Careful Choices Yield Best Results
If movie clips are to be used effectively in preaching, guidelines concerning number and placement need to be observed. How many clips should be used in a single message? For preachers who are new to video usage the prospect of illustrating an entire message with vibrant images can be very seductive. I warn against using more than a couple of movie illustrations in a single message -- one of which should be an opener or a closer. Movie clips are expansive. If the focus is to remain on the text, it is important not to overwhelm the congregation or your small group.
How does placement in the message affect the way clips are used? There are only three places where clips can be incorporated into a message -- the introduction, the conclusion, or in support of a particular point in the body of the sermon as a sermon illustration. Clips for an introduction need to encompass the sweep of the sermon -- but they do not have to be positive in tone. They can also afford to be lengthy. Imagine opening a sermon on greed. The lights go down in the sanctuary and the image of Michael Douglas as corrupt corporate raider Gordon Gekko, in the film Wall Street, appears. Gekko is thundering out his "Greed is Good" speech to investors. It is moving; it resonates. It may even illuminate the hearts of some in the congregation that find that they are inexplicably cheering (only inwardly, I hope). Even though the clip champions greed, what a great setup to a discussion of that sin!
Clips for a conclusion can also be lengthy, but they must reinforce the thrust of the sermon. You should choose clips that mirror the sermon's tone and content. If I were ending a sermon on the Prodigal Son, or the parable of the lost sheep, I might end with a clip from the film Finding Nemo. In the scene, Nemo -- a clownfish captured by divers, and who is now on display in a dentist's office -- despairs of ever escaping and rejoining his father, Marlin. Just when things are at their worst, a pelican appears on the office windowsill. He begins to recount for Nemo all of the dangers that Marlin has gone through to come to Nemo's rescue. In fact, Marlin is in the bay just outside the office window. The recognition of his father's love motivates Nemo in his struggle to escape his captivity and get back home.
In the middle of a sermon, lengthy movie clips can be distracting, and any clips should be used sparingly. In support of a sermon illustration point on renewing the mind, setting the mind on Christ, or the rewards of self-control, there is a moving clip from A Beautiful Mind. The film chronicles the story of John Nash, a brilliant mathematics professor who overcame his battle with mental illness by committing himself to a "diet of the mind," avoiding entertaining those thoughts that would trigger his illness. The careful, and sparing, use of video clips increases their impact on a congregation.
The last issue concerns the use of film clips: should they be used before or after a truth claim? Preachers should introduce a claim first, and then illustrate it with an example. The parables of Christ follow this pattern of propositional truth followed by illustration. Teaching what is true is often not enough to move people to change their minds or behavior. The idea that human beings are strictly rational creatures is a myth, as any counseling pastor knows. People are unlikely to act until they are emotionally moved. Dramatizations can take the rational claim and add to it passionate motivation. Tell people the truth, and then motivate them to live it out. The only exception to this rule is when using a clip at the beginning of a sermon as an attention-getting device.
The Nuts and Bolts of Using Film Clips
There are tremendous advantages to helping people see the truth through the use of film clips. The disadvantages lie entirely within the logistics of using the clips. By making good choices in hardware and software, and by adhering to some simple rules, preachers can use this technology seamlessly.
There are two types of playback units for screening film clips in sermons: VHS video and DVD. The benefit of VHS is that if you are using multiple clips from different films, it is easy to cue them all up in advance. If you were using more than one scene from a single film, however, you would need as many copies of the video as you had clips to show -- fast forward is too slow. VHS also produces an inferior image compared to DVD, and that is why VHS is on the decline and DVD is on the rise at video rental locations.
DVD produces clear digital images of the film. Skipping from one scene to another is simplified through the use of bookmarks, which allow you to identify places in a film that you can quickly revisit. Using a laptop or computer to control playback allows you to use powerful software programs to navigate the clips. I am partial to the Power DVD software which allows you to save and import bookmarks that link to titles, so that if you want to use a scene again it will be simple to cue up.
