Reaching Today’s Culture Requires Your Church to BE VISUAL

The Lindisfarne Gospels, a 1,300-year-old manuscript, is revered to this day as the oldest surviving English version of the Gospels. Lindisfarne is a small island just off the Northumberland coast of England. It is often referred to as Holy Island. Tidal waters cut it off from the rest of the world for several hours every day, adding to its mystique as a spiritual pilgrimage.

Produced around AD 715 in honor of St. Cuthbert, largely by a man named Eadfrith, the Bishop of Lindisfarne, the Lindisfarne Gospels presents a copy of the four Gospels of the New Testament. But it isn’t revered simply for its age. Its pages reveal curvy, embellished letters, strange creatures, and spiraling symbols of exquisite precision and beauty. During the eighth century, pilgrims flocked to St. Cuthbert’s shrine where it was housed, making the Lindisfarne manuscript one of the most visited and seen books of its day. Its artwork and symbols helped convey its message to those who could not read.

Professor Richard Gameson from Durham University sees it as a precursor to modern multimedia because it was designed to be a visual, sensual and artistic experience for its audience. Michelle Brown from the University of London notes that the book’s impact was similar to those of films and electronic media today. As Gameson adds, “The emphasis was to reach as many people as possible.”

There are many strategies needed for the church to have an open “front door” – to help those who were previously unchurched to come, and feel not only welcomed but to feel connected. In reaching the culture today it is clear that the church needs to be focused on a key element of this: be visual.

I have written in other places that there are striking parallels between our day and that of the Middle Ages. But if we are entering a new era that is similar to the earlier medieval era, what does that mean? If we are following the medieval pattern – and I believe that in many ways we are – there will be at least five dynamics:

  1. widespread spiritual illiteracy
  2. indiscriminate spiritual openness
  3. deep need for visual communication
  4. attraction to spiritual experience
  5. widespread ethos of amorality

That is why the term neomedieval, first offered by Umberto Eco in regard to Western society, seems appropriate.

But it is the visual element that churches neglect to their peril. Over the last twenty years, we have decisively moved to a visually based world. The most formative influences are not books, theater, or even music.

They are films.

Throw in videos and the rise of YouTube, and you have the essence of a cultural revolution – not to mention something of a return to the medieval. For example, during the Middle Ages, there was widespread spiritual illiteracy, as well as actual illiteracy. People couldn’t read. This is why pilgrimages mattered so much to the pilgrims. Beyond the relics and holy places they thought might bestow grace, usually the cathedrals they visited held relics that told the story of faith through a medium they could understand: stained glass, pictures.

So while people couldn’t, or didn’t, read, they couldn’t help but see, and from seeing, understand.

It’s no different today.

We are spiritually illiterate and are visually oriented and visually informed. Only now, instead of stained glass, we have film. At Mecklenburg Community Church, the church where I serve as senior pastor, there is very little we don’t try to convey visually, whether it’s a song during worship or a point during a message.

It’s simply how people best receive information and meaning, content and context.

And because it part of the arts, it has a way of sneaking past the defenses of the heart.

Read more from James.


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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

James Emery White

James Emery White

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. He is the founder of Serious Times and this blog was originally posted at his website www.churchandculture.org.

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comment_post_ID); ?> I am a senior citizen who has lived in many areas of the US, the farthest south being Virginia DC area. There are several church plants in the area--some failed, some doing well. One of the sadist failures was a plant in NW Washington near a large Presbyterian Church (I had been an elder in the church, so I knew the area) where changes in church doctrine was driving many away from the PCUSA churches. There were many mature Christians who lived in the area who were very willing to participate and give generously to the church. Its failure was a loss. The pastor and his wife lived in a VA suburb, wanted something that would appeal to their tastes, which included "praise music". There was a professional piano teacher and several people who had sung in choirs in the area. Their suggestions were completely ignored. Forget that there was joyous participation in singing hymns and silence by many for the praise music. The experienced church leaders that were attending were expected to seek the wisdom of the pastor who did not live in the area rather than have any role in leadership. There is another church plant in Northern Virginia that seems to be going the same way. My take: the pastors should get past their high-school and college days culture and get to know and appreciate the people of the community. Do not try to reproduce Intervarsity or Campus Crusade. Hymns are not a sin and "uneducated" (never graduated from college) should not be ignored as uninformed or stupid. People who have served in and/or live in the area are needed in leadership and not just to serve coffee and give. We all need to pray together and serve God in the community in which there is to be a plant. Glenna Hendricks
 
— Glenna Hendricks
 
comment_post_ID); ?> I like it Mac and do agree with your opinions on the matter. Thanks much
 
— winston
 
comment_post_ID); ?> In this era, we have the opportunity of professional church staff today who utilize their gifting to shape the image and atmosphere of the church organization. But the 100% real impact on the church visitors is genuine evidence of changed lives by the gospel and the active growing discipleship (just as it was in the first century church). One demonstration is financially rich believers ministering equally together with poor believers (how odd, and incredibly miraculous; all humble and bow at the foot of the cross.). It is the awesome contrast of church members vocations, race, gender, age, maturity, gifting, humility that demonstrates to visitors "there is a Spirit in the place". That first-time guest list of 10 are "physical excuses", not spiritual excuses. Those don't tell the story. The condition of facilities and publicly greeting people have zero to do with it. The power of God in and through believers lives dedicated to impact other people with their relationship bridge-building of acceptance of the lost around them. Empowered believers are infectious, loving, helpful, giving, self-less, dynamic, compelling, bold, Christ-filled. As I have been in many church settings domestically and internationally, the facilities can be poor, and yet the fellowship can still be rich. We need to operate with first church humility. People come to Christ on His terms, not on our human abilities of hospitality. A huge catastrophe in a community, disaster relief brings lots of people into churches – many come to the church in those terrible conditions no matter the physical condition of the local church. Off the condition of facility, and onto the condition of God's people (living stones).... and everything else will grow.... and the other physical issues will be corrected by the staff.
 
— Russ Wright
 

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