A few years ago I volunteered to serve on a church-wide committee of my denomination, the kind that meets in the big corporate meeting room, a glass-and-steel box that looks like all the other corporate boxes near major airports. It was a moment of weakness; I had been worn down by flattery. I am not, in my heart of hearts, a boardroom kind of person. I have come to appreciate the people who serve in our church-wide offices to be men and women of deep faith and abiding commitment. But all too often it is not only the location of these committee meetings that mimics the corporate world.
Take Randy, for example (not his real name). Get him in a pulpit or at an altar and he is a gifted preacher and minister. Have a conversation over lunch and his enthusiasm is infectious and convincing. But somehow Randy has decided he must communicate at these boardroom meetings with PowerPoint—and communication is precisely what breaks down. One of the most painful hours I have endured was watching this man, whom I know to be a gifted speaker, read the bullet points on his slides to us. All the advantages of the visual medium—the ability to show a chart or a photograph—were lacking, and the life was instantly sucked out of what I’m sure was a well-outlined, interesting story he had to tell about his ministry. I wanted to scream, “Randy, turn off the projector and just preach!”
I might be a bit more critical than most people on this point because my husband works with projector-assisted presentations all the time. He describes his occupation variously as “policy consultant,” “land use consultant,” and “economist.” Because policy work like his must be grounded in facts and figures, and because the real-life effects of these policies can be shown in architects’ drawings and photographs, the visual medium is really essential to his work. He and his colleagues need to “point”—a lot!
Ironically, however, he often finds himself instructing his coworkers and contractors to “preach.” Much of their work involves offering technical assistance to communities that are trying to curb suburban sprawl. They gather the data, talk to “stakeholders,” and facilitate town hall meetings. They learn about the needs of the community as it grows, the concerns about preserving quality of life, and environmental challenges to the area. And then they put their expertise to work in constructing creative solutions. There is a great deal of technical expertise and a lot of jargon in their internal conversations as a team. But when the final presentation to the community comes, they need most of all to inspire. “Nobody cares how this plan stacks up technically against any other community’s,” he tells his team. “They need to know that they can accomplish their goals, that these tools will work for them, and that when we leave here it is worth their committing to a plan.” They need, in other words, to be preached to.
Plenty of communications experts have commented on the mind-numbing limitations of PowerPoint, especially when users follow the “templates” that Microsoft provides. The most important “points”—that is, the passion—are lost in bullet points. All too many preachers, attempting to be “relevant,” make themselves the servants of the slides, losing the power of the biblical and community narrative to inspire. Film and photograph can at times serve useful purposes in preaching, but since most preachers are trained to start with word rather than image, the visuals often feel like a tack-on, or worse, an attempt to manipulate emotion because our words have failed to move anyone. Edward Tufte, one of the most outspoken critics of PowerPoint, argues that the software too often becomes the presentation rather than a tool to support the message. In Wired magazine, that cheerleader of all things new and digital, he has written, “PowerPoint is a competent slide manager and projector. But rather than supplementing a presentation, it has become a substitute for it. Such misuse ignores the most important rule of speaking: Respect your audience.”1
“But what about younger generations?” the question always arises. “Isn’t it essential to use electronic media to reach people under 30 these days?” Yes, and no. To be sure, youth and young adults are more Web-savvy, more immersed in the images and stories of pop culture than ever before. But my experience is that PowerPoint is too often used, just as Tufte warns, with a disrespect for younger audiences. It is condescending to assume that a person under 30 lacks the attention span for a well-told oral story. Stand-up comedy is still alive and well, and many of the most successful “emergent” churches have “messages” that go much longer than your average mainline 15-minute sermon. If anything, the familiarity of younger people with digital media should be a caution: they know all too well how easy it is to manipulate images and emotions. They have seen more than enough advertising in their lifetimes to be conscious of spin. I pastored a postmodern/emergent congregation for five years but can count on my hands the number of times we had a projector set up on Sunday morning. For us, finances and space concerns made it difficult to use video, but I rarely felt that our impact was lessened as a result. People came to our community because it was, in their words, “real.”
It is an ongoing ailment of the church that we try to “catch up” to the culture just as it is no longer enamored of the latest fad. The Internet is full of PowerPoint parodies—the Gettysburg Address, or Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, bulleted to a fare-thee-well. We are a visual culture, but with the remarkable exception of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, no one is flocking to the theaters to see presentation at work. We go to see and hear stories, to enter into the lives of another for a moment, and to be moved. Preachers have a powerful story to tell, and when we put the technology first, we sacrifice our most powerful instruments—our own voices and embodied selves—at great peril.
1. Wired, 11.09, September 2003.