If you intend to project movie clips, I will assume you have a projection unit and a screen. (Of course, if you are using clips in a small group setting a television and a playback unit will suffice.) Placement of the preacher and the screen is important to maximize the reception of both. Visual support is, by its nature, arresting. Contrary to popular theories about multi-tasking, when dealing with complicated or abstract ideas, people focus only on one thing at a time. When your sermon illustration clip is running, no one is paying attention to you. Spatial separation between the screen and the speaker is helpful.
Just as you would not cue a soloist or start a worship team without a sound check, you need to make certain that your projection equipment and the volume controls have been checked and set -- and checked again. Once, at a local church, I was using a clip as an opener. I had set all the sound myself, double checked it, and everything was perfect -- except I forgot to tell the sound man. He switched everything back for the worship team. The clip was repeated three times before sound was restored. The congregation understood, but the impact of the illustration as an attention-getter was diminished with each failed viewing.
Who has the remote?
When using stand-alone VHS or DVD playback units, you have to rely on a volunteer to start and stop the clip. I was preaching at a conference at Valley Bible Church in San Marcos, and I reached a point where I wanted to illustrate waiting on the Lord. To show what most of us are like, I used a clip from The Rookie. My friend Bill Farrel, the pastor, was my volunteer. He happens to be a sports nut. Bill got so caught up in the drama of the clip that I had to call out to him numerous times to hit the stop button. Finally he snapped out of it, hit the stop button, and everyone laughed. Fortunately it reinforced my point -- sometimes you have to wait.
If you use a laptop, you can control the clip. You will even have your own monitor so that you won't have to turn to the screen. Each clip you cue up should have either a word or a concrete image that designates the start and stop time. If you are likely to be captivated by your own clip, you can use the counter. No matter which method you choose, you will need to practice.
Any New Tool Requires Practice
It's amazing how many preachers believe that visual aids will take care of themselves. Visual support is not something slapped onto a verbal message -- it needs to be integrated. Moving from one medium of communication to another can feel abrupt if the transition isn't handled smoothly. Think of the Academy Awards, and how effortlessly that show transitions from music to acceptance speeches to film clips. Achieving that kind of result means practicing. It also requires a team.
Your church probably has a worship team supported by a sound technician. Everyone needs to practice. Each instrument and voice needs a sound check to make sure that all of the levels blend harmoniously. Even the pastor needs a microphone check so that when the music ends and the speaking begins everything flows seamlessly.
If you are going to be successful in music, your church requires a worship team. If you are going to be successful in integrating video, your church will require a video team. Everyone involved in the incorporation of the clips needs to work together. The people who dim the lights, control the volume, start and stop the clip all need to be on the same page. The goal is to make the transition from one medium to another smoothly. The team should know what the speaker wants and when so that, with a little work, the only way congregations will notice the medium shift is by the increased comprehension and motivation they experience when they attend to a sermon.
The Final Reel
We shouldn't shy away from incorporating "native culture" into our sermons. Modern Americans are far removed from the farm -- agricultural metaphors are not enough -- but they are adept consumers of entertainment. To reach them we need to speak their language, but we must speak it fluently. By careful use of film clips as sermon illustrations, and by adhering to some practical guidelines, we can make our way on the Mars Hills of our culture, and introduce the Savior in a new light.
Boorstin, Daniel. The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America. New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1992.
Larsen, David. "The Decline of the Text: When the Text Recedes, Preaching is Placed in Peril." Preaching, March-April, 2003 online.
Postman, Neil. Amusing Ourselves to Death. New York, NY: Viking Penguin, 1986.
St. John of Damascus. On the Divine Images. trans. David Anderson. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1997.
Webber, Robert. Ancient-Future Faith. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1999.
Williams, Donald. “C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and the Tradition of Christian Poetics.” Audiocassette. Hillsdale College, 1995.