Using Video in Small Groups: 3 Encouragements and 3 Cautions

At 12:01 am on August 1, 1981, MTV first went on the air with the video of a song entitled, “Video Killed the Radio Star.” Ever since then, videos have been a fixture in sermons, small groups, and youth group talks. It has never been easier to find video clips—not only on YouTube, but also from sites such as Wingclips and BlueFish TV, both of which help pastors and small group leaders find clips specifically for teaching settings. But are they effective? How can we make them more effective? Let’s look at three great reasons to use video in your small group. But let’s pair each one with a word of caution.

Photo Courtesy of ©iStockphoto

Photo Courtesy of ©iStockphoto

1. Video is a powerful medium for telling stories. 

Jesus was a master storyteller. He almost never taught the crowds without telling stories (Matthew 13:34). When He wanted to talk about the character of God, Jesus didn’t begin with a lecture on God’s love. He began with “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep, and one of them goes missing…” (Luke 15:3). In our world, film studios and advertising firms are universally recognized as great storytellers. Whether it’s a two-hour movie or a sixty-second commercial, those guys know how to tell a captivating, convincing, and inspiring story.

However: There is no substitute for your story… and The Story.

While showing a clip from Extreme Home Makeover could be a great way to show how a community reached out and helped someone in need, a story from your own experience or from within your faith community would be even better.  Don’t substitute one of Hollywood’s stories for one of your own. And even more importantly, make sure every story—yours, your group’s, or Hollywood’s—continually draws group members back to The Story of God’s redemptive work in the Gospel.

2. Video provides a cultural common ground. 

There are those movies that everybody has seen. Many of them have become sort of cultural shorthand for various character values. Forrest Gump shows us unconditional love (“I’m not a smart man, but I know what love is”).  Gladiator reminds us to live for a greater purpose (“What we do in life echoes in eternity”). We can learn about courage without compromise from BraveheartSchindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan emphasize sacrifice for the sake of others. There is universal recognition when we name-drop one of these films (or show a clip from them). For the small group leader, it provides a common starting point for a discussion.

However: Even common ground can be misunderstood. 

In their book Creature of the Word, Eric Geiger and Matt Chandler talk about that last scene in Saving Private Ryan. Captain John Miller, with his dying breath, urges Private Ryan to “earn this”—to live a good life so that he would deserve the sacrifice that had been made for him. It’s a great scene. It’s inspiring. It’s motivational.  But it’s also completely contrary to the gospel of grace. And if we present Captain Miller as a stand-in for Jesus, and his death on the bridge for Private Ryan as a parallel to Christ’s death on the cross for us, then we lead people to the idea that salvation must be (or even could be) earned.  This doesn’t necessarily mean to not use that clip, but make sure you use it to show what the Gospel isn’t rather than what the Gospel is.

Also, remember that any clip you use is part of a longer movie. And whatever we bring into the church implicitly endorses and even blesses it. Keep that in mind when you are selecting a clip to show. There may indeed be a great teaching point somewhere in Pulp Fiction. But what about the rest of the movie?

3. Our culture is used to learning through “edu-tainment.” 

Quick survey: Do you know how a bill becomes a law? If you do, and depending on how old you are, there is a good chance it’s because of Schoolhouse Rock. Those little cartoons that came in between Saturday morning cartoons taught my generation grammar, their multiplication tables, history, and American civics. So if we can use video to teach people what an adjective is, why can’t we use video to teach people the truths of the Bible? Remember, people retain more of what they see and hear as opposed to just what they are told about. A thirty second video can teach as much as a thirty minute lecture.

However: Make sure the video serves the message, and not the other way around.  

Ed Stetzer, in his book Lost and Found reminds us that technology (in this case, a video clip) must always be a servant to the gospel. In his words, “Don’t fall prey to the temptation that you found a great clip that needs a sermon to go with it.” It is very easy to spend hours trying to find just the right clip to use to illustrate a specific point. If we haven’t spent at least as much time studying God’s Word, praying for the people in our small group, and striving to live out the truths of the lesson in our own lives, then those hours searching YouTube have been wasted.

At the end of the day, video is a great tool to have in your toolbox. But it isn’t your only tool. Our small group sessions ought to continually delight and surprise the folks in our group with the powerful, relevant truth of God’s Word. When video serves that purpose, push “play.” When it doesn’t, find another tool.

We want to hear from you. How have you used video in your group? What lessons have you learned?

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