In preaching, don’t underestimate the impact of a humble object lesson or lowly flip-chart.
I was attending a conference at a large church—actually, it felt mammoth. The church boasted all the high-tech video and lighting you would expect. But one of the most powerful sessions was the simplest: a pastor, standing next to a blank easel, holding a black Magic Marker.
During his talk, he drew on the easel. That’s all. Yet it kept thousands enthralled.
I asked myself, Why are a white flip-chart and a black Magic Marker so powerful?
Reason One, I concluded: it was live.
The pastor could instantly draw, or change that drawing, or add to it in response to questions from the audience or his own inner muse. It felt like improv.
In comparison, the video roll-ins and PowerPoint decks had to be developed ahead of time. Though brilliant, they felt, well, canned.
Reason Two: The low-tech warmed the tone.
When the pastor drew with Magic Marker, it felt like he was a coach, giving a pep talk in the locker room, drawing X’s and O’s upon the chalkboard–rather than like a salesman trying to sell something. Compared to video and PowerPoint, the lowly easel and marker felt more intimate, less staged.
I’m not arguing against high-tech, but what may complement a sermon most is the lowly flip-chart or the humble object lesson.
Shortly after that conference, I was teaching on true friendship, drawing on the committed friendship of David and Jonathan.
My message had two points. Inspired by what I’d seen at the conference, when I got to Point 1, I wrote on a large poster board that true friendship means: I will defer to you in your areas of strength.
Then I turned the board over and wrote Point 2, that true friendship means, I will defend you in your areas of weakness.
I could have just said that. I could have put it on a PowerPoint slide. But I felt energy in the room when I used the poster board. People were wondering what I was going to write. When I flipped it over to write Point 2, they got a sense that there’s a flip-side to friendship: strength/weakness; defer/defend. It felt like two sides of one coin.
Here’s what I’ve learned in my experimenting with low-tech sermon visuals.
3 Lessons for Using Low-Tech Sermon Visuals
1. Be Strategic.
Any visual in a sermon must be strategic.
I want listeners to remember what Haddon Robinson called the big idea–the core concept of the text. I don’t want to illustrate a secondary point in the message, because whatever I illustrate will especially engage the listener.
One Easter, for example, I preached from 2 Corinthians 5:1, in which Paul says that
when this earthly tent we live in is taken down–when we die and leave these bodies–we will have a home in heaven, an eternal body made for us by God.
What is the central image of this text?
Paul’s metaphor that our current physical body is like a tent, but our eternal resurrection body is going to be like a home. He’s contrasting the flimsiness of a tent with the permanence and beauty of a home.
So, I brought in a large tarp that could be used as a tent, and a brick. I said, “Someday, we’re going to die” and took the tarp, folded it up, and set it to the side.
Then I said, “But then God is going to give us a resurrection body that is so much more beautiful and lasting and solid that it’s like moving from a tent into a home.” And I held up the brick. It wasn’t flashy, but it focused people on the central metaphor.
2. Keep it Simple.
The best sermon visuals are not elaborate. They give immediate understanding, without labor to explain.
I preached once from Matthew 12, in which Matthew says that Jesus fulfills the ancient prophecy of Isaiah that “a bruised reed he will not break.”
We don’t live in an agrarian society and see reeds growing along the water. So, the day before the sermon, I went to the drainage ditch near Interstate 355, and I clambered down to the marshy area where the water runs off the highway. I picked stalks of grass that stood over four feet tall.
I brought one into the pulpit. When I got to that part of the sermon, I held up the stalk; it swayed in my hand. “In Bible times,” I explained, “calling someone a reed was like calling them a weakling or a wimp, and that’s why Jesus asked the crowds, When you went out to see John the Baptist, what did you expect to see? A reed swaying in the wind? John was not like that.”
Then I said, “But there’s a state that’s even weaker than being a reed, and that’s being a bruised reed.” I reached up and snapped the reed so that the top part didn’t tear off but bent over.
I asked, “What do you do with a fragile, flimsy reed that gets broken? You throw it away. You forget about it. But for some reason, Jesus does not do that. Isaiah said he’s so gentle that when he finds a bruised reed, he won’t break it; he won’t snap it off. Instead, he’ll put his hands around it and he’ll splint it and he’ll keep it going until it grows large and strong again.”
What could be simpler than a blade of grass? Yet it communicated this biblical prophecy.
3. Make Sure It’s Sizable.
Whatever object you use has to be large enough to be seen easily and immediately by anyone in your congregation. I learned this lesson the hard way.
I was preaching on the passage of the woman caught in adultery, in John 8. I talked about how we all want to throw rocks at people in our lives, but before we cast a stone, we need to examine our motives. Why do we want to throw this rock?
Then I held up a rock, thinking it would be a powerful touch.
Afterward I asked my wife, “What did you think of the rock?” She said, “You couldn’t see it.” The rock I had chosen was about the size of my fist. By the time I put my hand around it to hold it up, few could see it.
Later I had a chance to preach this message at another congregation as a guest speaker. I got a rock three times the size of the other one. As soon as I held it up, people were with me.
3 Questions to Ask Beforehand
1. Am I going to keep this hidden until I’m ready to use it, or am I going to bring it out the whole time?
Sometimes you can build suspense by putting the sermon visual out ahead of when you use it.
For example, Dave McClellan, told CTPastors.com that he once started a sermon with a battered old chair sitting next to the pulpit. He didn’t reference it until about halfway through the sermon when he was talking about how God has a passion for restoring broken-down lives. By that time, people had been wondering, Why is that up there? What is that that ragged old chair for?
But other times you don’t want to bring out an object until a specific time, because it would be too distracting earlier.
2. Have I practiced enough to be confident it will work?
When I used the broken reed, I got three reeds, and I practiced breaking them off to see how high up should I reach, and where should I snap.
I wish I had followed my advice once when I was talking about how the resurrection explodes our assumptions. I then put a pin into a helium-filled balloon.
It let out a barely-audible whoosh and began to sag. No boom. Nothing. Had I practiced beforehand, I would have discovered this important fact about Mylar balloons. Oops.
3. Could I involve listeners in some way?
For a men’s retreat, I used an analogy from John Ortberg, where he described three approaches to our life with God.
One is like a rowboat, where it all depends on us. A second approach is like a raft, where we do nothing and expect the current to get us there. But the Christian life is more like a third approach, a sailboat, where it all depends on the wind but the sailor is always trimming the sails, trying to go with the wind.
So, before I explained this, I invited three volunteers to come up to three large easels in front. One person was quietly asked to draw a sailboat. Another drew a raft. The third drew a rowboat. The men wondered what was being drawn, and their work gave me the teaching visuals to work from.
An Important Word in Closing
This article could make it seem like I use a visual aid in my sermon every week. Far from it. I probably use a few preaching visuals per year. In fact, if people began to expect one, I would lose much of their attentiveness when I do use an object lesson.
Plus, I never want to feel the temptation to force a sermon visual where it doesn’t serve the greater purpose; or sweat under the pressure to outdo myself each week. I have enough pressure trying to prepare a sermon. I want to use a low-tech visual only when it seems natural and communicates the message God has given.
Portions of this article first appeared on PreachingToday.com: http://www.preachingtoday.com/skills/themes/deliveringthesermon/200502.34.html