Well, today was a first for me. I was asked to teach a university class. A friend of mine who is head of the music department at Johnson Bible College had me come out to teach his Worship Technology / Media class a lesson on Easy Worship software and visuals in worship. So… I put on my best sweater (I would have worn a sweater vest if I had one), made some notes, and went out to the college. It was a lot of fun… one of my dreams used to be to become a college professor so this was a little taste of that. I don’t think I’d be any good at it all the time, but for an hour, I don’t think I sucked too bad. Or maybe I did… don’t tell me.
One of the handouts I made for the students was called “Guidelines for Visuals in Worship“. I thought it might be of use to some of you here. These are just a few of my thoughts on creating visuals for worship services… certainly not an expert opinion, but from my experience, these are some guidelines that might help.
1. Know your audience – This is probably the most common mistake I see in churches. Not all visuals fit with every audience. If your church is made up of primarily an older crowd, maybe MTV style quick-cutting video backgrounds aren’t the best choice. If your church is in a rural community, maybe big city background images aren’t going to connect. If you are doing visuals for a youth / college service, maybe that waterfall isn’t as cool as you think it is. Try to find visuals that will connect with YOUR congregation… it might not be exactly what you would want, but you can’t go wrong trying to choose images that will be right for the most people.
2. Less is more – Another big problem… especially when creating visuals that will go behind song lyrics, keeping it simple is essential. When choosing video clips, you generally want to find clips that don’t have a lot of motion, don’t have a lot of quick edits, and most importantly, clips that don’t change from dark to light frequently. All of these things can make it extremely difficult to read the lyrics. When choosing still images, try to select images that have some empty space where the lyrics can go. Don’t put lyrics over busy parts of the image. The simpler an image, the better it will probably be.
3. Hold the cheese – I’m not against waterfalls, really, I’m not… God made them and they are beautiful. But I’ve been in worship services where every song was set against a lovely waterfall background (or waves breaking on the beach… or trees swaying in the breeze… or a sun slowly setting… you get the idea). Again, these things are fine in moderation… but remember that you are allowed to use things other than nature footage! Look at some of the websites I’ve included for examples of non-nature backgrounds.
4. Pick a font and go with it – Don’t change fonts on every song. A consistent look will help with the flow from song to song. Also, avoid any type of script or handwriting font… they are always hard to read. Also, avoid common word processor fonts (Times New Roman and Arial). Most people use these to project and if you use a slightly different font, it can give you a distinct and stylish look. I really like Gil Sans MT (which is the font used for Common Worship) or Trebuchet MS (which is just cool)
5. Know your Software – Get to know your presentation software and use it to your advantage. For example, in Easy Worship, you can control things like text color, shadow, outline, and also placement on the screen. It doesn’t always have to be center justified top to bottom and left to right. Easy Worship allows you to move the text around the screen in the background designer… take advantage of this sometimes for a fresh look.
6. Develop a Style and Stick with It – Try to be consistent with everything you do… if your church has dominant colors in its logo / print designs, use those elements when you can. If you are going to go with a grungy, edgy style, stick with that week in and week out. If you’re going for a more middle-of-the-road look, try not to deviate too far from that look. Think about successful companies like Starbucks… they do an amazing job at branding. Everything they print, design, and sell, all has a similar aesthetic. I can recognize something as being from Starbucks before I ever see the brand name. They have been intentional about creating a look that their customers will realize. The church isn’t a business or a brand, but there’s a principle here that is worth exploring.
7. You Have a Screen, so Use it! – If you are going to be committed to using visuals effectively in worship, look for creative ways to use your screen other than during the music. Remember, you have people in the service who primarily learn through visuals so don’t sell them short! My goal in creating visuals for worship is to never let the screen go black but also to never let it be a distraction. This is a challenge and sometimes I fail, but it’s a worthy goal to shoot for. Consider using Announcement Loops, Loops of your Church Logo, Sermon slides, Scripture Slides, ANYTHING to help keep the attention of your visual learners.
8. You Have a Screen, so DON’T Use it! – Bear with me here… Visuals in worship don’t have to be limited to your main projection screen. You can really create some interesting looks by experimenting with other things. What about finding some old slide projectors (I bet you there are 10 of them in the attics of people in your church) and having some of your still images made into 35mm slides (www.slideplus.com does it for as low as $1.19 per slide). Then you can shoot these images onto big empty walls, extra screens you can make out of fabric, or even the ceiling. One cool look is to get some shiny, slightly transparent fabric and hang it about 20 feet from a wall… then shine an image on that… the image will go hit the fabric and appear to just be floating in the air (and it will also hit the wall behind the fabric but slightly bigger… trust me, it looks cool). What about old TVs? Get 8 or 10 of them… wire them together with a VCR or computer… run a thematic image or video loop during your service. What about fabric? Hit the $1.00 bin at Walmart and go nuts… you can do some cool things in a worship space with fabric. And hey, don’t even get me started on candles! Use your imagination here… you really can do a lot with a little.
9. Look Around You – One of the very best ways to get ideas is to study what other people are doing. Visit churches and if you don’t have time to do that (and if you work in a church, you won’t), then visit their websites. I don’t want to discuss the pros and cons of megachurches, but one good thing is that they usually do some pretty great stuff with visuals in worship. Look them up… surf their websites… see if you can watch their service online… call their tech people… email them… ask questions. I’ve learned a LOT by just seeing what other people do. And most importantly, don’t be discouraged… you’ll find places that have tons of money and equipment and you’ll think “there’s no way I can do that”. Well, maybe not, but don’t look to recreate the whole look… look for one idea you can use and go with that.