Why Sermon Images Fail and 5 Steps to Make Them Better

Len WilsonArtists, Church, Image, Leadership, Strategic Thinking2 Comments

If you’re a follower of Jesus Christ, then perhaps like me you are thinking that right now the world really needs the redemptive power of Jesus. Good gospel communication is more important than ever. Which is why I get so wound up by poor attempts to communicate the gospel in worship and preaching.

I made the comment in my first book, The Wired Church, that preaching isn’t dead, it’s just mutated. In our information age, we’ve long ago shifted from oral communication – speaking and hearing – to multi-sensory modes of learning, where we engage the whole self through sight and touch as well as sound.

More and more preachers are experimenting with image communication in the sermon. But we have a long ways to go still, and just because many congregations can now project an image in a worship service doesn’t mean preachers are using them in ways that improve their ability to communicate.

How can we do it better? As has been stated, a goal of preaching is to form people into likeness of Christ, in thought, feeling and action. But how do we communicate this change?


A primary way to invite people to change their lives is through the use of visual art.

First let’s acknowledge the power of image. Here are two premises about how people learn, and therefore how they change:

  1. People learn well by seeing. Multiple Intelligences is a theory established by Harvard education professor Howard Gardner. It is one of several ways recent cognitive research has begun to acknowledge that different people learn in different ways. Traditional preaching assumes a verbal-linguistic intelligence in the listener. But there are other modes – one of which, a particularly important one for males, is visual-spatial intelligence. Gardner’s theory is an academic acknowledgement of a common sense truth, that people learn by seeing something, and not just hearing it.
  2. People connect with deep places in their hearts first and foremost through art, not instruction. This statement is based on a quote from theologian Walter Brueggemann. I write more about it here.

When considering these two statements, then, a primary way in people learn, and therefore change their hearts and lives, is through visual art. Simply put, images evoke. To communicate the gospel better, look for ways to make the sermon more visual and more aesthetic.

Visual art in preaching is an act of communication.


6 ways sermon images fail.

While the use of images in preaching has risen in the last 20 years, a primary value for many images in worship and preaching is basic: don’t get in the way of the sermon. In my work with preachers and preaching students at seminaries and schools of theology, I’ve seen a variety of reasons why preachers don’t succeed in the effort to use good images.

  1. They don’t understand or believe in the power of image. Having been trained in the power of “word pictures”, some preachers are suspicious of the validity of images.
  2. They don’t know what to say with the sermon. The sermon is vague, and finding a good image forces a clarity of concept which some preachers can’t achieve.
  3. They can’t find time. Although some preachers give ideological objections, for most the problem is pragmatic. Most preachers already struggle to write a good sermon in a typical week. How are they supposed to add time to find good images, as well?
  4. They don’t collaborate with artists. A few attempt to answer this problem by trying to do it themselves, rather than use the gifts of image-makers. They dismiss the validity of the artist as a gospel communicator or don’t want the hassle of working through unfinished concepts with someone who is not theologically trained.
  5. They develop exact images in their minds, and then get frustrated when they can’t find their mental picture on the Internet. Because they are trained in painting word pictures, some preachers I have worked with develop mental images that capture their thought, and get frustrated that their own or others’ attempts at making the image don’t match what is in their heads.
  6. They look for images that precisely illustrate their concepts.

The last one is hard, as a preacher might say, well, that’s exactly what I want to do. But there is a difference between illustration and interpretation, just as there is a difference between convergent and divergent thinking. In my experience, thinking of image as illustration is limited, because it’s convergent, and the most powerful learning is divergent. Images work best when they embody a concept, as a metaphor, rather than illustrate it. (I say a lot more on image as metaphor here.)


5 ways to develop better images for preaching.

Here are five steps to overcome these problems and develop images that communicate life-changing truth:

  1. Understand what you want your sermon to say. Images both invite ambiguity and force clarity, but what they don’t do is put the viewer to sleep. An image evokes a response; you’ve got to be prepared to guide the viewer. The first step is to be clear about where you’re going.
  2. Respect the visual artist. Smart preachers have said that they recognize that an artist has a set of gifts uniquely different yet equal to the gifts of the preacher in communicating the gospel. Not every preacher believes this, so agreeing with this statement is a fine start. Believing it so much that you change your sermon development process to account for it is even better.
  3. Plan ahead. Recognize that image production needs a few days on its own, whether you’re doing it as the preacher, or someone else is. It’s not a week-of cycle.
  4. Co-develop concept(s). If you have artists at your disposal, learn to work with them early and often. It’s not a linear process, where the preacher sends the point in an email and the artist finds an image to support it. It’s a dynamic process in which word and image, and their respective makers, are sharpened by conversation and collaboration.
  5. Look for a synthesis of meaning where image interprets word and word interprets image. The cognitive benefits of a word-image marriage start in relationships. The finest use of image in sermons are ones that come out of a relationship in which preacher and artist are part of a 2-person mutual admiration society and each party is open to and improved by the insights of the other.


How have you used images in a sermon?


This article first appeared at https://lenwilson.us/sermon-images.

About the Author

Len Wilson

2 Comments on “Why Sermon Images Fail and 5 Steps to Make Them Better”

  1. Regarding the lack of belief in preaching with images, I’v found that a theological argument often can convince preachers that they are wrong if they dohn’t believe in it. Chapter two of my D. Min. disseration written ten years ago was about the theological idea that God and Jesus communicated through image more than they did through or at least as much as they did through spoken work. After all the tree in the garden was an image of boundary. The sacrificial system was the most powerful multi-sensory experience we’ve every seen to teach of the need for blood sacrifice for the remission of sins. Also, the Lord’s Supper and Baptism are multi-sensory for the participant and image for the observer. The cursing of the fig tree, the well in Samaria, the loaves and the fishes, the log in the eye, etc. are all images used to teach/preach.

    If Jesus felt the need to use image and the senses to communicate the gospel, how do we think we will do it any better without them. In fact, a preaching class that doesn’t include the idea of image and senses in the communication of the message is incomplete.

    1. Kevin, great comment. There are definitely still preachers that take an ideological stance against images. A few years ago, Piper said video makes preaching weak.

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