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Friday, October 15, 2010 

PowerPoint In Church



Dr. Gene Edward Veith over at his Cranach blog had a post up on Monday titled “PowerPoint corrupts absolutely” in which he highlights a critique of PowerPoint by Edward Tufte in the magazine Wired. From the linked article Tufte writes:

Imagine a widely used and expensive prescription drug that promised to make us beautiful but didn’t. Instead the drug had frequent, serious side effects: It induced stupidity, turned everyone into bores, wasted time, and degraded the quality and credibility of communication. These side effects would rightly lead to a worldwide product recall.

Yet slideware -computer programs for presentations -is everywhere: in corporate America, in government bureaucracies, even in our schools. Several hundred million copies of Microsoft PowerPoint are churning out trillions of slides each year. Slideware may help speakers outline their talks, but convenience for the speaker can be punishing to both content and audience. The standard PowerPoint presentation elevates format over content, betraying an attitude of commercialism that turns everything into a sales pitch.

So, Tufte is making a case that PowerPoint is nothing more than a bullet driven commercial sales pitch. As somebody who has had to sit through what seems endless hours of PowerPoint presentations on the exciting world of metrology and measurement uncertainties in relation to mass standards, I couldn’t agree more with Tufte’s assessment that often such presentations are merely a “pushy style (that) seeks to set up a speaker’s dominance over the audience” and rarely is useful in actually conveying information or teaching.

I was actually somewhat surprised that nobody on Dr. Veith’s blog brought up the copious use of PowerPoint in many of today’s churches. Heck, has anyone been to what passes for mission churches lately? Without projectors scrolling the words of Days of Elijah to croon along with the band and/or giving the seekers something pithy to fill in on their sermon outlines, most of these soul willing congregations would be lost as an SED mystic thumbing through a Pauline epistle (trust me, you don’t get more lost than that!).

But is there an actual problem with PowerPoint being used in churches or missions or is the issue one of aesthetics? I would argue the former and not the latter.

For the last ten years consultants and church growth experts have made repeated claims that the church must look as much like the culture as possible so as to attract the unchurched seekers that, we are told, stay away from church because it is foreign to them. What better way to blend into the culture than adopting the basic sales tool of corporate America?

But as Tufte points out in his piece; PowerPoint has little to do with actual teaching or conveying of useful information but rather “PowerPoint’s pushy style seeks to set up a speaker’s dominance over the audience. The speaker, after all, is making power points with bullets to followers.” Tufte goes so far as to suggest that it would be better for children burdened with teachers who insist on using PowerPoint “if the schools simply closed down on those days and everyone went to the Exploratorium or wrote an illustrated essay explaining something.” Do we think less of churches that should be caring for our immortal souls than we do of schools?

With Scriptural literacy and Biblical understanding at a point in this country that even atheists and agnostics seem to have a better understanding the Christian faith than do Christians, we don’t need to be dumbing anything down but rather we should be ramping up catechetical instruction like nobody’s business. We need to start believing the apostle Paul (I know this will be difficult for the more mystic minded SED employee) when he says in Romans 10:17

So faith comes by hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.


Notice that the apostle didn’t say write spiffy pamphlets or slideshows with easy to read bullet points. Faith for us poor miserable sinners comes through the preached word! Believe it, it’s true! If faith came by reading bullet points wouldn’t the new atheists (who know Scripture better that most Christians but choose to reject it as foolishness or mythology) believe this Good News and be saved? Does anybody seriously think that Christopher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins are going to come to faith through a Sunday morning PowerPoint presentation? If not, then why would we expect a dissimilar result when we subject the unchurched seeker to the same? Do we really expect the faithful believer’s faith to be sustained through a PowerPoint presentation? If the answer to that question is yes, I would love to hear someone honestly try to make his or her case from Scripture or the Lutheran Confessions. Really, I would pay some serious coin to hear that apologetic argument.

