In 2 Samuel 12:1-4, the prophet Nathan was sent to David armed with a message from God, but that message was embedded in a story. The story drew David in, evoking great emotion as he interacted with the principal characters of the story. Then to David’s great surprise, the story threaded its way through his imagination and into his conscience, causing him to repent of killing Uriah and taking his wife Bathsheba.
Prophets and preachers have always used illustrations to comfort and confront their hearers. Ranging from dramatic demonstrations of the prophets to the enigmatic parables recounted by Jesus, illustrations of truth have pierced hearts and changed lives throughout biblical and Christian history.
Using a video illustration in a sermon is simply showing a story, instead of telling it.
Like any other form of illustration, the Holy Spirit can use a carefully selected video to capture the hearts and minds of a digital generation to hear and understand the Word of God. How can you use video illustrations with integrity and effectiveness?
Begin with the Scriptures, not the Silver Screen
Like Nathan, determine to come before the people with a message burning in your heart. Study hard and pray long, refining your thoughts and reaching a conclusion regarding the message God wants you to deliver. Set a personal deadline for completing your sermon preparation well in advance, to allow adequate time to find the right video illustration.
What is the “takeaway” message you want your hearers to remember days after you are finished preaching? Imagine a situation where you could only speak one sentence to the church, summing up your entire message. What would that single statement be? Arm yourself with the main idea before you search for a video illustration.
Never Trust the Ratings (or the Academy Awards®)
Movies can tell wonderful stories, but they can also contain graphic expressions of violence, profanity, sex, and drugs. Although the clip you choose may be morally acceptable, other parts of the film may deeply offend members of your audience—even if it was an Academy Award® winning film!
Ultimately, you want your audience to react to the truth, not your video clip.
Anticipate your audience response to the entire film. Why? Because they often will decide to go out and rent the video after viewing the clip you used in your sermon. Your use of a video illustration will be received as a tacit endorsement of the entire film. If you use a clip from an R-rated movie, you may be inadvertently leading members of your church to go out and view some deeply objectionable material.
Review and personally rate the movie before using any part of it. Since 1968 the Classification and Rating Administration has assigned ratings to films (G, PG, PG-13, R, and NC-17). Because the process can be highly subjective, you really need to become personally aware of the film’s content by viewing the movie for yourself. If you are short on time, consider an online evaluation resource like Focus on the Family’s Plugged In Online.
Observe the Copyright Requirements
Before showing a video to a public audience, like a church, you must ask yourself the question “who owns the copyright?” The Copyright Act of 1976 expressly forbids the public performance (viewing) of copyrighted media outside the home, even if the viewing is free and you have purchased the video for the church. For videos that you did not create, you must obtain permission from the copyright holder, or you will violate the law (U.S. Copyright Office www.loc.gov/copyright).
Purchase videos with “public performance rights”. Some videos, like the ones sold at SermonSpice.com, include “public performance rights” with any purchase of the video. This means that the copyright holder extends to you the right to show the video in a public setting.
Purchase an annual site license. Christian Video Licensing International (CVLI www.cvli.org) offers an annual site license for your church to show videos produced by most of the major studios in Hollywood. A site license, as the name implies, is good only at a single physical address. The purchase price is based on the average size of your viewing audience. The performance of the video must be in its original format (VHS, DVD etc.). In other words, the CVLI site license does not grant you the right to record or store a portion of the video on your computer.
Contact the copyright holder for permission to show the video. If the copyright owner does not participate in the CVLI consortium, contact them in writing to request permission to show the video. Offer as much information as you can, explaining the context (i.e., a worship service, a retreat setting, etc.), the approximate size of the audience, and the expected date of the viewing. Do not show the video until you have received written permission to do so.
Show It without Blowing It
Execution is as important as the process of video selection. The person running the video will need clear instructions from you. When will the video be shown during your message? Will you give a verbal cue? Do the lights need to be dimmed? What are the start/stop times for the video segment being shown? Test everything to be sure it works.
When mistakes happen, laugh it off. However, it is a good idea to never depend on a video illustration to make your point. Ultimately, your message is a word from God that He will use—with or without the video!
To maximize the impact of video illustrations, try to use them occasionally, instead of weekly. Frequent use will diminish their effectiveness. Use a variety different creative approaches (e.g., props or drama) to illustrate your messages, including video as only one tool among many in your communication toolbox.
Remember the Goal
Notice how David responded as the significance of Nathan’s story penetrated his heart:
So David’s anger was greatly aroused against the man… Nathan said to David, “You are the man!” …David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.” 2 Samuel 12:5-13
For months, David carried a horrible, secret sin in his heart and did not repent. In minutes, God enabled a prophet’s insightful illustration to slip past his emotional defenses and intellectual excuses, reducing David to a broken, repentant state.
The artful use of a video sermon illustration can help transport God’s truth deep into the hearts of your audience. What is the ultimate goal? A changed life!
This blog was previously published as…
- “How to Use Movie Clips in Your Sermon.” The Church Leader’s Answer Book. Carol Stream, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers / Christianity Today International, 2006. 649-650; and as
- “The Art of Video Sermon Illustrations.” Preaching Magazine, July-August 2006.