Over the past twenty years, video has earned its place as a medium for communication. Song lyrics, video clips, sermon support, announcements… the flexibility and relatively low cost (compared to the continuous production of print media) have made video a primary means for data distribution during services. However, some churches are experimenting with uses for video beyond transmitting information. Video is now becoming a tool to create an experience.
While the term “experiential worship” has become a catch phrase with dozens of definitions and interpretations, at its core it is about providing an experience to the worshipper in the sanctuary. This is a shift from more traditional presentational and community models of worship.
David Wahlstedt, pastor of Crosspointe Community Church in Carrollton, Texas explains it this way, “The best way to communicate to the emerging culture is to talk in pictures. The society growing up around us is moving away from the age of vision and mission statements to image statements. You can say so much more with an image than with words.”
“[In the past] we have seen media and digital art as being a background… something to project lyrics on,” proposes Ron Martoia, Transformational Architect and author of morph! “If we are going to move from word to image, at some point in time we are going to have to give people something to interact with. If I walk into an auditorium and see a hose dripping water into a reflecting pool, and there is a desertscape on the screens, I am being invited into a conversation without explanation… an internal conversation. Is the water the point? Is the desert the focus? How do the water and the desert tie together? Are we the water, is Jesus? Am I the desert or is life? We are missing a whole medium that is just begging to have a voice.”
In a shifting culture, it is little wonder that churches are discovering the power of the visual medium for more than simply communicating facts.
“With the progression of products such as Catalyst, you now have capability for moving video,” comments Matt Timmons, Senior Video Producer of Fellowship Church in Grapevine. “We experimented with it during the ‘Just Lust’ series. We opened with black and white photos edited together in timeline, then were able to toss the imagery across whole auditorium. The audio correlated with the piece. Because lust usually infiltrates through the eyes, we had a pair of eyeballs on stage and the images moved across the crowd then moved into the eyes. The whole room knew the story and were set up for the series.”
Fellowship has used this tool to invoke positive emotion as well. “You set the mood with lighting, then use the video to ‘push’ it a little more,” explains Timmons. “During the worship song, ‘Breathe’ we projected the image of water and moved it across the crowd.” The result was very emotional.
“One of the things I am trying to accomplish with video is to appeal to multiple senses within a person,” says Wahlstedt. “With video, you have eye-gate and ear-gate things happening; but if you connect with a past experience or evoke a memory, then the connection engages more of the senses. The more we can get all of your senses involved, the more powerful the experience will be. Not only do we have something that we are hearing and seeing, but something we are feeling.”
“A big part of what we do is designed to create a very artistic feel,” conveys Rachel Cook, the Experience Designer for Westwinds Community Church in Jackson, Michigan. “When you say, ‘art’ people think painting, but it is video clips, media graphics, art pieces, structure…every piece is something different for people to connect with.”
“We use created digital art in the auditorium. The pieces aren’t very literal… more about creating an environment for each series,” Cook continues. “For instance, in the past we have gone for an environment that had an earthy feel. The digital art [which can be static images or morphing images] was the foundational piece that created this earthy feel. Everything else plays off of this. There were canvas art pieces in natural tones hung on the walls and candles on the stage in clay pots with sand. We did something completely different at Christmas, even though we wouldn’t consider ourselves to be a traditional church, during the holidays people want a traditional feel. At Christmas, we created warm and cozy.”
When Fellowship Church in Grapevine, Texas decided to host their Christmas Eve candlelight service in the American Airlines center, they didn’t realize that the City Fire Marshall was going to say “no” to the candles. “We decided to find another way to make it happen,” tells Mike Walker, Production Manager and Creative Director for Fellowship Church. “Though we had no ability to have lit candles, we still wanted to create that intimate mood. We ended up shooting footage of candles in the studio, then projected them to the screens in a way that it began with one, then multiplied. We used warm lighting in the audience to make it grow.”
Creating mood with projection doesn’t have to be high tech. “For Good Friday this year we’re planning a completely silent service,” Cook says, “we’ve decided to pull out our front projectors and transparencies (which we haven’t used for awhile) to project words onto the walls of the auditorium.”
“We deal with a society who listens with their eyes as well as their ears,” elaborates Walker, “I think the power of it really hit me at Easter. The worship team was leading the Negro spiritual ‘Were You There?’ and we projected imagery of the three crosses across the congregation. It occurred to me that ‘yes’ we were there. Video plants a mental picture and transports people somewhere. If we can take people back to the cross…”
Sometimes, it isn’t about transporting people to a place of experience. Sometimes it is about transporting the experience to the people. Baptism at Granger Community Church in Granger, Indiana takes place at a tree-surrounded lake. “It is really an amazing thing for those who are there,” relays Jeff Petersen, Media Director for the church. “The setting and the beauty of it are incredible, but we also have 1,000 people on the shore that can’t see everything.” Petersen and his team document the event with ten photographers and two to three videographers, then put it together on video. “We want to bring the event to everyone. Not just those who could see. I recently showed this piece to a man who doesn’t even go to our church. I was talking and talking about the technical aspects of it then turned around to realize he was weeping. The experience reaches beyond just the people who were there.”
