Using Images in Worship

Jonny Baker

A lot of groups are reimagining worship. Part of the journey for most involves experimenting with a variety of expressions of worship - new music, liturgy, prayers, ritual, and using images and symbols. The culture we inhabit is image-based. The use of images is intuitive, natural and authentic for those that have grown up in this culture. It is also helpful in mission because it's a language and form that many outside the church relate to more readily than a culture dominated by words. Evangelicals have not got much of a history of using images in worship so there's little tradition to draw on (unlike the Orthodox and Catholic traditions). It takes some experimenting to get a feel for the language, to find what works and what doesn't.

Imagination

The key to getting going is imagination. A lot of people don't try anything new or different because they don't think they are creative. We all are. Once you get going the ideas come thick and fast. The first step feels the riskiest and hardest. Others think they haven't got the expertise - you don't need it. Still others think they can't afford it on their budget. You can do a lot for next to nothing with a bit of imagination.

Sparking ideas, not prescriptive

The idea behind these notes is to help you get started. A lot of people need some encouragement taking that first step. It can be very helpful going and meeting with and seeing what other groups are doing as a spark to the imagination. However these notes are not meant to be prescriptive. There isn't one way to do these things. One of the exciting things in worship at the moment is the amount of creativity being rediscovered. Similarly when you see what another group are doing, use some of the ideas but don't just copy. Find your own voice, your own language, your own expression of worship to God.

Choice of images

There is a large element of experimenting with what is appropriate and works in worship. A helpful starting point is remembering it's worship so the images should enhance the worship. This may seem obvious but sometimes people can get so excited about the images they are using that the focus can be all about how wonderful the latest images are rather than them being an inspiration for worship or a pointer to God. It is important to keep some kind of dialogue going within the group about what the images are saying for them and if they are helpful or not. Then the group can learn the language together, what works and what doesn't. It's a way of helping people find out how others are using the images to enhance their own worship, which in turn may help them.

The issue of quality is a difficult one. There is a balance between wanting everyone to get involved and express worship in different ways and wanting to use good quality art etc. You just have to feel your way with this but encourage people not to go in for things that are naff. A good rule of thumb is to think how friends outside the church would react to the images.

The most difficult area to use in terms of appropriateness is video. In part this is because the images are moving rather than still and so can easily become too much of a focus, particularly if they are on a big screen. You don't want to create a cinema! Also video is a very powerful form - it's important not to abuse this power just for effect. We've all experieneced being bombarded with images on the news of refugees for example. It's too easy for this kind of image if overdone or used inappropriately to desensitise people to issues of justice.

One approach to using video is to have the images focused around one idea or theme. For example during a service about Pentecost having flickering flames for 10 minutes, or images of water droplets during a prayer of confession. This way the images enhance the worship rather than become the focus. Another approach is to use more complicated sequences that might be more of a focus for a meditation or prayer.

Sensitivity and appropriateness are important, but you learn them as you go. It is worth looking out for those in the group for whom this is their thing and who seem to have a good grasp of it. overhead projectors

A lot of churches use these for song words and nothing else. Here are some ideas to try:

  • Get some coloured lighting gels (coloured acetate) and lay that over the words.
  • Design some images on computer, print them out. Get them colour copied onto acetate.
  • Get some of the group to write graffiti/paint pictures and colour photocopy them onto acetate.
  • Colour photocopy any appropriate image e.g. icons, Celtic cross, creation......
  • Rather than use the usual screen, hang a sheet up, or get hold of a roll of muslin and hang a series of strips up and project onto that, or get hold of an old parachute and project onto that.
  • Try projecting from behind rather than in front (simply reverse the image).
  • Use more than one OHP - borrow them. Hang screens at different points in the room to get away from the front being the only focal point.

Art

Have someone paint a picture during the worship service on the theme. Ideally this is best done by someone who is an experienced artist and can prepare the picture beforehand. Have paints/paper/clay available for people to draw/paint/model during the worship, then take photos of what has been produced and use it another time on slide. Or hang the pictures around the place. It's worth bearing in mind that a lot of people will need encouraging to try this kind of thing. Also the process of expressing something is as important as the end product. Encourage those with artistic gifts to produce stuff in advance either to have as sculpture, paintings, or to photograph and use on slide.

