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Visual Worship, Part 3 | Imagery

Lighting and visual media are incredibly useful tools in the hands of the worship leader, producer, and planner.  In part 1 of this blog series, I discussed whether or not these tools are necessary, and in part 2, I wrote about the use of lighting.  Today, I want to talk about the use of imagery in worship – both videos and stills.

For most of us (unless we’re pastoring or leading in larger facilities with a lot of projection capability), this really means presentation backgrounds – the imagery that you show behind song lyrics – with the occasional stand-alone video or still image.

Here are some best practices I’d suggest for backgrounds:

  1. Think about colors. Your service should have a color palette that is established with the use of your stage lighting and graphics. This makes for a visually cohesive whole. Here’s what I don’t mean: everything the same color. Talk about overwhelmingly monotonous! Two to three colors is best – ones that work together well.*  If it looks obnoxious to you, there’s a good chance it will look obnoxious to your congregation.  Learn about color theory if you don’t know it already.  Here’s a great article on the subject by Camron Ware of visualworshiper.com. For sermon series, I’d suggest an ongoing graphical and lighting theme to tie the whole thing together.
  2. Think simple. Stills or motion backgrounds with lots of colors can be garish and can backfire on you if you’re trying to create a cohesive theme.  Too much motion (too fast, too big) can be distracting to say the least.  Simple motion gives the feeling of energy without pulling the congregant away from the lyrics.
  3. Think abstract. With a few exceptions, I generally stay away from recognizable imagery – especially photos or live-action video.  There’s a certain cheese factor to a lot of these type of images, and something easily recognizable can be distracting. Abstract imagery gives a sense of something, a mood, without presenting an object or place to latch on to.  You really only want your congregation to latch onto the words. Close up shots of waving grass, a somewhat blurry sunset through the trees, rippling water – videos like these can be the exceptions because, though they are real things, they are presented in an abstract fashion that makes them better for background use.  A wide shot of a landscape distracts because it’s so easily recognizable.
  4. Think in stages. There are natural phases to your worship service. Use the imagery to help define those stages.** Let’s say the “gathering” (or opening or call to worship) portion of your service consists of an opening song, a welcome, and an opening prayer.  You might use the same background imagery for each of those elements, or at least stay with the same color, then shift to another color or imagery selection with the next stage of the service. Typically in our services, there will be an unbroken string of two to three songs that we will tie together visually in this way.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but hopefully it’s helpful to you. Please feel free to leave your questions and comments. I look forward to them!

*Regarding lighting, the folks I’m addressing here are those who have very basic lighting systems. The smaller to mid-size church with a simple setup and one person overseeing the musical and visual parts of the worship ministry. Hopefully, if you have a more elaborate lighting system, you have people who really know what to do with it and can move beyond these simple uses.

*Check out Constance Cherry’s book The Worship Architect for more info on this.

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Visual Worship, Part 2 | Stage Lighting

As I wrote in part 1 of this blog series, lighting and visual media are not necessities but simply useful tools. Like any tool, to get the right results, we have to use them the right way.  So here are some suggested best practices for using lighting in worship. (These are pretty general. Specifics are outside the scope of this post.)

Define Spaces

One of the most basic functions of stage lighting is to define the space. Suppose your worship venue has a massive stage/platform.  That can lead to distraction, lack of intimacy, and lack of focus.

Use your stage lighting to light only the parts of the platform where the action is happening. If it’s music time, light only the portion of the stage where your band or choir members are standing. When the preaching time comes, don’t be afraid to change the lighting to focus only on the area where the preacher is, effectively removing other parts of the stage from view.

Use the House Lights

Something else not to fear: bringing down the house lights. You have to be careful here because a worship service is a corporate activity. Bringing down the house lights can create a greater sense of intimacy (and increase your ability to define spaces on the platform), and that’s good. However, a more intimate feel can make you forget there are other people in the room.

Corporate worship does not consist of isolated acts of individuals who happen to be in the same room. It is an action of the gathered body of Christ.

Don’t be afraid to bring the house lights down, but teach your people that they come together as one body. Help them remember (or learn for the first time) what corporate worship really is. Find opportunities to bring the lights up during your service so the people can be reminded that it’s not just “Jesus and me.”

