Reminder: Internet Evangelism Day is April 29th.
“The soul never thinks without a picture” – Aristotle
Since its launch in 2005 , YouTube has grown to be the definitive place to find and share video shorts. By 2012, 60 minutes of new video content were being posted to YouTube every minute, with over 2 billion videos viewed worldwide each day. It’s the default place to post short clips, with Vimeo as a distant second for longer videos. YouTube is now the world’s second-largest search interface, after Google.
Understanding our new digital culture
The ‘print communication culture’ that lasted since the invention of the printing press is being rapidly superceded by the new ‘digital communication culture’. The differences are far-reaching and transformative, because not only are digital media a different means to communicate, but they are transforming the way our culture thinks. For a detailed unpacking of this ongoing change, read Viral: How Social Networking Is Poised to Ignite Revival by Len Sweet.Print culture was, naturally, text-based, but also tended to be ‘left-brain’ and analytical. Digital culture is visual, 'right-brain’ intuitive, and story-based. In many ways, it is nearer to the oral communication cultures of many countries outside the West. Indeed Christians, being generally bookish people, do not realise the extent to which many even in the West read little, especially books, and have always learned orally via TV and film.
Video shorts are therefore a natural expression of digital culture, and hugely significant for both evangelism and discipleship. (So too are longer films, up to feature length.)
Video sharing for evangelism
This is a God-given opportunity, as the Our Chance video explains.
People usually find YouTube videos they’d maybe watch, by recommendations of friends through Facebook, Twitter, or other social networking sites. Facebook users can post a YouTube clip onto their Wall with one click, or a simple copy/paste of the URL. Bloggers and website owners can easily embed videos onto their pages using the customizable code that YouTube offers.
Sharing resources and discussion on social networking sites is important because:
- Many people spend the majority of their online time in Facebook and other social networking options.
- More than half of all web users, and certainly the vast majority of active younger users, are on Facebook or a regional equivalent. (Africa, Asia and S America also use other popular equivalents of Facebook, as does China, where Facebook is banned.) In many Majority World countries, Facebook can be accessed free on mobile phones.
- It is sharing in a discussion environment. Social networking must never be perceived as a ‘pulpit for preaching’. It’s a ‘cafe for conversation’.
- It’s within the context an existing relationship. The biggest factor by far, for most adults becoming believers, is a relationship with a Jesus-follower: read research study.
- A normal social networking post in Facebook, Twitter, blog, etc. is nevertheless not directed at an individual. A friend can choose to engage in a conversation about it, or not, without appearing rude or feeling ‘got at’.
- Video is an integral part of the digital ‘three-fold cord’ (Eccls. 4:12) of Facebook/social networking + mobile phones + video shorts.
The significance of mobile phones
In many countries, mobile phones represent more than 50% of web access. In the Majority World, a mobile may be the only electronic device many people will own. Increasingly, people access email, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube clips on their phones, in short bursts of activity. There is therefore great synergy between video shorts and mobile phones.
There’s a further mobile opportunity – Jesus-followers can keep a selction of varied video shorts (and longer films on their smartphones). Videos can be shared one-to-one when appropriate and also transferred by Bluetooth to a friend’s phone): watch this story of video sharing in India. The Talking About Jesus app takes this a step further by offering a ready-made set of video shorts that once downloaded do not need a data link.
Where to find videos
As with every part of the Internet, the problem is knowing where to find the good stuff. This is why online curation is so important. If someone else has done the work for you, and created lists of useful video clips, the rest is easy! And happily, this is the case. YesHEIs.com is a multi-language directory of conversation-starting video clips that you can post to your Facebook page, Twitter, etc with one click. Other sources of video shorts include GlobalShortFilmNetwork and for science/apologetics God: New Evidence. Most can be downloaded to a mobile phone.
You can also download clips or trailers from current movie releases. Many films contain embedded spiritual parallels that are great conversation starters. The Damaris ministry resources Culturewatch and Viewfinder will help you use movies as a starting point and offer resources including video downloads.
It has never been easier to create videos and post them to YouTube. High-end smartphones and many digital cameras take video in reasonable definition – you don’t necessarily need a camcorder. (It is preferable to use a camera with a socket for an external microphone to give better sound quality.) Free or cheap editing software makes video creation very practical.
Of course, the more you can learn about film-making, the better. There are many online introductory resources and the book How to Shoot Video That Doesn't Suck: Advice to Make Any Amateur Look Like a Pro is widely praised. Local colleges may also offer evening classes in film-making.
As well as straight filming, there are other fun ways to create short videos. These include claymation and other forms of stop motion storytelling (eg. Aardman’s Wallace and Gromit) and hand-drawn or computer animation.
