Visual Preaching in a Social Media World

How do you tell an old story in a fresh new way?

The house lights dim, and a giant movie screen flickers to life. The audience settles in their seats as a throbbing techno soundtrack signals the start of a 60-second movie trailer. Up on the big screen, a man in a slick, black motorcycle helmet roars down a crowded city street. His engine revs as the sound of police sirens grows louder. Quick cut to an overhead drone shot of skyscrapers and a clock tower that looks vaguely European. Another quick cut to a close-up of fingers feverishly typing code into a computer laptop.

High-speed chases and secret messages … is this the latest Mission Impossible movie? The trailer resolves to the title of this riveting thriller: Se7en Churches of Revelation. Turns out it’s a sermon trailer introducing a seven-week message series at Liquid Church focused on the book of Revelation.

Now, let’s imagine the alternative—promoting this sermon series the old-fashioned way from the pulpit: “Next Sunday, Pastor Tim will begin a seven-week study on ancient apocalyptic literature. Please invite a friend.”

Let’s just say, only one of these methods fills the seats.

The combination of an edge-of-your-seat sermon video and the creative staging we used at Liquid throughout this series on Revelation was compelling. Guests also enjoyed a custom study guide with high-resolution photography and discussion questions for small groups. We went line by line through some of the most challenging passages in Scripture and catch this: our attendance grew.

KILLER CONTENT IS KING

Let me state my bias up front: I believe it’s a sin to be boring in church. At Liquid, we think the greatest story ever told deserves the most dynamic communication we can imagine.

I’m not alone. A recent Gallup poll confirmed that “Sermon Content is What Appeals Most to Churchgoers.” For 75% of people, it’s what brings them in the front door. If you want to reach unchurched people—and get part-timers to become Sunday regulars—killer content is king. And you need to deliver every single weekend.

Here’s the challenge: We live in a TGIF world dominated by Twitter, Google, Instagram and Facebook. People are constantly pulled in every direction by tweets, snaps, games, memes and YouTube videos. This has had a profound impact on communication, eroding our ability to concentrate for longer periods and absorb complex information.

Yet, the traditional Protestant sermon hasn’t changed with the times. It’s remained more like a college lecture where a passive audience is expected to pay attention. A 40-minute monologue isn’t going to work for this generation. They expect a multilayered experience that engages them verbally, visually, emotionally and kinetically.

WHOLE-BRAINED REVOLUTION

I’m calling for a whole-brained revolution in the next generation of communicators. For the last 400 years there’s been a disproportionate focus on left-brain logic in preaching. We need to pair this with right-brain creativity. This is vital to engage this TGIF generation and inspire them to make their faith their own.

Creating sticky sermons that resonate with the next generation doesn’t happen spontaneously. It requires careful planning and at Liquid we follow a 10-step process.

1. Plan the Sermon Series: We preach in sermon series and typically spend 4 to 5 weeks unpacking a single theme. Why series? This Netflix generation is hardwired to think in terms of series, seasons and episodes. It makes sense to tackle topics like relationships, anxiety, parenting, racial reconciliation or prayer and fasting in this format. We map out the entire year in advance, typically planning 12 sermon series on our preaching calendar, anchored by two six-week small group campaigns. Sermon ideas come from a variety of sources—movies, music, news reports and cultural trends, each begging for God’s perspective in Scripture.

Write the Creative Brief: For each series, the teaching team writes a two-page creative brief that explains the series premise. It includes a blurb or brief series description, an outline of topics or Scripture to be covered, as well as suggestions for staging and props. What makes the creative brief unique, however, is that we also include a page of photos and pictures to immediately begin generating visual ideas for branding.

Choose a Wineskin: Next, we come up with a “skin” to brand each sermon series. In marketing, you might think of this as the product packaging. However, our inspiration comes from Jesus’ analogy about wineskins in which he speaks of the need for the new wine of the gospel to have fresh containers. So, we used the skin of Fixer Upper, a popular home renovation TV show, to brand a series on Nehemiah. In a series called Pop God, we looked at song lyrics by artists like Bruno Mars and Adele, and tied them to the minor prophets of the Old Testament. At Liquid, we’re not shy about leveraging secular music and media for redemptive purposes.

Design a Look and Logo: After skinning a series, our graphics team designs the look and logo. Increasingly, our culture communicates in icons and easy-to-remember brand names like Apple or Google. For this reason, we tend to favor short and memorable sermon brands such as FAST—a 40-day sermon series on the power of fasting and prayer. The bright, colorful logo featured fresh fruit and vegetables that looked like they belonged on the cover of a cookbook. This isn’t window dressing, it’s honoring your brain’s bias for processing visual information quickly.

Shoot a Series Trailer: After the look and logo are designed, our video team storyboards and shoots a 60- to 90-second trailer for promotion. Some are action-packed, while others are poignant. Others are funny and super shareable on social media. If the trailer requires actors, we feature people from our congregation so the audience sees someone like them on screen.

Create a Buzz: We create digital assets that can be shared and spread. This includes social media graphics and videos for our people to post on Instagram and Facebook. We also create invite-a-friend cards to support our people’s in-person relationships. A combination of word-of-mouth testimony and word-of-mouse technology is the best way to generate buzz.

Add Props and Staging: We leverage ordinary items to communicate scriptural truth. One Easter message featured a real coffin onstage (spoiler: it was empty.), while our FAST series (referenced above) featured a grocery cart packed with food like pepperoni pizza, chocolate chip cookies, salty chips, and sugary soda, and even a six-pack of Budweiser. We visually showed how the world invites us to feed our flesh. Remember, if you want people to remember your message, you need to make it multisensory.

Surprise People: Routine is the enemy of engagement, which is why we add an element of surprise each series. While preaching on the Prodigal Son—a story even casual churchgoers know—we chose to highlight the party the father throws to celebrate his child’s return. Mid-message doors to the sanctuary burst open and volunteers fanned out with party platters stacked with Krispy Kreme donuts. Party music blared over the sound system and the worship team threw confetti into the crowd. Drama, dance, compelling music and more can help you tell an old story in a fresh new way.

This is a game-changer. I’ve instituted a false deadline of Thursday night for the sermon and supporting elements. The manuscript, graphics, video and props all must be complete. And we schedule a live rehearsal with a team of hand-selected listeners to critique the sermon. We’ve dubbed it Thursday Night Gospel, and it’s the most valuable part of the preaching process. I get honest feedback and become aware of ideas that need improving or trimming, stories that lacked nuance, and most important, Scriptural truths that needed underlining.

Perform a Hotwash: Finally, every Monday morning our programming team meets for a postservice “hotwash,” verbally reviewing the service from top to bottom and examining what went right, what went wrong (and how to fix it) and what was the pulse of our people following the service. This is the capstone of the creative process and a vital part of creating a culture of accountability and continuous improvement.

HOW WILL YOUR CHURCH GET CREATIVE?

What creative language has God gifted you to speak to your community? Crossover Church in Tampa, Florida, reaches a diverse crowd by featuring hip-hop music. While this embodies a more modern ministry style, other leading churches are using an ancient-future approach. Christ Presbyterian Church in Nashville incorporates expository preaching, liturgy, creeds, confessions and sacraments into their weekly worship gatherings.

Being creative is not primarily about being slick, modern or trendy. Leaders must discern how the Spirit has wired the community God has called them to service. And then, with courage and creativity, they need to prayerfully paint outside the lines to tell an old story in a fresh new way.