Slides

Borrow projectors - as many as possible! Often members of churches have them and never or rarely use them. They are very happy to loan them. Borrow slides. Lots of people have slides that sit in the cupboard and don't get used. Be sure to mark them clearly and look after them. Take slides. Borrow a camera. Get some people taking slides on a theme. Use shots of creation, elemental stuff (e.g. water, fire), stained glass windows, icons, abstracts, bread and wine, ..... Purchase slides. Cathedrals and art galleries often have collections of slides. With several projectors you can project images at various places in the room. Use sheets, muslin or a parachute.... You can project onto walls or the ceiling. It's a good effect with muslin to not just have a flat surface. Try creating some depth and layers. Try projecting from behind. Your imagination is the limit.

Words projected on slide look great if you can produce them. If you can get white words with a black background you can project them over an image from another slide projector or video projector. There are different ways to do this. Ask around - there may well be someone you know who could do this at work. One way is to print out laser copies on A4 of the words you want, photograph them and use the film negatives (which will be white on black). Chop them up and put them into slide frames. (You can buy a box of 100 for about 5 from a photo shop). Another way is to create a template on a computer of an A4 sheet with say 32 boxes the size of slides. Write the words into the boxes and take either the disc or a printed copy to a printer and ask for the sheet to be printed on negative film. You then get your white on black and chop them up and put them in slide frames.

Video

You obviously need at least a video player and a television. If your church has not got one, use yours or borrow one. A simple but good effect is to use two televisions. To do this you need a splitter. This plugs into the video player and gives you two outputs for the televisions. With long leads work out where to place these - away from the front is helpful so that it doesn't feel as though we are gathered to watch television. For larger scale events you can use a video projector. They are straightforward to use. Several schools, councils, youth agencies have them that you can hire. Project them onto any flat surface e.g. sheet. You can get a special screen which is helpful for back projection, but a sheet is pretty good. There are other bits and pieces e.g.. vision mixers that some people use but these are a luxury.

As with slides and OHPs build up a collection of images. Start small i.e. one image you want to use. You don't have to have video running all the time. Video material can be got from a variety of sources:

Off the shelf videos:

The 'Images for worship' series has been made specifically for use in worship. It is set out in a series of tracks on particular themes - e.g. 'Spirit', 'people' or 'environment'.

HMV have plenty of rave/fractal type videos that are good for creating a certain kind of vibe. There are computer graphic videos - the downside of these is that the images are a bit cold/clinical which isn't brilliant for worship - organic ones are a lot more 'real'.

Creation images (eg National Geographic). Lots of people have used images from the film 'Koyanasqaatsi'. Hunt around and ask around and you can find stuff.

Filmed programmes from the television - wildlife, news, documentaries,....etc

One of the difficulties can be finding a clip but it being too short. With two video players and the appropriate lead it is possible to compile a longer sequence using record and pause buttons.

Make your own:

Most people can get access to a camcorder at least. Try making some of your own images e.g.. candle burning, people, water, traffic.....

With a small bit of investment you can get a text writer to put words onto video. This can be very effective, particularly if it is a slow sequence of one or two words at a time that connect with a theme e.g. at Pentecost, different words for the Spirit - fire, wind, breath, dove, dangerous friend etc. If you can't afford this, write them and use a camcorder, or create the sequence on computer and film the computer.

Computers

It is possible to link a computer up to televisions or projectors and run everything from there. However this is more specialised and requires more software etc. If you are interested in that get some advice from a computer shop or someone who is doing it. (Often at larger events e.g. Spring Harvest, Brainstormers this technology is used).

Copyright

Copyright is a big issue. It would require a whole other set of notes to go into it in detail. If you are producing your own stuff you are fine. Other than that you need to check it out.

Outro

The overall setting for worship is very important. Things like lighting and layout affect the mood a lot so it's worth thinking everything through. The main goal is enabling people to worship in ways and forms that they can relate to. These notes have focused on image use. But ritual, poetry, liturgy, prayers, readings, scripture, meditations, poems, stories, songs, tracks are all other ways of expressing worship. Worship doesn't have to be technologically slick, it's whether it is real or not that counts.