During a recent advent season, the Rev. Howard Chapman, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Marion, wanted to use visual and audio media to tell his congregation the annunciation story in a new way.

So he found a few still shots of pregnant women and a nurse and recorded women reading the words of parishioners answering a simple, but personal question: How did you feel when you first learned you were pregnant? The combination of projected visuals and moving audio testimonies proved memorable, Chapman told a crowd of about 25 people attending an Oct. 27 Worship Design Studio, titled “Visual Art through Media.”

“I could have said, ‘Amen,’ and not said anything more,” Chapman said. “It took a little thinking and preparation, but it came together that day and it was very powerful."

Colette Soults, worship consultant for the Presbytery of East Iowa, said the workshop was designed to help congregations use the liturgical arts found in media and technology. “Art in worship is not an end in itself,” she said, “but a vehicle to ignite imagination, or inspire praise to God.”

Art has long been part of worship, Chapman noted, from stained glass windows, which preachers used centuries ago to teach the Bible to semi-literate worshipers, to Jesus himself, who used a child as a visual prop when instructing his disciples how they needed to behave if they expected to enter heaven. “Consider the lilies” may well have been delivered while Jesus and his disciples were walking alongside a field in full bloom, Chapman surmised.

“Suppose,” he told the preachers in attendance, “you could have a different stained glass window every Sunday.”

Halfway through the three-hour workshop, Chapman and the church’s audio-visual technician, Dave DeHoff, took the group into the sanctuary, constructed in 1884 and recently renovated to restore bright stained glass windows. During both worship services – which church members call “traditional” and “synergy” – DeHoff projects images on two screens in front, utilizing projectors tucked discretely in the rear of the traditional sanctuary. DeHoff sits at a small console engineering it all.

Chapman preaches from a manuscript, which he labels with the slide he wants displayed, and DeHoff minds his cues. Chapman said he goes by the “less is more” rule, particularly in the use of animation and transitions between slides. He’s also sparing with his use of YouTube clips, choosing instead to display a still shot from a film or video with text explaining dialogue or the point he’s making.

Some worshipers may not see the film well if the church is too bright, he reasoned, but most everybody can see a good photograph and read the caption.

Rather than using what Chapman calls “Sunday school pictures” to illustrate, for example, David taking on Goliath, Chapman substitutes a humorous picture of a small boy lunging at a sumo wrestler, or, more poignantly, a Palestinian boy using a rock to take aim at a tank.

The images or text are displayed throughout the service – during announcements; to highlight celebrations, including new baby photos; when members of the confirmation class are presenting their statements of faith; and for the liturgy and when special music is being played.

“Make it your own,” Chapman advised people taking their first plunge into technology and worship. “Make sure it fits your style, and work with your team. Keep it simple, and have fun.”

Wes Walker and Tom Ward, projection team members at First Church in Muscatine, were also on hand to share their eight years of experience.

“What we try to keep in mind is that we’re there to enhance the worship experience and glorify God,” Walker said. Challenges abound, including how low the sun is during autumn, creating the problem of too much light in church.

“Our screen is angled so the sun doesn’t give it a direct hit,” he said.

Walker had one final piece of advice: Encourage church members to make their own unique contributions to the weekly digital display.

“Don’t discount the digital camera,” he said, holding one aloft. “They work very well and they personalize worship.