Preaching in a Visual Age: 7 Thoughts and 15 Questions for Preachers

David Taylor, Pete Docter, Bobette Buster, Shane Hipps, Ralph Watkins, Ralph Winter: panel at PVA

Last night I returned from LA, where I experienced three days of stimulating discussion with preachers and artists, Hollywood directors and seminary faculty around the topic of Preaching In A Visual Age. As I sat in the audience, listening to others speak, I wondered what I would do if I were a working preacher (as I once was). I wondered why exactly a "visual age" mattered to the craft of preaching. I wondered, "What now?" Here is what I jotted down on the flight from LAX to Cincinnati en route to Raleigh-Durham. In addition to my thoughts, I'm including Mark Labberton's "15 Questions" that he posed at the end of the conference. (Mark is a very good man and the Director of the Ogilvie Institute of Preaching at Fuller Seminary.)

I'm also including here a pretty funny IKEA commercial that Pete Docter (director of Pixar movies Monsters Inc. and Up) showed us. Enjoy. Photos courtesy of the amazing Ken Fong.

My experience of the conference in brief: Brian Moss and company (including Michele Sudduth) did a fabulous job leading us in worship, I had a wonderful dinner with Bill Dyrness, saw friends Maria Fee and Toddy Burton as well as Jeffrey Travis and Nate Risdon, was glad to see Betsy Halstead there, enjoyed my exchanges with Barry Taylor, was moved by Bobette Buster's presentation, appreciated John Chan's panel facilitation, was stirred by Ralph Watkin's presentation, laughed and cried at the videos Ralph Winter showed, loved Cam Anderson's exegesis of a work of contemporary visual art, so appreciated Pete Docter's humility and sneak peek into the creative process at Pixar Films, and loved the way Mark lead us all the way through.

Seven Things I would say to Preachers about Preaching in a Visual Age

1.     Do not underestimate how not obvious it is what a "visual age" has to do with the practice of preaching. That's an awkward sentence, but the point is that it's not an apples-to-apples exchange. A visual age might imply technological instruments. It might imply psychological and neurological habits. It might imply sociological practices. It might imply points of connection with the late medieval age and points of disconnection with the modern age, or both as the case may be. Whatever it implies, as church leaders we have to commit to thinking carefully about our use or non-use of visual media--from the way we arrange our seating spaces to the furniture of our "sanctuaries" to the conscription of movie clips or the commentary on our popular entertainment practices which shape and misshape us.

2.     Do not underestimate how valuable it is to teach your community about the place of sight, seeing, visuality and the imagination in the economy of the triune God. Unless we get this part clearly, we won't get the so what or the how to of a "visual age" right, whatever that looks like in your context.

3.     Do not underestimate how many wonderful opportunities you have to gift your listeners with a rich treasury of verbal and mental images (which is where reading novels, poetry and great essays come in handy).

4.     Do not underestimate how powerful silence and the intentional absence of imagery is. As many would remind us from the domain of music, silence in a work of music is not emptiness but its own kind of fullness. I would say the same thing with respect to the visual design and content of the church’s public worship.

5.     Do not underestimate how powerful one good visual image is.

6.     Do not underestimate how powerful one good visual image is when experienced repeatedly. The reason why TV is powerful is that an audience is exposed to a visual story week after week after week. That’s the same reason why a movie trilogy (like Lord of the Rings) or a movie that comes out in eight iterations (like Harry Potter) is powerful: it’s nearly impossible for an audience to forget repeated visits to the same imaginative world. Whatever people look at over time—day after day, week after week, whether it’s the architecture of the space or an image that is affixed or projected in the space—is what will likely shape their imaginations, both consciously and subconsciously.

7.     Do not underestimate the fruitful benefit of working with a team to formulate your sermons. (I think of John Stott in this regard.) A team of people marked by love, mutual respect, prayerful listening to both God and the times in which our people live, a shared mission, and a common process with clearly defined purposes for meeting, is a team that can only make the work of preachers better. When Pete Docter was asked, “What’s the success of Pixar Films?”, he answered: “Not people alone or process alone but both people and process.” That, I imagine, will be true of us preachers too.



1. What is your story of the gospel? Who needs it? Why? What is the narrative line and why does it matter?
2. How does your gospel help you see? Who and what does your gospel help you see?
3. What hues describe your gospel? What dimensions? Story?
4. Where is your gospel vivid? Faint? Pixilated? Over- or under-exposed?
5. In what ways might your gospel be just another screen, or even screenshot?


6. Is our preaching an act of art restoration or is it more like life with Harold and the Purple Crayon?
7. How does your preaching refract the gospel?
8. How does your preaching currently help or hinder people seeing the gospel more fully?
9. Where does your gospel fit in the spectrum of Thomas Kincade to Jackson Pollock?
10. Is our preaching fostering vivid lives of love, creativity and courage in the world?


11. What screens or images in your congregation’s life most concern you?
12. What screens or images in our culture’s life most concern you? Why?
13. Why do you believe the gospel your congregation shows deserves attention?
14. In what ways does your congregation make the gospel visible to your community?
15. What lives of passionate faithfulness does your church display?

Preaching in a visual age in Austin, Texas.

Plotinus and Me.

Brian Moss iconized by Phaedra's art.

Not a boring panel by any means.

Cam the Visual Exegete.

The theological virtues in light of the eyes.

Mark Labberton.

Pete Docter.

A photo that our children will appreciate forever.

A gorgeous work of art hanging in the Ecclesia Hollywood church narthex.


Step Morgan said…
Do you know if audio from any of the presentations will be made available?
Step: I don't but I can find out. I'll jot a comment here if the answer is yes.
Scott said…
Really interesting thoughts, David! It was great to meet you at the PVA event last week and I look forward to dialogue with you before we do another version of this here at Symposium in January! Yours, Scott Hoezee, Calvin Seminary
Scott, great meeting you too and I'll be excited to see how the PVA morphs in a new context with a new audience. Thanks for all your hard work to help us preach well.
Thanks for sharing a bit of the experience with us, David. Looks and sounds like it was an excellent event!
Thanks, Tamara!

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