So just stop with the PowerPoint nonsense in churches folks! No matter what they told you in your church worker’s outreach extension course at Concordia University in Cowsbreath, the sacrament of PowerPoint saves nobody and entertains even fewer. On top of that, such goofiness during a Sunday service only ends up endangering the rescued kittens of a certain slack jawed yokel blogger (see embedded picture to see what’s at stake) and nobody wants that… do they?

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So, the God of all creativity, who created the universe, stars, rivers, color, music, images, art, order, thousands upon thousands of species of insect, animal, bird, and every kind of creature must be limited by us only using spoken words in our services? You are limiting the creative nature of the Creator.

Obviously powerpoint's never going to save anyone, and I completely agree that dry, bulleted, corporate powerpoint presentations are useless, but on the other hand...

Exodus 31:1-11 speaks of God specifically giving artistic skill to Bezalel and Oholiab in order to "devise artistic designs" and "to work in every craft" in the construction and decoration of the Tabernacle.

If what you're saying is true that the spoken Word of God should be the only element necessary in public worship, why was the temple and tabernacle specifically commanded by God to be adorned so lavishly?

If an artist is to come to us and says, "I feel that I have been called with artistic skill to provide helpful supplementary imagery to the pastor's sermon in his screen presentation" are we to deny his request to serve with those gifts because it's just a "pushy style (that) seeks to set up a speaker’s dominance over the audience?"

Wasn't the purpose of stained glass artwork to help tell Biblical stories through the use of imagery? Couldn't a powerpoint presentation, used with creativity, do the same thing and not just "set up (the) speaker's dominance"?

I completely agree with you that churches have become too much like our culture, but why are the artists hanging out in damaging communities instead of being encouraged to use their skills to magnify God's greatness in our churches and worship services?

Sincerely,
Ryan

Ryan, thank you very much for your thoughtful comments. I apologize for not answering you sooner but I don’t usually check email or even go onto the internet after 4 or 5 on Friday. Let me start off my addressing some of your points:

“So, the God of all creativity, who created the universe, stars, rivers, color, music, images, art, order, thousands upon thousands of species of insect, animal, bird, and every kind of creature must be limited by us only using spoken words in our services? You are limiting the creative nature of the Creator.”

I’m not saying that only spoken words should be used in our worship services, in fact I’ve called the rich hymnody we sing on Sunday a sung confession on more than one occasion. In addition, it is not possible to for human beings to limit the creative power of God. The purpose of the Divine Service is not so that we can display our gifts and talents but rather it is where our Lord serves us (hence “Divine Service”) through the Word preached purely and the Sacraments administered rightly. The Divine Service is therefore structured to put us in a box to make sure our attention is focused on our Lord and not each other’s unique gifts.

“Obviously powerpoint's never going to save anyone, and I completely agree that dry, bulleted, corporate powerpoint presentations are useless, but on the other hand...

If an artist is to come to us and says, "I feel that I have been called with artistic skill to provide helpful supplementary imagery to the pastor's sermon in his screen presentation" are we to deny his request to serve with those gifts because it's just a "pushy style (that) seeks to set up a speaker’s dominance over the audience?"”

I think you and I are on the same page concerning how useful PowerPoint is in actually teaching and communicating ideas. If the congregation is busy reading bullet points, are they actually listening to the sermon? I would be asking the same question of a corporate sales guru. The fact of the matter is that very little information is imparted when any organization, whether it’s a church or a Fortune 500 company, uses sales gimmicks. So, then we need to ask, why use PowerPoint if people are going to have to divide their attention between a series of slides with bullet points or graphics and their pastor who should be teaching and comforting them with the message that Christ died for their sins according to the Scriptures?