Because animation is not photo-realism, it draws us into a magic parallel world of our imagination where anything is possible, and it can uniquely communicate spiritual truth. Watch these animations: Invention of Love and Alma which (though not positioned as ‘Christian’ animation) could be great conversation-starters, in a youth group or posted online. In stories like these, their value is to find parallels and start discussion. Note that line-drawn or stop-motion animations at 4 frames per second or less can still work well. A line-drawn animation can also function as a direct gospel presentation – here are two: God Stuff Explained and iPad Drawing.
James Cheung also discusses in this video his use of line drawings face-to-face for a gospel presentation.
There is a big need for Christian animators – if you feel called to this ministry there are opportunities for training including YWAM’s School of Cartooning and Animation. Check the links at Animax35.
Video shorts, whether filmed or animated, can be an excellent evangelism project for a youth group.
What works best for video shorts content?
If you watch the best secular video clips on YouTube, you’ll see hugely creative ideas for communication. Here are ideas to consider:
Don’t think ‘preaching’, in the sense of a talking-head mini-sermon. This is a mode of lecture communication that best fits a seated captive audience, made up of Christians or people who have elected to sit through it.
Do think ‘storytelling’. Visual stories are powerful because they embed truths within the narrative, rather than as abstract propositional truth. And they are memorable. Leighton Ford has observed, “It’s been said that next to food and drink, our most basic human hunger is for storytelling.” The four gospels describe Jesus as 'preaching' and then unpack what he actually did. Sure, for the synagogue people (those we would today define as 'churched') he expounded scripture from the pulpit. But for outsiders (many of whom we would now classify as ‘unchurched’), he did something so different and revolutionary, that to this day, we’ve largely not adopted it (Matthew 13:34-35).
He told very visual stories. With embedded meanings. Often they raised questions instead of giving answers. Often it seems he left people to go away and think about them, rather than end the story with, “And the moral of this story is...”
A short video story should usually make just one ‘takeaway’ point or hanging question, just like a parable. Don’t try to cram in much more than this.
Testimonies can work well as video shorts too. But there are many pitfalls. They must be scripted (but not read), so that subject knows how to tell the story coherently. They must avoid jargon, and not be told in the way people tend to ‘give a testimony’ in church. These can often be cringemaking, artificial, use Christianese, or even dishonest overclaim. Don't even call it a 'testimony', which is another jargon word.
A 'talking head’ testimony can work, especially if there are pan shots and other editing to maintain interest. See the example of Kimberley's story and these video shorts. Here are 11 Pro Tips for making effective talking-head videos.
Length is critical. Most Christian video shorts are usually... too long. Research shows that the drop-out rate for people watching videos much longer than two minutes increases with extra length. Sure, there can be gripping videos of four or five minutes (especially stories), but these are the exception. Every second of film over two minutes needs very strong justification to be retained. Three minutes should usually be a maximum for a video that you hope random outsiders will watch to the end. Script short, and cut shorter. Creatives hate to leave out lovingly-created stuff! Be brutal.
In part this recommendation is due to the context in which most people encounter a new video short – ie. randomly in the middle of a busy day. We feel that we can set aside two minutes, maybe three, to watch an unfamiliar video of unknown content. Much longer, and that viewing has to be very intentional. For example, I enjoy the many excellent 10-20-minute TED video lectures. But I have to set aside time for these. It’s ‘appointment viewing’.
Take TV adverts as your model. Not for their hard-sell approach. But for the way that they (mostly) tell a very brief but memorable story, much of it implied through the background, facial expressions and action rather than the dialogue itself. Note the very tight cutting, an entire backstory implied within seconds, often with humor.
Do not underestimate people’s ability to follow this. We can all ‘read’ a visual story extremely fast. Consider how rapidly you can assess a friend’s mood, or a stranger’s character, just by their demeanor, stance, walk, clothes, facial expressions. Our incredible minds are wired to do this in perhaps a second. Humor is a vital, and biblical, part of effective communication, and can disarm hostility and smuggle truth into people’s hearts.
Assume your viewers know little or nothing of the Christian message. The Gray Matrix is also a valuable visual understanding of people’s spiritual awareness and attitude, and enables us to position our message according to their understanding and attitude. Bible stories also lend themselves to animation. My Last Day is the Easter story in anime style, available in a wide range of languages.
Opportunities for creativity
Video creation is an area where Christian drama groups, artists, film-makers, writers and others with creative gifts can use their skills. Sometimes Christian film-makers have stuck to safe, predictable, formulaic, and sometimes cheesy, material, and it has been non-Christians who have displayed breath-taking leaps of imagination and creativity. In the world of film, it is often supposedly secular films which effectively reveal embedded themes of longing, seeking and redemption. In fact, the question has even been posed and debated:
Why do heathens make the best Christian films?
Video clips in church meetings
It is of course now commonplace for video shorts to be integrated into church services. There are many opportunities to do this, both for teaching believers, and for evangelism.A further church-based opportunity: an introductory video about the fellowship, which can be embedded on the church website: read more and watch Coton Green Church’s video.
This article was reprinted with permission from the Internet Evangelism Day website.