Visual Preaching (Preaching Point #17)

This entry is part 17 of 21 in the series Preaching Points

Over the years I’ve taught preaching in university courses and mentored a number of preaching apprentices and preachers-in-training.  This series summarizes some of the most basic yet most useful preaching points I’ve emphasized in these settings.

I hope you’ll join the fantastic Jim Martin and me as we teach “Preaching That Connects” at Harding School of Theology (Memphis, TN) Feb. 28-Mar. 7, 2013.  This D. Min. course promises to be practical and inspiring.


Preaching Point #17: Preach Like a Prophet Factor – Preaching can utilize as many senses as possible to impact listeners as deeply as possible.

Our culture is increasingly reliant upon multi-sensory communication.  Postmoderns are very experiential. And, they are often hostile to some of the Christian message.  A principal which I have developed is this: The greater the potential hostility to a message, the greater the number of senses one should consider utilizing to communicate that message.

Andy Crouch writes that “We’re entering the third age of the human race. The first was ‘orality,’ where people communicated primarily by oral, spoken language. The second was literacy, when suddenly, after Gutenberg, the printed paged became the main means by which culture was shaped and imaginations were formed. Now, we’re entering a third age: the age of visualcy.” (Andy Crouch, Christian Vision Project (quoted in Marshall Shelley, “What’re You Lookin’ At?” Leadership (Winter 2007), 7.)

In their book The Experience Economy: Work is Theater and Every Business a Stage Joe Pine and Jim Gilmore write that we live in an “experience economy” in which cost or quality alone doesn’t sell a product. Today, people demand an experience. This is the kind of person we are trying to reach today with the gospel. Concerning their willingness to “buy into” a specific faith system, they are “sold” not simply by facts and figures about the “product.” Rather, they are sold by experiences which create a positive emotional response to the product. Often, experience is more important to them than straight and factual information.

In his book The Back of the Napkin: Solving Problems and Selling Ideas with Pictures Dan Roam (a graphic designer) uses neuroscience, information architecture, and his own experience as a consultant to show that even analytical right-brainers can work better by thinking visually. By learning to sketch rather than just speak, we can communicate more effectively.

Kate Bonamici Flaim explores how companies and organizations are increasingly relying on visual and graphic ways of communicating. She also interviews Dan Roam (above) who shows how Peet’s Coffee & Tee, Infosys Consulting, Wal-Mart, and Microsoft all relied upon simple sketches to develop and communicate business models, new visions and missions, and significant projects. (“The Napkin Sketch” Fast Company (April 2008), 45-48.)

Thus we live in a culture which depends more and more on visual forms of communication.

God has frequently communicated in this very way.  God often called the prophets to utilize visual and other means (besides simply speech) to communicate their most challenging messages to their most hostile audiences.  For example, God tells Jeremiah to buy a clay jar from a potter, take it to the Valley of Ben Hinnom, break the jar, and say, “This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘I will smash this nation and this city just as this potter’s jar is smashed and cannot be repaired.’” (Jer. 19:1-11)  God tells Jeremiah to purchase a field at Anathoth from his cousin as a sign that “Houses, fields and vineyards will again be bought in this land.” (Jer. 32:1-15)  God tells Ezekiel to take a block of clay, draw on it the city of Jerusalem, erect siege words against it, build a ramp up to it, set up camps against it, and put battering rams around it. Then he was to take an iron pan, place it as an iron all between himself and the city, and turn his face toward it. Ezekiel was then to lie on his left side with the sin of Israel on him, for 390 days. Then he was to lie on his right side with the sin of Judah on him, for 40 days. All of this was a visual sign or symbol of God’s impending punishment upon his people. (Ex. 4:1-8)  Ezekiel is told by God to pack his belongings and walk out of the city through the wall while others watch, as a symbol of the soon-to-come exile. (Ez. 12:1-7)

In addition, God and his servants often engaged listeners through a variety of means besides speech.  For example, Jesus apparently points to flowers and birds as he teaches in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 6:25-30).  Jesus uses a child as a visual demonstration of his teaching about the kingdom (Matt. 18:1-4).  God presents John with a variety of visual signs and symbols to communicate his message in Revelation.

Thus, I strive for ways of preaching that engage people beyond their ears.  I often use art and visual aids.  I frequently ask people to say things out loud during sermons.  I’ve had people write things down or hold things in their hands.  I’ve had them get up and do something during the sermon.  All of this is an attempt to preach in ways that connect with more than just the ear.

How do you do this?  How do you engage people in your sermons?

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