Let me ask you this, do you think it’s a good idea to let teens text message while they are supposed to be driving? Certainly not, because they can’t focus on the road if they are busy reading and writing messages to their friends. If staying on the road for the sake of their young lives is important enough to tell the ragamuffins that it’s not allowed, shouldn’t we be just as concerned with the eternal souls of the members of our churches? Why would we allow a comparable distraction in church that we wouldn’t afford our children while on driving around?

continued from previous comment…

My post is not about limiting artists to venues outside of the walls of the sanctuary. It’s true that throughout history artist have glorified God in their craft. But care was usually taken to insure that focus of the artist’s endeavors was to always point back to Scripture and Christ (as in all those beautiful stained glass windows I got to see when I lived in Europe, sadly churches are moving away from such things but that is another post…)

Let me make clear what I hinted at in the post: the use of gimmicks and slick entertainment is a lack of faith in what the preached word is promised to accomplish in Scripture. If Scripture says “faith comes by hearing” then we should believe it and rebuke those who say otherwise! I’ve heard the case made more than once in my time on district mission boards that we need to worry more about getting folks in the door and stop worrying about looking so much like a traditional church. The whole looking to PowerPoint as if it were a divine sacrament of the blessed Church of the Divine Spreadsheet as if it were able to reach those who are lost is the fruit of unbelief and needs to be corrected.

My post is really all about silly gimmicks advocated by people who have told me that “traditional worship is boring” and that we need to look to new ways to reach the lost. I just don’t buy that argument and it is frustrating to me as a former atheist that people want to make my church look more like the sales meeting I attended last week in at the Hampton Inn.

Thanks for your helpful response! It cleared up some things for me about where you're coming from. I really appreciate you taking the time to write back and me see more of your perspective.

And it's not really a mere matter of "theological concern vs. aesthetics," either. The question of aesthetics is an important one, because it communicates something-- something that needs to be in line with the church's theological confession.

As someone with iffy vision (and small kids) who spent her young adult life doing PowerPoint in church and, when an audience member, always straining to see the screen properly... who now can attend a whole service easily looking at a hymnal or even going by memory... you'll never find me commending PP again!

And as an artist myself... you don't just go up to your pastor, say that you "feel called" to express yourself artistically in the midst of a church service, and expect it to happen. Again, that was what most of my young adult Christian life looked like, and adults around me encouraged it. It was couched in pious terms and feelings and zeal, but it was truly horrible self-indulgence. If your service is in a format where that kind of stuff just isn't used (i.e., PP presentations, solo performances, etc) then it becomes a non-issue anyway. My drawing and guitar-playing skills aren't any less sanctified because I don't do them in the midst of the Sunday morning assembly.

Here's a piece a friend of mine wrote on the topic some time ago.

Ecclesiastical PowerPoint: A Cost/Benefit Analysis

I agree with Ryan on this one Frank. I also believe that Power point can have its uses and it beats congregants shuffling through the bulletin during worship -- which they do. Bullet points give the listener a take away -- things to remember and apply God's word in their lives. Scripture also tells us to be doers of the word and not just hearers -- I believe if used well, power point is a great aid to worship. We use it once in a while at our home church. Our pastor also uses outlines in his sermons for people to fill in the blanks and have tangible notes to take home. I think those are good things.

deanaohara, What points do you agree with Ryan on? It's clear from Frank's comments that he was not talking about limiting artists in their creativity in a worship service. In fact, Ryan appears to agree with Frank's basic point when he comments "Obviously powerpoint's never going to save anyone, and I completely agree that dry, bulleted, corporate powerpoint presentations are useless"

What kind of "home church" do you go to? Is a "home church" something like a house church where a pastor teaches in his or a members home?

PG

PG, I believe Deana goes to multiple churches and her home church is her home church.

Deana, “Scripture also tells us to be doers of the word and not just hearers” Are you really gonna argue that St. James is saying that we should alter the way we conduct church services (or catechetical instruction even if that is not what I’m addressing in the post) from this verse? Really? Are you really going to take a verse that applies to our sanctified good works, where we perform acts of mercy for our neighbors and our brothers in need, and apply to what we do in church? Really? Please Deana, if you are going to quote Scripture to me, please quote it in the proper context because allegorizing God’s Word is not allowed here, especially not when discussing what the Church is called to do.

