I’m not sure when the shift to using PowerPoint in the church happened. At some point, screens replaced paper, words replaced notes, and the orientation of the congregation was all in one direction – towards the projection.
While some suggest that ‘[t]hese technologies have given churches a freedom to do things that couldn’t have been done 10 years ago,’ there is also caution against its uncritical adoption. In addition to transforming certain traditions of contemporary worship, the advent of screen projection software has also been an avenue through which the image has re-entered (or entered for the first time) the church space. As backgrounds to song lyrics, foci for moments of reflection, or illustrations for sermons, PowerPoint (Keynote, EasyWorship) has made it possible not only to bring works of art into the worship space but also to introduce large numbers of people to art they might not otherwise come across. As I’ve had it explained to me, the people of our now ‘visual age’ need images to better understand what is being said (or sung); or, the projected image makes the church more ‘culturally relevant’ for those who are seeking. In this post, I am interested to explore this curious relationship between PowerPoint and art in the Church, specifically what it contributes as well as what it inhibits. I will start with the contribution and end with a caution.
Setting aside all the poor ways that PowerPoint can and has been used in the church space, I do want to suggest a contribution it makes. PowerPoint, as a tool, can ‘soften’ a Word-orientated denomination towards image and art. For churches that have been historically suspicious of art in the church space, images via PowerPoint might help them to re-think their position, understand their own history, and discern whether images uniquely contribute to a Christian’s worship. Additionally, because of software like PowerPoint, projection of art and images can be easily done. For a busy minister, ‘click to insert image’ overcomes significant time restraints. (Of course, while PowerPoint makes this easier, there is still discernment involved in choosing what images to use.)
However, while PowerPoint might provide some gains, I also want to raise a caution.  With the introduction of something like PowerPoint and the availability of digital imagery, careful thinking needs to be done about how using art in this way forms and shapes a congregation’s understanding of what ‘art’ is. I have seen projected art used as a slideshow that cycles through several works of art while music plays, or as some sort of backdrop to spoken word, liturgical practice, or worship song. In both cases, a shallow engagement with the work was all that was possible as I was either being quickly moved on to the next image or drawn away from it by the activity it was supporting. To me, a danger emerges in this practice. Does our use of projected art condition viewers to engage with art in the same way we ‘read’ advertising images? Because of the over-saturation of images in the marketplace, advertisers have seconds to grab the viewer’s attention and communicate their message. Thus, these images must offer their meanings quickly in order to compete. In contrast, (good) art needs time to elicit its deeper meaning. Without being given that time in church services, rather than an appreciation of art developing, what might happen is either a sense of frustration that the art does not ‘mean’ anything, or relatedly, a decision is made on the part of the minister to choose works of art that elicit their meanings on first glance.
Is this a fair concern? Are there ways you have seen PowerPoint and art used well in a church setting?
Sara Schumacher is Editor-in-Chief of Transpositions and an ITIA PhD Candidate, researching contemporary church patronage of the arts. This idea was sparked by a recent conversation with a local visual artist.