I have always been a person who has used visual aids, and have found them particularly useful when working with children or teens. However, as I have recently been preaching behind a pulpit more, speaking primarily to adults, my opinion has changed. And this has been primarily due to an Expository Preaching Course that I recently attended. Since then I have been more observant in terms of seeing how people react when I or another pastor use PowerPoint, and also how the pastor and the ministry team use the PowerPoints. What follows are four reasons why I no longer use PowerPoint, and my related observations.
1) The Purpose of a Sermon
The first thing that I began to consider was what is the purpose of a sermon in the first place? Is it merely to give people information, or is it to encourage life change?
If it is merely to give people information, then a PowerPoint presentation is certainly going to do that. But isn’t the purpose of a sermon far more than that? Isn’t it about changing lives for the glory of God? Is it not a personal oral event, by one person, presenting the Gospel that has the power to salvation, to a group of people, listening? And if this is the case, which I strongly believe it is, then what benefit does a PowerPoint really have?
Now you may think it helps people to remember things more, such as the outline of your sermon, but I beg to differ. I personally remember more what is spoken in a sermon than what I see on a screen. I tested myself with this recently. I thought back to the most recent sermon I had heard and asked myself, “What do I remember from the PowerPoint?” The answer, nothing. Yes the main points of the sermon and indeed many verses were displayed, but I could not remember the specifics from the slides. Instead I remembered the words of the preacher and was even able to remember something that he had said that was incorrect. But whether or not it was on a slide – who knows?
If preaching is about changing lives, then having a brilliant PowerPoint should not have any affect in that regard in any way.
2) PowerPoint is Distracting
In watching a DVD of myself preaching I became increasingly aware that the congregation’s heads were turning and looking at the screen instead of their Bibles or me. Even when nothing had changed or was being displayed on the screen. In fact, I was reminded at the course, and I have experienced this in my own life, if you have a TV or screen in the room that you are having a conversation in, on average a person’s eye’s will look at the screen every seven to ten seconds, even if the screen is off. Test this for yourself the next time you are having a conversation in front of a TV.
I have also come to realise that screen after screen of Bible quotes actually makes the sermon a little more tedious. I recently observed this when watching myself on the DVD and when observing another pastor. We both referred to a number of passages right after each other, and by time we reached the fourth passage or so, I was saying to myself, “OK I get the point, move on now.” But when I just listened without looking at the screen, the passages seemed to flow better and the impatience disappeared.
As we were told at the course, if you are going to refer to a long portion of Scripture, then best have the people turn there. If just a short quotation, then just read it – no need to show it.
In short, the point here is that the congregation should have their eyes on you or their own Bibles and not a third party, i.e. a screen.
Now I can hear the objections already, “What about those that are at church and do not have Bibles with them?” Fair point, but then why don’t you as a church make Bibles available for those that do not bring their own? I have been in a church where the actual passage being preached from was projected on the screen and eventually what happened, and quite quickly I must add, was that no-one, except for the few leading in the service, brought a Bible to church any more. It made them lazy. And I can almost guarantee you, if they are not bringing their Bible to church and are not reading along with you, then they are not reading their Bibles at home either.
Rather follow the example that I witnessed at a friend’s church a few weeks ago. Just before they began their Bible reading for the day they asked if anyone did not have a Bible and needed a copy to read from themselves. Those that put up their hands, or should I rather say, the one who put up his hand, then received a Bible to read from for the service. The rest of the congregation, of which there were over 100 people, had their own Bibles.
Not putting the verses on screen will probably encourage more people to bring their Bibles to church so that they are not left out and can follow along. It also encourages personal Bible reading and helps people to learn to navigate their way around the Bible as you refer to passages that they probably would not ordinarily read on their own. When last did you read from Habakkuk in your quiet time?
Another way in which PowerPoint is distracting is when one uses long quotations from a book, such as a commentary or theological textbook. I understand the temptation here because how they say things can explain something far better than you could yourself, or it may pack a greater punch than what your words can. But there is a problem here, and it is one that you can apply to Scripture quotations too.
A person reads faster in their heads than you can reading out loud. On average about 20% faster. That means that before you are 80% of the way through reading the quotation as it appears on the screen, they are already finished. So if it takes you 1 minute to read it out loud, this gives them 12 seconds for their minds to wander. Yes they may be processing what they have read, but they are no longer listening to you. Add to this the tendency that many of us have while reading a long quote to interject in the middle with some thought of our own, while displaying the rest of the quote on the screen. If they are reading ahead, like I know I have done myself, they are no longer listening to you, and they may miss an important point you are making in the interim.
