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PowerPoint and Preaching Update

Category Articles
Date April 20, 2007

PowerPoint and the Death of Preaching

I have nothing against PowerPoint presentations when it comes to missionary spots, illustrated talks or lectures, etc. But I take issue with the use of PowerPoint in the pulpit. A preacher told me recently that a church he was due to visit asked him not only for his hymns and Bible readings, but his sermon headings for PowerPoint. Whatever is the world coming to?

My objections to the use of PowerPoint in preaching are two-fold:

1) Practical

PowerPoint done badly is depressingly awful. If people are going to use this medium for anything other than their private enjoyment (how sad is that?), they should really take the time to attain some level of competence at this kind of thing. I have witnessed a PowerPoint presentation that would not project onto a screen, so people had to huddle around a laptop PC. That was OK until the screen saver activated and the poor presenter did not know what to do about it. What of PowerPoints where the specially arranged sermon headings announced by the preacher are out of sync with what is projected onto the screen? That really helps people to follow the message!

When PowerPoint is done well the presentation looks really professional. I even like it in certain contexts. But preaching is not meant to look professional is it? John Piper should have had a chapter on ‘Brothers, Take Pleasure in Preaching without PowerPoint’ in his Brothers, We are not Professionals.

I am no Luddite with a fear and loathing of new technology. This (article) is not written on parchment with crushed up blackberries for ink and a quill pen. But when it comes to PowerPoint preaching, I say “No!”

2) Spiritual

Preaching, by definition, is a speech act. One man speaks to a congregation of people concerning the message of the Bible. He engages them, looks them in the eye. They (hopefully) look back at him. The preacher tries to hold the people’s attention by the Truth that he is speaking and by the manner in which he speaks the Truth. Authentic preaching involves interaction and spontaneity. Yes, the preacher will have done his preparation. He takes care to present his message in a coherent and logical way. But we preachers never really know how people will react to our carefully prepared sermons until we begin to preach them. Someone looks encouraged. The message seems to speak directly to their situation – so we expand on it a little to be of help to them. Another looks confused. We need to clarify and illustrate. Someone else seems to be troubled or challenged. Do they need to be healed and soothed or does the point need to be brought home with greater power and conviction? A decision will have to be made. All this involves communication between preacher and people. Along the way, sermon headings may be modified. A point may be dropped because another needed greater emphasis. There should be an element of unpredictability about preaching because it is an act of personal communication. The ordered professionalism of PowerPoint has no place here. Preachers should use as few notes as possible in the pulpit for the same reasons.

Preaching, according to Martyn Lloyd-Jones is meant to be “logic on fire”, theology presented through a man who is on fire for the truth. But that “fire” must not be man-made or manufactured emotionalism. We need what used to be called “unction”, where the Holy Spirit empowers the preacher and gives him great liberty and power in preaching. When that happens, the last thing on the preacher’s mind should be, “what about my PowerPoint headings?” The use of PowerPoint suggests that the preacher expects his sermon to go as planned with no breaking in of the Spirit to disrupt his carefully crafted message. He may have accurate exposition, telling illustration, nicely alliterated headings and thoughtful application. But where is the “demonstration of the Spirit and power”? That is what we preachers should long for above all else.

Some responses to the above

1] Having recently been exposed to this, I am dead against it. Completely distracting from the word, and also the tendency is to try and ‘distill’ everything, or dumb it down so it fits on the screen. Even worse is when they try to put a funny picture up to get a laugh. Or meaningless clipart to somehow illustrate the point.

2] Would Spurgeon have used PowerPoint? Merely to raise the question is to invite ridicule and scorn.

3] There is the temptation to over-egg the pudding. I once heard a sermon where the preacher wanted to use the story of a famous footballer as an illustration of his point, but to do that he put up a photo of the man. Suddenly I found myself thinking about the quality of the photo and the lighting used in it and I had missed the point the preacher was making. I was guilty of allowing myself to be distracted, but the preacher can be unaware of the consequences of what he is doing.

PP is often seen as a new way of retaining the attention of hearers. This view is often held by those who have little experience of such methods in other environments. I am thinking of those approaching or in retirement, or pastors who have never done any other job. But people in industry or business, such as I used to be, are often fully exposed to PP where they are used to ‘death-by-powerpoint’ presentations. Frankly, PP in church is expected to be a yawn.

Finally, I cannot help feeling that the move to PP is a symptom of bad preaching and poor vetting and training of preachers. The preacher lacks the ability to speak well and/or lacks conviction in biblical truth and so looks to other methods to pep up the ‘talk’. This is of great concern and should drive us to prayer.

4] I’m such a purist, that I don’t even like the practice of putting sermon headings in bulletins. That can make preaching seem too pre-packaged. The congregation knows exactly what is going to happen next in the sermon. This can rob preaching of its drama and spontaneity, not to mention the work of the Spirit in preaching – not that the Spirit is unable to use preaching with PowerPoint, but why put obstacles in his way?

[Guy Davies lives in Westbury, Wiltshire, and pastors two neighbouring Evangelical Churches. The above was posted on his Exiled Preacher blog in June 2006.]

Latest Findings from the University of New South Wales, Australia

University of NSW research shows the human brain processes and retains more information if it is digested in either its verbal or written form, but not both at the same time. Anna Patty comments as follows:

If you have ever wondered why your eyes start glazing over as you read those dot points on the screen, as the same words are being spoken, take heart in knowing there is a scientific explanation.

It is more difficult to process information if it is coming at you in the written and spoken form at the same time.

The Australian researchers who made the findings may have pronounced the death of the PowerPoint presentation.

They have also challenged popular teaching methods, suggesting that teachers should focus more on giving students the answers, instead of asking them to solve problems on their own.

Pioneered at the University of NSW, the research shows the human brain processes and retains more information if it is digested in either its verbal or written form, but not both at the same time.

It also questions the wisdom of centuries-old habits, such as reading along with Bible passages, at the same time they are being read aloud in church. More of the passages would be understood and retained, the researchers suggest, if heard or read separately.

The findings show there are limits on the brain’s capacity to process and retain information in short-term memory.

John Sweller, from the University’s Faculty of Education, developed the “cognitive load theory”.

“The use of the PowerPoint presentation has been a disaster,” Professor Sweller said. “It should be ditched.”

It is effective to speak to a diagram, because it presents information in a different form. But it is not effective to speak the same words that are written, because it is putting too much load on the mind and decreases your ability to understand what is being presented.

The findings that challenge common teaching methods suggest that instead of asking students to solve problems on their own, teachers helped students more if they presented already solved problems. Professor Sweller said,

Looking at an already solved problem reduces the working memory load and allows you to learn. It means the next time you come across a problem like that, you have a better chance at solving it.

The working memory was only effective in juggling two or three tasks at the same time, retaining them for a few seconds. When too many mental tasks were taken on some things were forgotten.

[Anna Patty is Education Editor of the Sydney Morning Herald. This article appeared on its web pages on 4 April 2007.]

For previous comments on this subject, see ‘Powerpoint and All Its Works’ by Geoff Thomas, on the Trust website.

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