Granger Community Church is also using video to celebrate and build community. Think in terms of the feel you get watching home movies of family or friends.
“Video in our services began with multi-projector slide shows. That was all we had and we maxed it out. When the church first started we used the slides to help people feel connected. It was engaging and fun for people to be able to see themselves on the screen,” relays Petersen. “Now that we are larger it is harder, but we still do this. We want to get as many people as we can up there. For any size church it can be hard for people to feel like a real part of the community. Using video we have been able to share the large events and intimate moments together, and that has continued to help build the relationships within our congregation.”
Going in a different direction
Mars Hill Bible Church in Grandville, Michigan has a completely opposite approach. Shauna Niequist, Creative Director explains, “We wanted to cleanse the palette in terms of experience. Pretty much we turn on our florescent lights in the morning, fire up the PowerPoint and that’s about it. Black background. White text. One font. Even our bulletins are just (black and white)”
The minimalist aesthetic has connected with people. The six-year-old church which meets in (as Mars Hill’s founding pastor, Rob Bell, puts it) “a renovated 70’s loser mall” has an attendance of about 10,000 each weekend.
Designing systems to support experience
Video designer Stuart Reynolds of Acoustic Dimensions (AD) is seeing this shift in the designs for new worship facilities around the country.
“It has been interesting to watch the line blur between markets,” comments Reynolds. “There used to be separation in the types of systems for sporting facilities, performing arts and worship facilities. Now, no matter which market we work with, we always ask people during programming to think in terms of what kind of experience they want to create.”
Reynolds finds a significant amount of his work in worship facilities is in the area of production. “It’s not enough to provide acres of video ‘canvas’ if you don’t have the production support systems in place for operators to ‘paint’ on it. We’ve seen a major shift in investing in systems to produce content. Even if there isn’t budget for production systems on day one, we almost always plan infrastructure so that systems can be added as budget becomes available.”
“But I don’t have a video department… (or budget)!”
“Video [at Granger Community Church] started as a hobby on my home computer,” laughs Petersen. “My advice to smaller churches is to make use of the people you already have. Utilize their hobbies and interests. Realize that there are people who have already purchased digital cameras, editing software and have higher end computers than you could pay for – in fact, they may just be writing e-mail on it. Help them with some teaching and encouragement and those resources are already there.”
Wahlstedt, whose video staff currently consists of himself and a part-time volunteer, offers, “We often purchase raw footage in a collection, then take the raw footage and create by combining it, putting effects on it…adding text…”
“The implementation side is getting easier and easier,” says Walker “The creation side is not. Though some companies are producing quality content, it is difficult to get beyond nature scenes unless you create it yourself, and the creative piece takes time. If we are telling the “Greatest Story Ever Told,” the presentation needs to reflect that. You can’t expect to put out your best work in a couple of hours on a regular basis. In some cases, what we communicate might be the only time an individual might get the chance to see the message. We need to ask the question, is what we are putting in front of them going to help them experience Christ?”
“Quality work brings quality people. If you are doing the best you can, you will start attracting people. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard, ‘that was pretty good video for a church,” continues Petersen. “We simply want good video. Period. If you are just starting out, try to avoid the two most common mistakes, too big and too long. Start off with a project that you can actually finish. It can take a lot of time and effort to make a quality piece and often people quit because they take on more than they can handle. The vast majority of our pieces last no longer than one song. Just long enough to stir an emotion or convey a concept. Leave your audience asking for more, not begging for it to end.
A few final thoughts…
“You need to know the intended goal,” clarifies Ken Robertson, Technical Arts Director of Mariners Church in Irvine, “Is it to bring clarification, create an emotional response, to be used as part of the set design, to move someone to action, or is it simply to generate excitement? Someone has to be able to give the answer to these questions with enough time for the artists to execute the product. If one or both of these elements is missing, you will not be able to hit the mark. Why? Because there is no target.”
Martoia adds, “The invitation is that we still haven’t tapped this as a medium. We need a whole round of artists to rise up and translate. We need to get out of safe and predictable. If we aren’t careful, we’ll become the new tradition. These mediums are an invitation to surprise and to mystery. When that happens, we get to experience God outside of the norm of the mental models.”