Almost exactly six years ago, I wrote a post discussing the use of presentation software (especially Microsoft Powerpoint) as a preaching tool.
Although I’m satisfied with what I wrote back in 2012, I would like to present now a slightly edited and somewhat expanded version of that post. The truth is that I’ve used PowerPoint quite regularly in my preaching in recent years, and I would like to reflect on my experience and that of my hearers (as judged by their occasional comments to me).
Here we go…
As a (former) teacher, I’m well acquainted with the expression ‘Death By PowerPoint’. In fact, I often used 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 less so in my own immediate circle) the use of PowerPoint in preaching is frowned upon.
In my opinion, many of the objections apply only to presentations that are done poorly. But, of course, just because something has the potential for being done badly it doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done at all.
Just trying to be up-to-date?
Geoff Thomas (who by no means rules the use of presentation software out of court) begins an article by saying ‘[the use of PowerPoint] is considered the height of being contemporary and “really communicating” to modern man. We are being urged to interweave pictures and videos during our sermons.’ I invite the reader to note the disparaging tone, which implies that those of us who support the use of presentation software are merely wanting to be considered ‘up with the times’.
Preach the Word with words (only)?
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.
But even accepting the obvious premise that the Bible comes to us in words, and words alone, this still leaves the preacher with the task of expositing the text. And such exposition will, of course, not consist of words alone, but of everything else that goes along with the words: vocal emphasis, facial expression, eye contact, bodily posture and gesture, and so on. Now, I understand the judicious use of presentation software to belong to that very process of communication: serving to draw attention to and emphasise visually what the voice does audibly.
Guy Davies is thoroughly dismissive of the use PowerPoint in the pulpit. (N.B. his blanket disapproval already makes an unbiblical assumption: that ‘preaching’ is done from a ‘pulpit’!).
Davies complains that a PowerPoint projection will either done badly or it will be done well. If it is done badly, then the whole exercise will be ‘depressingly awful’. If it is done well, then it will reek of professionalism. ‘But,’ urges Davies, ‘preaching is not meant to look professional, is it?’
Well, of course, it depends on what you mean by ‘professional’. If you mean, ‘slick, superficial and manipulative,’ then of course preaching is not meant to be like that. But it does not follow that the use of presentation software necessarily leads to these things, except in the eye of the unsympathetic beholder.
If some critics think that the use of PowerPoint leads to a ‘professional’ approach, others think that it encourages laziness. I suppose that the argument would be that putting up a few snazzy pictures saves the preacher from having to work too hard on other aspects of his task – such as exegesis and exposition. But, again, this does not follow: it is merely to confuse the misuse of a method with its proper use. Let’s be clear about this: Powerpoint does not offer a cure for lazy or boring preachers.
Focus on technical aspects?
Some complain that the use of PowerPoint focuses the preacher’s preparation on the technical aspects of the message, rather than its content.
I am willing to agree that this is a danger in theory, but not that it is a frequent problem in practice. Actually, I am persuaded that preachers often do not pay enough attention to preaching method. They may have something worth saying, but often do not know how to say it. Preachers have imbibed (knowingly or unknowingly) the attitude of D.M. Lloyd-Jones who (in his book Preaching and Preachers) seemed to be saying that anything approaching method in preaching preparation and delivery was anathema.
We would not celebrate lack of method in any other activity – certainly not in that near relative of preaching, teaching.
It is further argued by some that the use of PowerPoint focuses the hearer’s attention on the technical aspects of the message, rather than its content. This is far too sweeping a generalisation. It assumes what it intends to prove, viz., that PowerPoint can do nothing but distract a hearer from the message.
Davies says that since preaching is essential an act of personal communication between speaker and hearers, the preacher needs to be able to respond to the needs of the hearers there and then (as tested by whether they look ‘encouraged’ or ‘confused’), and modify the message, including the headings, accordingly. Davies concludes: ‘There should be an element of unpredictability about preaching because it is an act of personal communication. The ordered professionalism of PowerPoint has no place here.’ (Davies adds that ‘preachers should use as few notes as possible in the pulpit for the same reasons.’)
It’s difficult to know where to begin with this: I can only imagine a person already ill-disposed to the use of presentation software coming up with such ‘logic’. For one thing, it is assuming that preachers have superhuman powers of mind-reading to suppose that they can (or should) regularly make major adjustments to the structure of the sermon based on whether some people seem to feel ‘encouraged’ and others (maybe at the same time?) feel ‘confused’. Better to study your congregation before and after your have preached, and less so while you are preaching! For another thing, such ‘unpredictability’ as is desirable is eminently achievable while using PowerPoint. I agree that ‘preachers should use as few notes as possible in the pulpit’. My experience is that if I have designed my PowerPoint slides effectively, then they will act as prompts to me (as well as guides to my hearers), so that I don’t need (many) other notes. In other words, I am free to speak more extemporaneously, and more directly to my hearers, using well-designed PowerPoint slides. In other words, I am better able to engage in an act of personal communication with my hearers.
