Sermons in a Visual Culture

By Lynne M. Baab
Kiwimade Preaching Blog, December 2009

I just returned from a research trip to Melbourne and Sydney, where I conducted interviews about visual communication and visual arts in congregations. Some of the interviews touched on the role of visual components in preaching. I heard practical ideas as well as questions and deep reflection. Much of what I heard is relevant for New Zealand preachers who desire to exposit the Bible in their sermons.

The need to consider visual components in preaching arises because of the steep increase in visual communication in recent decades. Leonard Sweet calls today’s Western culture “imageholic.” Preachers need to think more carefully than ever before about the ways they want to—or don’t want to—engage in communicating visually.

Some snapshots from my trip to Australia

A minister in a Melbourne Baptist congregation, as she studies the passage for each Sunday, thinks about art works that connect with the passage. When I visited the church, a large marble sculpture was sitting on the platform. Often she puts a painting on an easel at the front of the worship space. Sometimes she mentions the connections between the artwork and the Biblical passage, and sometimes she doesn’t.

A Uniting Church minister in Melbourne, committed to exegetic preaching, often chooses artwork that connects with the biblical passage for the sermon. That art will usually appear in three places: on an easel in the worship space, on the projection screen, and printed on the cover of the worship bulletin.

A minister in an Anglican church plant in Sydney uses a white board to illustrate the passage with drawings, charts and graphs as he preaches.

A Church of Christ congregation in Melbourne has an artist in residence who often paints during the sermon. I also visited two Pentecostal churches where artists paint during worship. In one of those churches, the words “prophetic art” were used to describe the paintings. Artists are invited to paint what they believe God is saying to the congregation, and at the end of the service, they talk for a couple of minutes about the message from God they heard and painted.

Several of the artists and ministers I interviewed talked at length about the distinction between art or graphics that illustrate a biblical passage or a concept in the sermon, and art that raises questions and makes people think about life and God. Both have value at different times, and it’s worth thinking about what both forms of visual communication— illustration and raising questions—offer as a part of a sermon.

Several of my interviewees also talked at length about the role of the visual arts in helping people feel emotions, in helping us connect honestly with what’s inside of us. One music director, who coordinates the artistic team at a large evangelical Anglican church, said,

“We’re made to express ourselves. It’s is good to elicit emotions. It’s real. We’re not trying to create or manufacture emotions. We want people to be moved toward God by what we do.”

One of the other interviewees, at a Pentecostal church, talked about the fact that helping people feel emotions as they engage with visual art enables them to turn away from negative cultural forces and give more of their lives over to God.

I want to encourage preachers in New Zealand to consider the way visual arts and visual communication can illustrate biblical passages in a way that is memorable and vivid. And I want to encourage preachers to think about the significance of art as a way to raise questions, stimulate reflection, and elicit emotions.