Grammar Rules for Worship Slides

By Nate Ragan

Visual Theology: The Text
It’s often assumed that the ministry of onscreen multimedia in a church is merely a task of sharing information. Announcements, sermon points, song lyrics—make them large enough to read, spellcheck your work and, if possible, make it look pretty. But what if there’s something more? A deeper calling we’ve been given to tell a better story?

As a visual worship leader, I see the role of delivering onscreen multimedia similar to the role of other worship leaders or teaching pastors. We’re helping to shape a communal experience where we share God’s story in creative, multisensory ways that impact us in body, mind and soul. We are the sacred visual artists of our day, echoing the role played by cave carvings, stained-glass windows, icons and tapestries, revealing the story of our faith to both the seeker and the learned.

In light of this, it is imperative that we take a deeper look at how we choose to fill these digital canvases. Just as songs and teachings speak volumes about the hearts of worship leaders and teachers, the multimedia we display reveals our hearts. It shares our visual theology. It teaches others about the character of God and our relationship to him.

To further explore this idea of visual theology, let’s look at one of the basic ingredients of on-screen multimedia: the text. Specifically, the way we use text during a worship experience to encourage easier participation and to tell a better story. Here are a few ideas to consider:

Poetry & Punctuation
Song lyrics are, at their core, poetry. Their use of metaphor, rhyme and phrasing are set apart from the formal constructs of proper sentence structure. So let’s allow this knowledge to free us from the constraints that so often prohibit us from telling a better story. You’ll also find this helps when leading songs unfamiliar to your community, since musical notation is most often not included onscreen.

  • Line breaks are excellent guides for phrasing
  • Commas in the middle of a line help with phrasing
  • Commas, periods, semicolons at the end of a line are unnecessary clutter
  • Use quotation marks when someone is being quoted
  • Don’t forget to include question marks

Capitalization & John 3:30
“Why didn’t you capitalize the word ‘I’ in that song?” I love that question, because it’s the beginning of a beautiful dialogue about our relationship to God. Capitalizing the words “I” and “God” are quite common. We see examples of this in every book or article we read. However, when we see poetic text that uses a lowercase “I,” it can be unsettling. 

“I wish they would proofread their song lyrics.” 
“There they did it again!” 
“Wait – every ‘i’ is uncapitalized. And the first word in each line is too.”
“Well, at least they capitalized the name of God.”
“Oh, and they capitalized ‘Joy’ and ‘Life.’ That’s cool.” 

This uncomfortable inner dialogue is pondering one meaning of what I believe John is getting at when he says, “He must increase in importance, while I must decrease in importance” (Jn 3:30). It is a constant reminder of our relationship to God, the Father, Creator, Master, Teacher and Lord of our lives. He alone gets the glory and the fame, while we are simply his hands and feet.

In addition to the spiritual, it also serves a practical purpose. With so many songs written from both the human perspective and God’s perspective, it can become confusing to understand exactly what we’re singing. Capitalizing only the names and metaphors for God helps us to properly orient ourselves in the text.

The Word & The Visual Canvas
In addition to displaying song lyrics during a worship set, our church has started to display Scripture right in the middle of a song. Since many of today’s popular worship tunes include space for energetic guitar solos or quiet reflection, we have started to use Scripture and visual liturgy films to fill that space, creating a link between a lyrical theme and a Bible passage.

Often this helps directly reinforce the theme of a song, provide thematic harmony, or create dissonance, using passages and visuals that cause us to celebrate or struggle with the truths we’re experiencing onscreen. Pulling this off requires good collaboration between the worship team on stage and the visual worship leader, but the end-result is often one of the most memorable of the day. Great examples of visual liturgy are being created by Travis Reed and The Work of the People (www.twotp.com).

Nate Ragan is Director of Product Development at MediaComplete, makers of MediaShout presentation software. Nate is also part-time staff as a visual worship leader and creative at Rolling Hills Community Church in Franklin, TN. 

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    13 comments on “Grammar Rules for Worship Slides

    1. Sorry, I don’t buy it. Punctuation exists to facilitate communication; even in poetry, you fool with it at your own risk. Besides, too many people never learned how to use it and somehow think that making up their own rules justifies their ignorance. Why risk aligning your church with them perceptually? Finally, God made only one Me (as there’s only one God), so I’m sure He has no problem with captializing “I.” It doesn’t indicate importance but uniqueness.

