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Sunday, May 31, 2009
Pixar: A Study in StoryTelling vs. Terminator: A Study in Special Effects

On Worship, Story Development, and Special Effects. This evening we took our family to see UP, Pixar's latest, and some say greatest, film so far. Pixar has enjoyed so much success not because of great animation but great stories. The stories tap into such profound plots and do so in such multivalent, multi-leveled ways. Last week I saw Terminator: Salvation. Despite it's storied beginning, the Terminator series laid an egg with this one. The impossible to follow story literally duct-tapes itself together with beyond spectacular special effects.

I find that to be the case with worship. We often rely more on special effects than on story development. Think about it-- lights, cameras, fog, newest songs, fast moving imagery on 17 screens, 18 effects pedals at the lead guitar's toe tips, and did i mention lights?? In fact, today's worship leader increasingly describes his or her task as "leading people through a seamless experiential encounter with the presence of God." Hmmmm.

How about this past Sunday? Did your worship service give any attention to developing the story of Pentecost-- the birthday of the Church-- the universal celebration of the sending of the Holy Spirit? Or was it just another week of lights, screens and sentimental songs?

I noted a feature in the movie credits today I'd never seen before. Pretty quickly after the credits began scrolling I saw the title of "Story Development Supervisor," followed by a host of titles and names underneath. Soon after came "Story Development Manager" with another team of laborers. Still yet came "Story Development Coordinator," and another team. Not only did these positions and work teams come prior to all the animators and special effects teams, they they seemed to outnumber them as well. Could this be Pixar's secret? Attention to Story Development?

What if we started approaching the worship life of the church in this fashion? Story Development. What if the worship leader became a kind of chief story development officer? How might that work? What could it look like?


posted by John David Walt | at 5/31/2009 10:50:00 PM



Blogger NAJS said...


We often talk about developing flow within Musical Worship sets to lead people into his presence and I can see a parallel with story telling. The obvious weakness here is , unlike Pixar, we only have one story to tell - this is of course our Greatest strength.

I always attempt to prayerfully plan a journey through the set assisting people in re-centering themselves, Worshiping God because he’s always worthy and worshiping specific truths, walking thru the temple each step seeking to draw closer to His presence.

In choosing the whole set I generally keep the sermon/talk/theme in mind to ensure songs won’t detract, but typically spend most time on identifying appropriate response songs to follow the talks theme; brief discussions with the speaker ahead of selection can be fruitful here.

The power our Our Saviour’s story is that, apart from not being fiction, it is rich in truths of his character, promises, grace, mercy etc. A challenge I take from your thoughts is to explore one particular theme/truth throughout the worship. Not to sing away about grace, grace, grace in every song, but rather to unpack a deeper layer of grace in each song.

Applying such thoughts within the song-writing fraternity could lead to a rich pool of crafted & focused songs illuminating further truths/insight into His character.

Interesting thoughts – keep up the good work.


10:29 AM EDT  
Blogger ode2immortality said...

I guess for the me question is "which one is driving the bus?" Are lights, music, and what-not there to tell the story or are they the focus themselves. Stories need devices that help them sink in to people's hearts and minds. But how dangerous is it when all we have to say is how impressed we were with effects, like commenting on the paint Michelangelo used on the Sistine Chapel without taking in the art and the wonder. I use effects pedals... lots of them... and if they help me tell the story in the song better then they are an asset. If I turn them on just to get my jollies then I have undermined the art and the story we are trying to tell.

1:23 PM EDT  
Anonymous john said...

Isn't that the pastor's job/responsibility? Or have we ceded that to worship leaders?

2:13 PM EDT  
Blogger John David Walt said...

Thanks for commenting-- Neil-- I get you on the flow point. I guess what I am trying to say is we need to get beyond themes, truths, ideas and so forth-- which are all derivatives of the story-- things we extract. It's like pulling teeth and trying to show points of a smile and missing the smile altogether. I find that people don't primarily understand or themselves or God or others by themes and truths or even principles-- this happens mysteriously through Story. Children don't ask us to tell them truth-- they ask them to tell us stories and the stories reveal the truth in ways far beyond our derivative constructs. make sense?

It's not theme development or truth development or even character development that is lacking in the average congregation-- I contend it is story development. without good story development, people will readily take our themes and truths and principles and fit them right into their own self-actualizing stories in the very name of Jesus. if we want to see movement we must begin developing an alternative story.

