A laptop in the pulpit can't replace a pastor, but it has become an indispensable preaching tool, says a producer who helps clergy get comfortable with technology.

Stewart Heller brings conservative pastors who know their way around new media into classes at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. Evangelical Christians long ago tapped technology, and liberal congregations must do the same, said Heller, an executive producer of four Emmy Awards shows.

His message is simple: Pixels or perish.

"Mainline Christians have been sitting back on their haunches and waiting for the next generation to show up," said Heller, whose Christian Center for the Study of Media explores the use of electronic arts in worship.

But if they don't develop the necessary skills, they can kiss their future congregations goodbye, he said.

Electronic media classes at the GTU's Center for the Arts, Religion and Education draw overflow crowds, said its director, Doug Adams.

Heller's comrade-in-high-tech is another believer, Director Michael Rhodes. His film and TV credits include "Romero" and "Star Trek: The Next Generation: Angel One."

"The media isn't sacred; it's the message that's sacred," said Rhodes, guest lecturer at the center.

Rhodes produced "Spirit of America," a three-minute compendium of film clips designed to bring home a message of courage, integrity, diversity and compassion. It showed as a theatrical trailer in movie theaters post9/11.

Clergy can use film assemblages to powerful effect in houses of worship, Rhodes said.

"We have to constantly adjust and change," he said. "Anybody who doesn't get that is doomed."

A media minister would function like a music minister, planning the arts component of a service around its theme, he said. A church may offer a choice of services.

Such is the case at Walnut Creek Presbyterian Church, which offers three services.

An "alternative" Sunday evening service employs three large screens. Congregants might see a short clip from "Braveheart" or "Bruce Almighty," a video promoting a men's retreat, or still images and passages from Scripture.

"We use a combination of ancient elements — like candles — and new media," said Mark Stover, interim director for worship and the arts at the 1,500-member congregation, which recently hired a full-time electronic media coordinator. "It's a cool dichotomy."

Classroom changes have fed experimentation in the sanctuary, Stover said.

Rhodes originally produced lesson plans for educators that linked film clips to lively discussions of ethics and character development.

Film "can touch people at a deep level, the way great art does," he said. "There's not a lot of difference between a church and a movie theater. Worship services are focused around storytelling."

Rhodes felt "stunned and delighted" when he first saw film in a church service in Brentwood years ago. The minister showed a clip from "Saving Private Ryan."

A scene of mortally wounded Tom Hanks looking up at Matt Damon during World War II dissolves to the present day, with Damon standing in a field of crosses. "He realizes a man died for him," Rhodes said. "Well, hello!"

A generation raised on media will require more visual stimulus, said Adams, who collaborated with Rhodes on "Spirit of America."

"People under 50 don't remember what they hear," he said. "They remember what they see. If you look at a church that's dying, they have nothing for the eye."

But if screens in churches have become ubiquitous, too many use them to project sermon notes or song lyrics, said Michael Bausch, Theological Union minister-in-residence and author of "Silver Screen, Sacred Story."

"That becomes so deadly," he said. "Why put more words on the screen? The human brain needs access to a lot of information and can handle it. Action, movement, makes it more dimensional."

Youth minister Bethany Nelson uses Bausch's lessons at Westminster Church in Tiburon.

"What he is doing is great," she said. "But it does take some pretty specific technology." And it comes at a price not all churches can afford. 

Bausch, longtime pastor of a small Wisconsin church, counsels others to start out by using what they have.

"I used old film strips," he said. "The church had an old film projector. I ran clips of the art of Christmas. We didn't have to spend a dime."

Some clergy balk not at the price, but the practice.

"It's not an end, it's a means," said the Rev. Greg Ledbetter of Shell Ridge Community Church in Walnut Creek. "If it's a means that fits a congregation, more power to them."

But Ledbetter sees a saturation threat. "There's a point where people will get tired of technology ... invading every aspect of life."

Bausch allowed that "introducing visuals will be very jarring" for some people. "I add the visual service as a choice," he said.

Electronic arts don't require a big leap for YouTube generation students, many of whom have had a first career involving technology, Bausch said.

The divide yawns wide for some veteran pastors.

Bausch counsels the uninitiated not to be nervous.

And to those who wonder what they will do if the software crashes: "You do what you always do," he said. "You talk."

Rebecca Rosen Lum covers religion. Reach her at 925-977-8506 or rrosenlum@cctimes.com.