Create Transitions

Finally, use lighting to create transitions between sections of the service.  For example, we bring all the stage lights down when we move from music to preaching (except for a few in the back of the stage). This provides a cue for people to sit and makes them aware that we’re moving forward.  It has the added benefit of removing focus from some behind-the-scenes activity (like moving equipment, stands, etc., on the platform.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and questions on these basic tips on stage lighting in worship.

Visual Worship, Part 1 | A Necessity?

We went along for years without the kinds of visuals we use in our worship services today. We read lyrics and notes in our hymnals and didn’t miss what we didn’t have.

But today we have motion backgrounds behind our lyrics on HD screens, we use mini-movies to tell stories that bring to life the ideas we’re expressing in our teaching time. People devote their lives, careers, and ministries to visual worship.

I’m going to spend a few blogs ruminating on the use of visual media in worship, beginning with a pretty basic question: I’m sure we’d miss it if it was gone, but is visual worship a necessity?

Our Job

Our job as worship leaders/pastors is not to get people to worship. That’s a standard you can’t hold yourself to because only God can influence people to worship. And if someone else is holding you to that standard, maybe you need to find a new place to serve. (You’ll probably have to eventually whether you want to or not!)

Our job – or part of it, anyway – is to, as much as it is within our power and with the tools we have available, create an environment that gives our congregations every opportunity to worship. Visual media – like music, staging, lighting – is one of the tools we have at hand. Like those other tools, it’s an imperfect one, but it’s still a useful one.

Light, color, motion, visual story-telling – these things can be used to help people move in a particular direction. So, if used appropriately in a worship setting, I believe they can be used to to help us focus our hearts and minds on God. But their inherent imperfections make this tricky.

By their very nature, visual media can monopolize our attention. They can be too flashy. They can easily become – just as musical performance can – the point of our events.

All that to say, visual media in worship is not a necessity. It’s simply one tool on the worship leader’s belt.

What’s essential is wisdom. Pray to God for the wisdom to use visual media appropriately, not to become caught up in the cool factor, to use it only when, and in ways that, will help your people come to a place where they can focus on the One who is the object of our worship. Be wise so that you don’t fall victim to the lie that, if there are no visuals, it’s not worship.

Otherwise, our Sunday worship just becomes a rock show. And kind of a lame one.

National Worship Leader Conference 2014

Last week, I traveled with four members of my worship team to the National Worship Leader Conference in Centreville, Virginia.  If you’re involved in worship ministry, and you have never been to NWLC, you need to go.  It’s an amazing time of learning, spiritual refreshment, and fellowship with others who are involved in what can be a lonely line of work – something we all need.

I shared last night with my team three takeaways that I think are going to have a huge impact on our ministry.  It was incredibly difficult to narrow it down to just three, but here they are, readers!

  1. In his workshop on inductive worship leading, Tim Timmons posed the question, “How would Jesus lead worship?”  (First off, Timmons is real, hilarious, and great fun to spend an hour listening to.) Jesus, he said, invited people into their own stories in such a way as to help them really own their response to Him.  Think about the woman at the well or the rich young ruler.  He asked them questions about their own stories that brought them to (very different) realizations about each of their places in the kingdom of God.  This is what Timmons called Inductive Worship Leading. So, as worship leaders, How are we helping people respond to Jesus? Are we just speaking to them and expecting agreement, or are we looking for ways to draw them into a genuine, personal response to Jesus?
  2. We are all in the mission field.  That’s what theologian and author Leonard Sweet told us.  And the first job of a missionary is to learn the language of the culture. This culture communicates in story. The church has tried to build an identity on words, but story is our original language. A strong identity is built on narrative, and if we can begin to rebuild our identity in our original language, we can reach this culture.
  3. Probably the most important thing I came away with is something that we all ought to know anyway, but it’s something that we forget to easily. Again from Tim Timmons: the only job I have is to seek first the kingdom of God. I can’t make people respond genuinely to Jesus.I’m just a branch. The Father is the gardener. He’s doing all the work.

Bless the Persecutor

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. – Romans 12:14

In the middle of Romans 12 – a very specific list of ways in which these Roman Christians can strive to live as true disciples and true worshipers – Paul writes this one very simple command. It’s simple, but it’s not easy.