Using the visual channel
Some critics maintain that the use of PowerPoint inhibits learning because it requires people to attend in both the visual and the auditory channels, leading to ‘cognitive overload’.
I think we have to pronounce this fallacious. We are using two communications simultaneously not only when we watch (and listen to) a TV programme or a film, but even when we are expected to ‘follow in our own Bibles’ the Scripture as it is being read or preached.
But to engage with this a bit more fully:
I am not particularly impressed by the cliche (attributed to Confucius), ‘I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.’ That’s far too simplistic. And as for the well-known ‘VARK’ approach to learning styles (the theory that different people have differing preferences for ‘visual’ auditory’, ‘reading’ and ‘kinaesthetic’ approaches to learning, I have to say that, although it appeals to me at an intuitive level, it lacks hard evidence. Nevertheless, 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 frees me up to adopt more extemporaneous approach to preaching. In fact, I often find that I don’t need any notes other than those I have put up on the screen. The slides then serve a double purpose: they not only help the hearers to assimilate the message, but also provide sufficient prompts for me to say what I want to say. Moreover, once I have glanced at a slide to receive my prompt, I am free to talk directly to my hearers with full use of eye contact.
So, when critics suggest that PowerPoint, in drawing the hearer’s gaze away from the preacher, detracts from the inter-personal aspects of preaching, once again, I have to say that ‘it ain’t necessarily so’.
With regard to speaking extemporaneously in this way, I find that in my preparation (and even while preparing the slides themselves) I will run through in my head possible ways of expressing my ideas in words. While this is certainly not an exercise in memorisation (a terribly artificial and time-wasting method) it does mean that, at the point of delivery, I usually have available some way of putting into words what I want to say. There are certain disadvantages to this approach: it is difficult to judge how long a sermon delivered in this way will be; and there may be useful material that is omitted during to an imperfect memory. But, in my judgement, the advantages of immediacy of delivery outweighs these problems.
The approach I have outlined brings with it very considerable advantages over preaching that consists of reading from a full script. In fact, I am really quite allergic to the whole notion of ‘writing a sermon’, simply because preaching is an exercise in oral, and not literary, communication.
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.
Reduces preaching to lecturing?
Because PowerPoint is used so frequently (yes, too frequently!) in educational settings, it is tempting to think that it is more suited to lecturing that to preaching. In response to this, I would like to broaden it out by suggesting that much contemporary evangelical preaching (whether utilising PowerPoint or not) is too didactic. I’m not saying that there is too much information, but rather that the information is merely transmitted. I maintain PowerPoint, when well used, can actually help the preacher in this regard.
Dos and don’ts
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. Also, consider other ways of preaching more imaginatively, including story-telling approaches.
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. (I always print out a copy of my slide, so that I can refer to this if the projection fails.)
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. Especially, don’t turn your back on your audience. 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.
Do ensure that the slides synchronise with the spoken word. In particular, don’t leave a slide up on the screen when it is no longer relevant to what you are talking about; better, in that case, to insert a blank slide.
Don’t allow your PowerPoint presentation to draw attention to itself. This, of course, is rather subjective: one person’s ‘professional slickness’ is another person’s ‘that really helped bring home God’s word to me’. When you finish your sermon, you want your hearers to think, “Isn’t God great!” not, “Wasn’t that clever!”
Do explore the facilities offered by PowerPoint. For example, if you have access to Office 360, it will offer you some excellent suggestions about how you might lay out the material on a slide.
Other posts and articles on this subject
Why don’t you use Powerpoint? – The writer criticises poor use of PowerPoint as if there were no other use.
Powerpoint and the death of preaching – ‘Whatever is the world coming to?’ complains Guy Waters.
11 Presentation Lessons You Can Still Learn From Steve Jobs – How to sell your product with a slick, professional presentation? Maybe. But preachers can learn something from skilled communicators, without necessarily selling their souls.
Best Powerpoint Practices – From the ‘Integrative Preaching’ web site.
6 Ways To Use PowerPoint (Yes, PowerPoint!) To Help Your Audience Become Better Listeners – from Karl Vaters, Christianity Today.