August 2, 2007
The Ever-Changing Message
How visual technology always impacts what we preach.
Our friends at FaithVisuals.com recently spoke with Shane Hipps, author of The Hidden Power of Electronic Culture. We posted part one of the discussion last month where Hipps uncovered the ways electronic media affect our messages, and how it can be misused. In part two, he talks about what kinds of messages are well-served by electronic media. You can read more from Shane Hipps about the challenges of ministry in a visual culture in the summer issue of Leadership available now.
Speaking from a specifically church-based context, what kinds of messages are well-served by video or other visual media?
Any messages that demand sustained concentration and intellectual participation or engagement are not well-suited to a video medium. For example, the kind of abstract theological reasoning found in the letters of Paul is extraordinarily difficult to express and depict in visual imagery, since video and images offer impressions and evoke emotions. So, if the content that you want to communicate demands any kind of complex reasoning, images and video will actually work against your best efforts. This is one of the reasons that in the Middle Ages, when literacy rates plummeted and the dominant means of communication was stained glass windows, Paul's letters disappeared in the church. And it wasn't until after the print revolution that Luther "re-discovered" the epistles and basically elevated them above the stories of Jesus.
The question that we have to ask as leaders in the church as we consider using video and visual media is this: Are we inadvertently facilitating the disappearance of Paul again?
On an average Sunday, what are some practical ways that you think the church can use visual media without threatening the integrity of our message?
This question is an interesting one, because embedded in the question is the assumption that there is an "integrity of a message" - I don't think there is such a thing as a pure, unadulterated message.
All messages are delivered through a medium and are, therefore, invariably shaped by our choice of media. It's often said in the evangelical world that the methods can change as long as the message stays the same, and the reality is that when you change the methods you necessarily change the message.
This may sound like I'm saying "make sure you don't change the methods, so that we can keep our same message." But I don't believe there ever was an unchanging message. And I don't think this comes as a surprise to God; he has used so many different media for his messages - a burning bush, a donkey, stone tablets, and ultimately the person of Jesus Christ, which is probably the only place that the medium and the message are perfectly united. But God understood that each of these media conveyed a different message, regardless of the content:
A burning bush, no matter what the message, may convey mystery and otherness.
A donkey is something comical, and it's probably humiliating.
Stone tablets convey permanence.
And, of course, the incarnation.
This last one is probably the most powerful aspect of this whole "medium is the message" question. Now we're not just talking about bits and bytes and screens or no screens; we're talking about humans. We're saying "I am personally a medium, and I am my message." So, I can give a sermon on Sunday morning and say you should be giving your money away, but if I'm not giving my money away, that message will come through. Or if you look at someone like Ted Haggard, the kind of sexual immorality that he experienced as a medium radically compromised his message. So that's probably the first thing we should get away from: we shouldn't assume there is some kind of pure, unadulterated message. And the more we understand that, the better prepared we are for choosing our media to think, What am I really going to be conveying when I get up there to talk? And then how will that be shaped once I channel it through a particular medium?
What do you think are some of the benefits and detriments of using visual media in the context of the church or a church service?
Again, it always depends on how it's being used. The benefit of using visual media and multimedia is that, in some ways, it is an incarnational approach. And by that, I simply mean if you look at the model of Jesus, God coming to be with us, he spoke the language and understood the forms that the ancient world used to communicate and operated within those. So there's a sense of that incarnational aspect; if part of the language of the culture we live in is simply visual multimedia, then it's wise for us to find meaningful and reflective ways of using these forms.
Now, of course, there's a flipside, which can be detrimental. The detriment comes in when we fail to understand that our media choices are not simply reflecting culture; they are generating culture. Media are often generative in ways that are unintended. A big part of the reason I wrote my book was to try and help people perceive better the way that media shape us. The detriment of using video and multimedia is that it can begin to draw upon the manipulative power of visual multimedia - the emotional, the visceral. And the bottom line is anyone who's using that media is placed in a very precarious position when they're dealing with the people of God in the world. We are at an incredibly high risk of inadvertently hijacking the imagination of our people and manipulating them against their will. And it is the ultimate sign of disrespect to do that. So there's a sense in which in order to honor God at work among our people we have to be very, very careful about how we use these media because they're extraordinarily powerful.
Again, I'm not suggesting that we don't use them. I'm simply saying "Beware of the fact that you hold a nuclear weapon in your hand!" And you need to understand what the impact can be over the long term.
Shane Hipps is pastor of Trinity Mennonite Church - a missional, urban, Anabaptist congregation in Phoenix, Ariz. Before accepting a call as a pastor, he was a strategic planner in advertising, where he worked on the multimillion dollar communications plan for Porsche. It was here that he gained expertise in understanding media and culture. Shane speaks nationally, is a contributor to Leadership Journal, host of the "Third-Way Faith" podcast on wiredparish.com, and author of The Hidden Power of Electronic Culture: How Media Shapes Faith, the Gospel, and Church.