Now, since I’m not talking about good works and instead am focusing on what goes on in church, specifically during Sunday worship, do you care to address Tufte’s argument that PowerPoint presentations are not really about the material but rather about drawing focus toward the presenter? Or, how Tufte argues that such a format offers next to nothing in the way of actual instruction? Is this what you mean by implying that what the hearers of sound biblical teaching need is “a take away -- things to remember and apply God's word in their lives”? How exactly is PowerPoint bullet points edifying for the Body of Christ when even the secularists acknowledge its failure in the area of authentic or quantifiable teaching in the corporate world?

If you think it is a bad idea to be “shuffling through the bulletin during worship” how do you justify people dividing their attention between reading the bullet points on the screen AND filling in the blanks in their outline AND listening to the sermon? Why in the world would they be “shuffling through the bulletin during worship” anyways? The congregant’s attention should be focused on the person in the pulpit who commanded by our Lord to rightly handle the Word of God and proclaim both Law and Gospel in the preached word and not on gimmickry flashing across a screen.

Also, will you please make the case for “take aways” when biblical literacy is at a record low in this country? When Jesus says in the great commission that we are to teach all that he has commanded I don’t see how that can possibly be accomplished through “take away” bullet points that we can apply to our lives from Scripture? You call yourself a confessional Lutheran; can you site one of our confessions to make your reductionistic case?

Finally, do you believe that faith comes by the hearing of the word of God? What exactly is it we are doing on Sunday morning when we gather if it is not to HEAR the word of God? Seriously, what are we doing on Sunday morning?

Wow Frank, you take a simple comment and jump all over me? I don't get it, we've had many conversations and you know exactly what I mean by "doers" -- apply God's word to our lives and live it out. Which has nothing to do with salvation and everything to do with sanctification. Is there any such thing as a calm conversation with you? -- I don't pick fights with you. All I made was as simple comment, that power point can help in teaching and that I like my pastor's outlines (which include scripture jeesh) -- at least you got my "home church" correct. I attend the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Our Savior, LCMS Tulsa. That is my home congregation. I also attend a mission start from time to time I sometimes visitedanother lcms church that practices Catholic Mass (as in RC, and NOT universal) I stopped going there.

Deanna,

A couple of points…

First, I’m not jumping all over you and no, I’m not going to assume I know what you mean. The problem with my guessing what you meant is that you and I speak in very different languages even if we use the same words. I am more than capable of communicating with those outside of my own theological traditions but when you write your “doers” comment in the context of my post it makes no sense to me at all. I would have written the same response to an anonymous commenter or even to my own pastor or synodical official had he or she wrote it.

Even the business world acknowledges that very little information is imparted through the use of PowerPoint so why on earth would our churches use such gimmickry when Biblical literacy is at such an abysmal level. To quote a friend of mine commenting on the post in a more public setting “If you preach well enough and you preach Law and Gospel, we don’t need to know what your outline looks like, we really don’t. People don’t take these home and study them, sorry to break it to you. But they will take home with them is the rightly handled Word of God and proclamation of both Law and Gospel. Try that some Sunday, you might find out fewer people are falling asleep during your sermon and Frank Gillespie won’t have to kill any more kittens.”

The purpose of the church is not to give out life application tips through bullet points or any other means. This is something I often hear from my reformed friends and family but this is not the Lutheran confession of what Christ’s church is called to do.

Second, are you saying that there is a LCMS church that purports to be resacrificing Christ as the Roman church does? Who is doing this abominable act that is in direct conflict with both Scripture and our Lutheran confessions? If this is going on it needs to be brought to light immediately so that such an errant congregation may be brought under church discipline! Such a practice robs the Christian of the comfort of Holy Supper where Christ feeds His sheep through the Blessed Sacrament and needs stopped!

I'm speaking from a student perspective - even in the pews. I forget things shortly after sunday at it really helps me to have my outline to refer to. When pastor uses powerpoint to show the fill ins -- usually a scripture reference, I write it down and then take my half sheet home, study it, look up the references, pray and try to apply what I learned this week into my life. That's where the DO came in. I want to do what the Bible says. As for the rest, this is my last visit, you have no room for view points other than your own and we've had that conversation before too -- don't blame the 'we use different words' arguement. the only words you listen to are the ones that agree with your point of view. and that's fine -- just turn off the comment section on your blog. -- take care Frank - God's blessings.