Rather, if you want to include something from a commentary or textbook, summarise or paraphrase what they say, and then if you want to quote them, select one short sentence or phrase that packs the punch, that gem you want them to remember – without displaying it of course. That way they are with you all the way, and not ahead, allowing their minds to wander.
3) It is Time Consuming
How much time does it take you to prepare your PowerPoint presentation? An hour? Two hours? More usually if you want the PowerPoint to be creatively done. Now imagine if that time was reallocated to actual sermon preparation. What would an extra two hours do to your sermon? Alternatively, if you are spending most of your time in the study and not with your family, what benefit would that time have if you were now spending time with your children? I don’t think I need to say any more.
But never mind your own time, what about the time of those running the presentation? Before the service they have to make sure your PowerPoint works, that it is displayed properly, etc. This tales time away from their preparing other necessary parts of the service such as the songs for the time of worship.
Even during the message itself. Their time is taken up making sure they display the correct slide at the correct moment in your sermon. Which would you rather have, them spending their time making sure your presentation is presented correctly, or actually in the Word, with you as you preach, getting the same benefit as the rest of the congregation? I know which I choose.
In terms of timing, I was witness to really bad timing during a recent service. The person who was operating the projection was way out of time with the pastor. On occasion they displayed the quotations or passages before the pastor got there, which distracted me as I was reading something different to what the pastor was saying. And the same was true for those slides that came too late. I was now backtracking myself as it were, and lost the flow of the sermon at that point.
Remember too, the person on the projector does not have your brain. They do not know exactly where and when you were thinking the slide is to come up, even if they have a full manuscript with the necessary slides marked in the right places. I have had this happen to me too. I noticed that a couple of slides were up too early because they picked up the wrong sentence in my message. This then became a little distracting even to me as I became aware of the projectionist constantly looking at the notes and the screen to see if they were on track. And the problem was aggravated for me by the fact that they had a screen facing the pulpit.
I can hear the objection now, “I use my own remote control to advance the slides.” OK, great, but what if accidentally you advance one slide too many, now you have to go back a slide. Or if you forget to advance so now you have to catch up. This in itself becomes a distraction for both you and the congregation, and it diverts your attention from effective delivery to effective multimedia management.
4) Do People Really Take Note?
This final point was the final blow that put the final nail into coffin as it were. I mentioned to my wife what was discussed at the preaching course regarding PowerPoint, to which her reply was, “I don’t even take note of the slides anyway.” For her, there is usually too much reading on a slide and could not be bothered to read along while the pastor is preaching. They are of little to no significance to her.
And I think the same can be said for many others. As I said in my first point, do people really remember anything from the slide, or do they remember your words? A verbal picture does far more than a ten bullet list of applications and implications. A well placed illustration does far more than a lengthy quote from a technical textbook or commentary.
After all, I am at church to hear the Word of God, to learn from it, and to be changed by it. As Paul said, “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ.” I think this applies not only to evangelism, but also to every day preaching and discipleship.
One Final Question
So then, this leaves one final question: Is there a place for PowerPoint in a sermon? Well, yes, but it is very limited. Let me give you one practical example: You are dealing with a geographical or cultural issue that needs a picture to best explain it, such as the Exodus. It is good in such cases to give your congregation a visual picture as to the geography or terrain that the passage is set in. Not everyone has a visual picture in their mind of the size and shape of the land, so to show a map from an atlas may be good when introducing the context. But that is where you leave it. Show the slide only for that purpose and only at the appropriate time, and make sure the slide is taken off the screen during the rest of your sermon.
And, more importantly, don’t do it every time. Not every geographical or cultural situation needs an actual picture. Often-times a simple description will suffice.
For those of you who have been regularly using PowerPoint in your sermons, I challenge you to take a break from them and simply preach the Word of God. Do not allow yourself to become reliant on them, or to use them to preach for you, as I have witnessed some doing over the years. I have even known a few pastors to read their notes from the presentation on the screen instead of from their own notes or manuscript on the pulpit. This is even more distracting.
And if you are not yet convinced, spend some time in the pew observing others and their use of PowerPoint. Remember the points and observations I have been making and see for yourself if what I say has any truth to it.
Whichever route you take, PowerPoint or no-PowerPoint, the choice is yours. But for me, based on the foregoing points, I have decided to no longer use PowerPoint.