    2. I agree with Chris. Grammar is not at the mercy of the poet, but rather poetry uses grammar to create beautiful word pictures. Half the time when I teach poetry in my English class, the structure and punctuation is changed by a publisher and not the poet directly, so the point about changing markings to draw attention by the poet doesn’t really ring true with me. What really bothers me in this article is the use of John 3:30 to defend bad grammar. I understand the dialogue that Nate is wanting people to have about the importance of God over themselves, but justifying it this way is incorrect. Following the argument out to it’s logical conclusion would mean – I am showing God that He is greater by writing “I.” grammatically incorrect? I don’t think that is Christ meant when talking to Nicodemus that night in chapter three. I would even further say, I wonder how many people were knocked out of the moment of the song because of bad grammar, rather than being encouraged to sing. Spelling mistakes always throw me for a loop when I am singing because I am never looking for words to be wrong, and when I hit one that is off, it makes me wonder about it, or if I am singing something incorrect even when I have song the song before. When writing slides, I try to keep things as it was originally written, which means periods where they were placed, and so on. Then, we break lines up according to what fits well on a slide and is easily viewable. I don’t try to get cute, because the role of the words is to allow everyone to be able to join in song. When those are done write, everyone has the freedom to be able to sing without road blocks. I didn’t make up the rules for the English language, but I do try to keep what we do consistent with it. Putting the words into metaphors, similes and phrases, that’s the poets place for creating; punctuation is the syntax of the language in which it is delivered, not the art form in itself. I’m all about using current resources that we have to engage our congregations to join together in praise and song, but getting cute with words and punctuation not only takes away from what the artist originally intended when they wrote the piece, but I think also borders on the edge of distracting. So again, while I get the spirit of the article in wanting to engage people, I respectfully disagree…with hopefully minor spelling and grammatical errors of my own.

    3. Sorry – ALL punctuation is there for a reason. The commas & full stops at the ends of the lines are as important for phrasing and ease of understanding as any in the middle of lines. Many songs & hymns have line lengths such that they need to be split over 2 (or sometimes more) lines on screen – in this common situation, retaining punctuation becomes ESSENTIAL.

      Other points that you’ve missed are the number of lines on screen – it was discovered in silent film days that 5 lines of text was about the limit for easy reading – since songs are (usually) poetry, I find a 6 line maximum is better. Always split lines and screens at places that make sense grammatically.

      Think carefully about colour – a bright yellow font has been shown to be the easiest to read – especially for those with sight impairment – and ideally on a blue background. If you use pictures, think carefully about colours – and check on the projection screen – what looks OK on a monitor may not project well – I have seen white text projected over a picture of white cliffs! Needless to say, only those who knew the words joined in the singing. I normally use a dark blue gradient for background, and reserve pictures behind song lyrics for the occasional very well known text. We’re there to impart information, not to project pretty pictures on screen!

    4. I think you guys are being a little bit harsh on this article. I found it helpeful. And there are some times when commas and periods are done away with in worship music projection when I have seen it done by the best. Last time I attended the Passion I didn’t see many periods at all. I agree that they just add clutter. I don’t think that we throw grammer out the window. I do think we simplify though.

      And personally I would say that a 6 line limit is too high. Usually when I have seen a high quality presentation most of the transitions have between 1-3 lines in them. This puts more of a focus on each word that is said, because we tend to read ahead when it’s all in front of us.

      Also I thought the scriptures during musical interludes was a great idea. I often see people start to lose focus during these moments.

      Thank you for this article, Nate, it got me thinking.

    5. I read through many of the responses and I, like Tim, thought they were a bit harsh. I couldn’t agree with his response any more. I will just take one of his points a bit further. We usually use 2-4 lines for multiple reasons. First, as Tim alluded to, hopefully it allows the congregation to focus more intently on the current lyric. Second, the fewer lines presented at one time allow for larger fonts which make the text easier to read regardless of color. I use the same font (Corbel) in the same color (White) for every single song that we do. While I think it looks best that way, I actually do it for the opposite reason. I keep it the same all the time, so that people don’t look for changes or anything regarding the presentation. Hopefully, this allows for better focus (I don’t mean visually) for the congregation during corporate worship.
      I rarely use punctuation. I instead will make line breaks where there is a pause. The main exception to this is during a new, fast-tempo song. In this case I will generally make the font a little smaller and add minimal punctuation. I think it aids the congregation when they’re unfamiliar with a song to be able to read a little further ahead and have some knowledge of pauses. But after we have used a song two to three times (depending on the complexity) I will increase the font size and remove the punctuation.
      I should say though, that if I were in a congregation that continually pointed out grammatical errors, I would think it best to correct them. I’d hate for something like this to be a hindrance to people’s focus and response to God.

    6. Though grammar, diction, and syntax are all important, we have to remember that the grammar serves the message, not the other way around. Grammar rules were also written with newspapers, books, and magazines in mind–not 70pt Helvetica Bold on an HD 10X10 screen.

      Most of the purpose of punctuation is to instruct someone how to read something either in the mind or aloud–proper emphasis, pausing, expression, etc.. In song, though, these concerns are dealt with by the music itself (length, velocity, and pitch of a note, as well as tempo).