“As for the rest, this is my last visit, you have no room for view points other than your own and we've had that conversation before too -- don't blame the 'we use different words' arguement. the only words you listen to are the ones that agree with your point of view.”

Deanna that is simply not true. I’ve had guest writers here at POTF that aint even Lutheran and I always allowed people to speak their mind. The fact of the matter is that I hold to historic and confessional standards and will not allow the Gospel or what we do in the Divine Service to be allegorized into something that is foreign to the Christian church no matter who does it, even you.

That fact that I dealt with you in a composed and poised manner after your first hysterical comment is proof positive that I allow other people to voice their opinions and can even have a “calm conversation.”

“I sometimes visited another lcms church that practices Catholic Mass (as in RC, and NOT universal) I stopped going there.”

There is also the matter of holding someone like yourself accountable for lying or slandering people who follow the western rite of the Divine Service just because they reject what you do in your home church. You need to repent and ask for their forgiveness!

ANON, just wanted you to know I did NOT delete your comment... it (they) showed up in my inbox but for some reason aint getting posted to the blog. If Blogger doesn't put up by th end of the day, I'll manually repost it for you.

Ms. Ohara, the fact that Frank allows comments, like yours for instance, without deleting those he disagrees with is proof positive that he listens to other peoples views. If you would actually read the post (or comments if you need further clarification) you might actually see that Frank’s post is not about what you do with your notes at home but rather what goes on in church on a Sunday morning. You’re talking about a topic that is not even being addressed in the post. Maybe if you quit with the ad hominem and straw man attacks you might see that it’s apparent Frank is more than willing to engage you in a conversation. Ms. Ohara, the fact that Frank allows comments, like yours for instance, without deleting those he disagrees with is proof positive that he listens to other peoples views. If you would actually read the post (or comments if you need further clarification) you might actually see that Frank’s post is not about what you do with your notes at home but rather what goes on in church on a Sunday morning. You’re talking about a topic that is not even being addressed in the post. Maybe if you quit with the ad hominem and straw man attacks you might see that it’s apparent Frank is more than willing to engage you in a conversation.

Wow you all don't sound like Christ, thought that was our goal? Do you own a printed bible? Or is it only acceptable to listen to an audio version?

“Wow you all don't sound like Christ, thought that was our goal? Do you own a printed bible? Or is it only acceptable to listen to an audio version? ”

Wow, you sound like you didn't read either my post or the linked article in wired... Tufte's point was, if you actually read the linked article you might have got the point, that flashing a series of points in the visual manner that PowerPoint employs does not actually convey information and is little more than an old fashion sales pitch wrapped up in tech. Again... “Tufte points out in his piece; PowerPoint has little to do with actual teaching or conveying of useful information but rather “PowerPoint’s pushy style seeks to set up a speaker’s dominance over the audience. The speaker, after all, is making power points with bullets to followers.” Tufte goes so far as to suggest that it would be better for children burdened with teachers who insist on using PowerPoint “if the schools simply closed down on those days and everyone went to the Exploratorium or wrote an illustrated essay explaining something.” Do we think less of churches that should be caring for our immortal souls than we do of schools?”

“Do you own a printed bible? Or is it only acceptable to listen to an audio version?” I'm having trouble understanding if this is just snark or a complete lack of reading comprehension on your part so I'll give you the benefit of the doubt; of course I own a printed Bible and I read it daily. No, I did not say that it is only acceptable to listen to an audio version... that was just you not reading either what I said or what Scripture says is the means we are brought to faith; by hearing of the Word by those undershepherds that preach the Good News every Sunday when we go to church.

Also, if you cant accept Tufte's thesis then also look at Peter Lawler's article that was just put up yesterday that makes the exact same point: http://bigthink.com/rightly-understood/jeff-bezos-and-the-end-of-powerpoint

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