We consider it an evil that people are persecuted for their ethnicity or politics or religious beliefs, and it is. But it’s one that we should expect. Paul tells us here how to respond when it comes. For me, this begs two questions:

What is persecution?

Growing up, I was taught in Sunday School that when people made fun of you because you went to church, that was persecution. Sure people in other parts of the world faced more extreme versions, but for us, in our culture, getting picked on was persecution.

This is not persecution.

On September 22, a church in Peshawar, Pakistan, was attacked by suicide bombers. Scores were killed or injured. Why? Because they were Christians.

That’s persecution.

I believe that we are moving inexorably toward a day when American Christians will face real persecution.  Laws are being changed that reflect our nation’s march away from tradition Judeo-Christian morals.  It seems all are “tolerated” except Christians.  One day, we’ll be persecuted, but it’s not today.

Are we responding as we should?

In America, we Christians fight for our rights.  We refuse to be persecuted.  We will not be looked down on.  Jesus tells us to turn the other cheek.  Paul tells us to bless the persecutor.

When the persecutors took Him, Jesus walked willingly to His death.

Does this mean we should simply give in?  I don’t think so.  But it does mean we need to do a much better job of keeping our egos (our pride!) in check.  It’s not about our rights.  It’s about blessing those who persecute you.  It’s about being Jesus to all those around us – even (and maybe especially) those who hate us.

What can we do differently?

We can be blessings, even when others hurt us.

We can attempt to share in (to what extent we can) and relieve the suffering of those in the world who are persecuted.  How do we do this?  Take the time to learn what is happening to Christians around the world, and help them.

Watch this video, created by a pastor in Pakistan with a direct link to the church in Peshawar that was bombed.  (Warning: it is graphic.)  Learn about what the folks at Voice of the Martyrs do, and then join them in their work however you can.  Pray for those who are persecuted.  Visit or write the prisoners.

Let’s stop fighting for our rights and start fighting for the souls of those who need Christ.

A Little Sad. And Really Happy.

I’m a little sad today.

I left a job at NASA’s Johnson Space Center today for the third time. I started work with the Public Affairs Office Web Team in May of 1999. I left in 2003 to pursue ministry in Florida, and I returned to the web team in 2008. I was laid off last September and returned to a different position at JSC in November.

As I head to my exit interview in a few minutes, I can’t help but think how big a part of my life the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has been, how much I’ve learned there, how many great people I’ve gotten to know.

I’m a little sad today. But I’m also incredibly excited.

Monday, the movers come. In a little over a week, Kacy, the girls, and I head to Maryland to begin a new adventure. I’ll be serving as Pastor of Worship and Media at Allen Memorial Baptist Church in Salisbury. This is a move orchestrated by God – no one involved in the process has any doubt about that. There are fears, questions, concerns as there always are with a move of this magnitude. (We’re leaving family, friends, and church for an opportunity 1,500 miles away.)

But I’m excited about the challenge and the joy of doing ministry full time, of embarking on the journey God has for me and my family.

I’m a little sad today. But I’m really happy.

To My Magnolia Creek Baptist Church Family

The past five years as part of your fellowship have been a blessing to me, Kacy, and our girls. We will miss you, and we pray that God blesses you greatly as you reach up in worship and prayer, reach in in fellowship, and reach out to impact your community.

It’s been a joy to serve with Brett Dutton, my friend, brother, and pastor. I’ve had a blast leading worship alongside Karen Flachman, Dianne Cook, Mike Daniher, Reid McLelland, Will Shivers, Trice Ham, Steve Shivers, and Thomas Circenis, as well as others who’ve served in the worship ministry like Christian Capdeville and Taylor Lonsford. God has built a great worship ministry at Magnolia Creek due in large part to your service and sacrifice.

We have made so many good friends that I don’t want to try to name them all because I will mess it up. Please know that we love you, and we will miss you. MCBC has been our church home and will continue to be part of us. Think of this: the DNA of Magnolia Creek Baptist Church will help shape the future of Allen Memorial Baptist Church in Salisbury, Maryland. How cool is that?!

God bless you, my church.
Jud