      In terms of showing a congregation where to pause, this is simply a matter of excellent use line breaks, hard returns, and properly separated slides. Our congregation uses no more than 4 lines per slide. If you’re using IMAG or perhaps a slower song, less lines is better. Too few lines, though, can cause “Waiting-for-the-next-line” fatigue for some people.

      Which therefore means that whoever is creating the presentation for the week must be incredibly familiar with the music. They too are worship leaders, just of a visual sort.

      • I especially liked your comment, Anthony!
        Grammar exists to serve the message… the message doesn’t exists to serve grammar.

        To those opposed to this article:
        All throughout history, various formats for text have changed to best serve the medium… projected lyrics w/ imagery is a new medium & what we are trying to do is create a well-designed & intentional new format to best serve our eyes & the spirit of the message… as well as musical timing & phrasing for singing along. (line breaks are so important)
        (it’s more like karaoke … and no one abides by “proper english” rules when it comes to karaoke… and i don’t see it promoting bad grammar either).

        Like Nate, I’ve been on the road at conferences & serving in my church for a decade … we’ve led with this style of lyric formatting for years & in many different settings.
        Though we have gotten a few complaints here & there, they have been extremely minimal in comparison to the good feedback. We have WAY MORE people going out of their way to tell us how much they appreciate the subtle intentionality & that they understood the unspoken message we were sending.

        So… while this may not be for everyone, i sure do appreciate & applaud Nate for sharing about this aspect.
        If you don’t like it, it’s ok. It’s not for everyone. But don’t say that we’re “wrong” for doing it.

        Also, we’ve both been highly educated, have college degrees from reputable universities, & graduated with really great grades. We do know proper English (i made straight As in Honors English) & we are not trying to promote bad grammar. At some point grammar rules were written by someone… and we are creating a new approach for the specific medium of lyric projection. It’s not a rule … just another way.
        To each his own.

        =)

        P.S. It’s really baffling to me that so many people can get worked up over such a little thing. But I guess this type of stuff tends to happen in first world church cultures.

    7. I think that some of these comments are really harsh. I personally work the projection screens at my church and have found some of his suggestions helpful. Just like with anything, all you have to do is take what is given and take what you like. You don’t have to say how much you disagree with everything. Why don’t why we try and build him up for sharing his thoughts and his experience instead of tearing him down.

      While at my church we will probably still capitalize “I” because we have grammar perfectionists, I do not like to use punctuation on my screen. I find that it is often too cluttered and that the congregation doesn’t need periods and commas and semi colons. It takes practice to follow the breaks in the song and when you have that down and your line breaks match the song, there’s no need for punctuation.

      Excellent article Nate. It really did teach me a lot about the importance of leading worship through the screens! I may even attempt to use the Scripture during instrumental periods.

    8. Neal should quit being so harsh on being “right” and not thinking outside of ‘what we always do’ because he didn’t even use indentation and/or paragraph breaks!

      But I get it. I love the idea behind it. People can’t handle change because it feels like a loss to them. It’s easier for them to crusify you and what your doing than DO something themselves. It’s because you got out of the boat and tried walking on water that made them uncomfortable. You do your thing and let haters be your motivators. Keeping the feathers ruffled is awesome.

    9. Fantastic blog! Do you have any hints for aspiring writers?
      I’m hoping to start my own blog soon but I’m a little
      lost on everything. Would you recommend starting with a free platform
      like WordPress or go for a paid option? There are so many options out there that I’m totally overwhelmed .. Any ideas? Thank you!

    10. Great discussion occurring and many great point made to defend not using traditional grammar or capitalization. I would just like to add that video projecting lyrics in a worship setting is much more related to visual design than print layout or literature. Correct use of line-breaks is more effective at communicating phrasing to a congregation than using a semi-colon, comma, or unintentional capitalization. I prefer a designer to creatively find a way to communicate the message in the most effective way than to blindly punctuate the end of every sentence because that is grammatically correct.

    11. I’ve struggled with punctuation in my on-screen presentations for a long time! In fact, I found this article only because I have been so frustrated that SongSelect doesn’t include any punctuation when I download their lyrics.

      Here’s where I’m currently at: what I believe the bible teaches about Worship will impact how I use punctuation in my presentations. Is biblical worship focused on me and my response to God, or is it focused on God and what He does for me?

      If the former is correct, proper punctuation doesn’t matter as long as the congregation can sing along and doesn’t get distracted. If worship is about me, the whole point is to get caught up in the moment – to try to put myself in a place that I can feel God’s presence. Punctuation would then, as many of you pointed out, would make the screen look cluttered and be a distraction.

      If the latter is correct, proper punctuation is essential! Clarity would be important when the congregation is confessing, through song, what God does (and continues to do) for us! If worship is about Him, we would strive to be sure that the information He has given to us in His Word is accurately and intentionally displayed on the screen!

      Thanks for sharing, Nate! I always appreciated an opportunity to be sharpened. This article was very helpful!

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