As a teacher, I’m well acquainted with the expression ‘Death By Powerpoint’. In fact, I use the expression myself, in order to remind myself and my students that it is easy to bore people to death using Powerpoint.
In some Christian circles (although not my own immediate circle) the use of Powerpoint in preaching is severely frowned upon. Among the reasons I have seen given are:-
- it lends a ‘professional slickness’ which is incompatible with the nature of biblical preaching
- it inhibits learning because it requires people to attend in both the visual and the auditory channels, leading to ‘cognitive overload’
- it focuses the preacher’s preparation on the technical aspects of the message, rather than its content
- similarly, it focuses the hearer’s attention on the technical aspects of the message, rather than its content
- in drawing the hearer’s gaze away from the preacher, it detracts from the inter-personal aspects of preaching
- it can make preachers lazy, by doing their job of communicating effectively for them
My response to most of these objections would be, ‘It ain’t necessarily so’. Just because something has the potential for being done badly it doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done at all.
But before I move on I want to anticipate a further, more serious, objection. Powerpoint, when properly used, is essentially a visual medium. But the Bible, you say, consists entirely of text. That’s right: and within that text is a major emphasis on the word: God creates by his word, the prophets repeatedly assert, “Thus says the Lord”, and our Lord Jesus Christ is the Word incarnate. Richard Lacey is perfectly correct when he says,
Both James and Peter state that the new birth comes through hearing and responding to God’s ‘word of truth’ (James 1.18/1 Peter 1.23). Paul argued that: ‘Faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ’ (Romans 10.17). He also insisted the Word of God is the primary means of building up believers (Acts 20.32 / 2 Timothy 3.15-16). At Pentecost it was the preached word that gathered and constituted the church.
But it does not follow that sense appeal – including appeal to the visual sense – is therefore ruled out of court. After all, the very language that Scripture uses is often vividly pictorial. Think of Amos and the basket of summer fruit, of Jeremiah and the potter’s wheel, of Jonah and the fish. Think of the vivid metaphors, the striking miracles, and the memorable parables of Jesus. Think of images of the atonement, pictures of the Holy Spirit and visions of heaven. Think of the visual aids that go along with the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
We are used to using visual aids and picture-language with children, and it is pointless to ignore the fact that most adults today have a short attention span and find the spoken word on its own difficult to assimilate. To acknowledge this is not necessarily to capitulate to our post-Christian culture, but to adopt Paul’s maxim of becoming ‘all things to all men’ (1 Corinthians 9:22).
I think, therefore, that preachers are simply following where Scripture leads when they use visual means to convey visual ideas.
Nevertheless, there are many ideas and concepts in the Bible that cannot effectively be represented visually: God, for example, or love, or the doctrine of predestination. To attempt to do so would probably be to demean the subject, or distort the message. It follows that the preacher who is committed to using Powerpoint all the time will probably either be using it badly, or, even worse, actually avoiding those subjects that cannot conveniently be supported by it.
So, there is a place, but a circumscribed place in preaching for presentation software such as Powerpoint.
One of the distinct advantages of Powerpoint is that it prompts you to think clearly, visually, and in a well-structured way. All of this means that I find that if I’m using Powerpoint I don’t need fully-scripted sermon notes. In that way, I find that Powerpoint actually aids the more extemporaneous approach that I’m currently aiming for in my own preaching.
As for the argument that people can only assimilate information in one channel at a time, well I think it’s rather suspect. When Jesus told the parable of the Sower, he might well have had a real sower in his sights at the time. Would his hearers have said, “We can’t look at the sower and listen to you at the same time?” I don’t think so. The visual channel and the auditory channel can complement one another very nicely, just as in TV, films and theatre, watching and listening at the same time are part and parcel of the overall experience.
What place, then, can Powerpoint have in preaching? Here are some guidelines:-
Don’t choose texts, subjects, applications, and so on, because of their suitability for Powerpoint presentations. In fact, it should be the other way round: choose Powerpoint because (and if) it suits your text.
Do consider – given that Powerpoint will not always be suitable or even available – how to use sense appeal (including appeals to visual imagination) more effectively.
Don’t rely absolutely on Powerpoint (or any other technology, for that matter). As every teacher knows, technology is maliciously intelligent: it will let you down at the most unexpected and difficult times. So always have a back-up plan in case the projector fails or the software is incompatible.
Do be aware of what makes for an effective Powerpoint presentation. Put in a blank slide at the beginning and the end of your presentation. Keep slides simple – don’t clutter them with too much detail. Rely more on pictures than on text. Where you do use text, keep the language simple, and use a clear, large font.
Do check that everything works properly before you start. Whether you’re working from your own laptop, or the venue’s own system, you need to know that you can upload the presentation safely, that the various cables are plugged in properly, that the projector works, that you know how to advance the slides, and so on.
Don’t look at the screen more than you look at your hearers If possible, have the presentation running simultaneously from a laptop in front of you, so that you can glance at that rather than having to keep turning round to look at the main screen.
Don’t allow your Powerpoint presentation to draw attention to itself. When you finish your sermon, you want your hearers to think, “Isn’t God great!” not, “Wasn’t that clever!”