Brett-- i get the bus analogy and i agree-- does the dog wag the tail or does the tail wag the dog. right? i think i would rather go in the direction of which bus rather than which driver. in other words-- are we on a bus that will take us to an ultimate reality or a bus that is driving toward an ultimate experience. they are rarely the same thing-- i.e. see the cross. your pedal board rocks by the way and indeed is on the right bus-- never driving, always following. ;-)

John-- in my vision-- the pastor/preacher is just another worship leader. story development is everyone's job (i.e. kingdom of priests). everyone that serves the work of worship; however, must take responsibility for it. glad to see you here again Godthoughts. ;-)

keep it flowing. this is a good conversation.

9:44 PM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree...sometimes worship gets caught up in the show if we are not careful instead of the STORY! I attend church to worship and learn of Christ, not to be entertained or help promote someone's ego

12:40 AM EDT  
Blogger sandra r. said...

Story Development... yeah!
Now, do we really get it?

I think of it also in this context:
Many children's church hours have so many videos and songs and theatrics... I've looked around the room and wondered how many children out of the 100 or so could actually open their Bibles and read their favorite Bible story. It doesn't appear they're encouraged to bring their own Bibles as everything is electronic these days... tragic! It all seems to be technologically driven instead of STORY driven. It seems to be all about keeping their attention these days.

Being a ministry event coordinator, the other thing I see right now is that it sometimes can be all about the bells and whistles - best lighting, best sound, massive video walls... I don't think there's anything wrong with that (for the most part), but for a huge worship gathering "keeping the main thing the main thing" becomes an even bigger priority... making it about the STORY seems to get a little more tricky...

I know in my former ministry working for summer youth camps, we had so many production meetings about stage design, screens, video projectors, videos to be played...
BUT, the trick was always trying to remember that those students were only there for a week... What were they taking home with them? The hope was that the theme/Scripture emphasis for the week would be invested in them in such a way that they would return home to their churches where they may not necessarily have the most contemporary worship elements... but that they would truly realize the Message and carry it in their hearts - not just the camp hype or high, but actual life-change!

Translating that to a church context is a little more difficult. I think it's about connecting the dots in people's hearts. Videos are great. Drama teams are good... but there's something to be said about the Word of God coming to life in a worship song, the pastor's message, or someone sharing their testimony of all that God has done.

I'm at a loss for words now. Too many thoughts...
Good though. Real good.

3:14 AM EDT  
Blogger drew said...

I put my response on my blog...seeing how I hadn't written anything on it for a while. We should get together this summer and talk about poetry stuff...

4:01 PM EDT  
Anonymous MC said...

This reminds of Tolkien's intro to Lord of the Rings and his essay On Fairy Stories. Do you remember him talking about his distaste for allegory and love for applicability?

Recently I heard a sermon using a Bible story like an allegory to make a separate point. It would be more effective to commit to actually teaching the Bible Story and let applicability naturally happen. In the case of that sermon I found myself getting the 'point' but longing to just hear the story.

J.D. I like the inordinate focus on 'derivatives' idea (teeth vs smile).

9:38 AM EDT  
Blogger Steve Ray said...

Thanks JD. I have had concerns myself about the church's fascination with the "special effects" of worship environments.

3:11 PM EDT  
Blogger Team Reporter said...

JD, I love where you're going with story development. Could you provide examples of what a worship gathering would look like in telling the story verses stressing various themes or, as you say, pieces of the story? I'd like to explore this in our own setting as a worship pastor. I get how to do thematic worship and, honestly, feel rather constrained and limited in that approach. I've been living in the Grand Narrative of our story the last six months and would be excited to see how to overlay the overarching story into our corporate gatherings. I'd also like to see how this would influence my song writing. Thanks for your ideas and practical examples to help stoke the fire!

12:45 PM EDT  
Blogger Team Reporter said...

Sorry about commenting on my own post, but I started thinking liturgically. I'm from an Anglican tradition and realized that the The Eucharist seems to get at what you're proposing? Would you say the liturgy provides a framework for the Grand Narrative to which you're proposing? Or are you suggesting sub-stories within the larger whole? from Michael Flowers, Kansas City Boiler Room.

2:05 PM EDT  
Blogger Sean said...

I've been training pastors, teachers and speakers in the art of story for 25 years:

A good well-trained storyteller needs no devices to convey a story.

Wait, Jesus, we're out of fog juice...

Excellent post and comments.


2:32 PM EDT  

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