supposed to know what kinds of videos exist, much less where to use them?

Fortunately, there are some fairly intuitive uses for the myriad of video genres out there. I'd like to look at five different video types and give some tips and suggestions for how you might incorporate these into your services, church functions, or programs.

Still Photos

Still images may be the most versatile pieces of media you can incorporate into your service. They can be used almost anywhere—as backgrounds for song lyrics, as still displays of art or graphics, as meditative backdrops for communion, or even as thoughtful and peaceful reflections during times of prayer and silent worship. Consider also using them as sermon illustrations—remember, still images connect to the audience in a more tangible way than an oral description of an image does. Our emotions are engaged when an image is shown to us; while sometimes it may be more appropriate to describe an image (especially if you're making an abstract point), showing an image is often a powerful complement to your sermon, lesson, or program.

Also think about using still images to evoke a mood. If you're presenting a drama taking place in a common household, display images common to a house in your context—this might vary wildly from community to community, but using an image in this way establishes an immediate emotional connection with the audience.

Above all, use still images when you want people to be drawn in emotionally but not overwhelmed by moving imagery. Static photos and artistic renderings are perfect for mood-setting and quiet reflection.

Worship Backgrounds 
These types of videos are backdrops that are meant to be used behind other types of media. So, they often contain a lot of negative space to put words, music, or other images on top of them. An important thing to remember about worship backgrounds is that many of them have a specific rhythm, so be careful to match them with whatever your purpose. You don't want to marry a deeply exegetical sermon or a time of meditative prayer to a frenetic motion backdrop. Instead, focus on finding something that moves in a way that establishes an emotional tone that will aid your purpose.


This is the media type that seems the most obvious at first—however, not all PowerPoints are made equal! The best kind of PowerPoint presentation is one that fades into the background and fits together so seamlessly that people don't think about the fact they're looking at a presentation. Therefore: Stay away from crazy transitions! And give as much thought to the fonts you put over the slide backgrounds as to the background themselves. Again, the goal is for it to look put together and polished—not ragged enough that people notice its flaws.


At first glance, loops seem almost the same thing as worship backgrounds. But there is a subtle difference: While loops can be worship backgrounds, they don't have to be. The uniqueness of loops is that they don't have to provide space for font or overlying images. Loops are videos that are literally moving pictures—essentially a camera recorded some kind of scene that can be repeated over and over again fairly seamlessly.

Use loops in the same way you would use a still image, but keep in mind that the effects of a still image are heightened by a loop because the picture is moving. So a still photo of a calm wheat field might not evoke as much serenity as a loop of the same field where the wheat moves and sways gently in the wind. Conversely, the image of a busy city street is heightened when the cars, buses, and people are actually rushing as much as they do in real life (or more, if you want to speed up the loop when you show it). As with still photos, remember that loops are best used to inspire emotion in your audience, and to set a tone that they—consciously or subconsciously—will respond to.

Video Clips

The most important thing to remember is that video clips are not the same thing as traditional, spoken sermon illustrations. These two sermon complements relate in that they both have a narrative, but they differ in that video clips show a story instead of telling it. This gives clips both drawbacks and huge opportunities. First, the primary difficulty: It's hard (but not impossible) to communicate any kind of significantly abstract point because it's much easier to lose your audience to a video clip than with an engrossing story.

However, video clips offer huge opportunities to connect with the audience on an emotional level. Video is naturally geared toward telling stories in a powerful visual medium, and these stories have emotional resonance beyond oral story-telling. If you're able to show a story about grace, with characters, a script, and video settings that seem natural, the narrative connects with the audience on an entirely different level than an intellectually rigorous exposition of grace might. It's a fine line to walk—it's very easy to let video clips slip into manipulation, because your audience will be engaged with the clips at a raw, emotional level. However, if you can identify that ahead of time and make sure you're using the media to create a mood that will serve your audience (instead of allowing your audience—and you!—to be controlled by the video), it's a powerful tool that you should use.

Hopefully this helps as you try to sort through the constantly-shifting and myriad options of church media. Be creative in your use of each media type—don't assume that just because something says "background" that you have to use it as a backdrop to lyrics, or because it says "loop" that you have to repeat it endlessly. Have fun with each type of visual and explore ways that each can shape and shift your sermon, program, or praise and worship time. Above all, be intentional with how you use them, and they will serve you well as you tell your story.

  1. Are we successfully using various types of visual media?
  2. What other type of media would work in our services?
  3. Focus on two or three of the media types. How can you use these to connect with your audience?

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