Visual Communication for Congregations

By Lynne M. Baab
Published in Building Church Leaders Blog, Fall 2008

Movies, television, machines that print color pictures, and computers—all powered by electricity—have shaped the way we communicate. During the twentieth century, cheap and readily available electricity brought many changes to everyday life, among them the shift away from the primacy of words in communication. Words and images working together, and images that stand alone, are now very common.

People who study visual communication note that images are perceived much more quickly than words. In addition, images are polyvalent; they can have multiple meanings. Our brains have to spend some energy considering what meaning to attach to an image. As a result, images are often more memorable than words, just as stories are usually more memorable than facts. And, of course, images often tell stories, adding to their punch.

The advertising industry was quick to understand the power of images. Have you ever looked at magazine or newspaper advertisements from a century ago? They used lots of words, with an occasional line drawing. In contrast, print advertisements today use all manner of photos and graphics strategically. Television, movie and internet ads are equally strategic in their use of visuals.

This shift has profound implications for congregations as they seek to communicate the Gospel and nurture faith in their members. People today are accustomed to a visually rich environment, and congregations are responding to that reality in numerous ways. However, it’s not as simple as throwing up a few thought-provoking pictures on the projection screen. Bringing a visually rich focus into congregational life in a helpful and appropriate way is challenging for at least three reasons.

Lack of experience with visuals
Part of the challenge comes from the fact that many Protestant Christians stand in a long tradition of viewing images as dangerous. In a time when few people could read, the medieval church used pictures, statues, and stained glass windows as an aid to memory, to encourage prayer, and to involve people in the lives and journeys of the saints. The Reformers perceived that idolatry of images had become a problem in the late medieval church, so they spoke out forcefully about images. Some Reformers recommended using images with caution, while many forbade the use of all images.

Eastern Orthodox Christians, Roman Catholics and some Protestants in liturgical traditions have had centuries to develop a theology of the ways images nurture worship, evangelism, and daily Christian life. Most Protestants, however, used few or no images in worship and congregational life until recently, when it became clear that visual communication was here to stay in our culture.

As a result, many Protestants have dived into the use of images without a lot of reflection. With the culture racing into visual communication, Protestants have tried to keep up, but there simply hasn’t been time to think deeply about how images work in the life of faith. Such reflection is showing up in books, conferences, and on the Internet, and many Protestant leaders are finding help by conferring with Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox Christians or by reading about the way images contribute to faith practices in those traditions. But much reflection still needs to be done.

Images as an advertising tool
The use of images by the advertising industry is a second reason why bringing a visual focus into congregational life creates challenges. In Western culture today, images are associated with consumption and shopping. The photo of a beautiful person staring invitingly into the camera is usually used to encourage us to buy something. When a congregation uses a photo on its website of an attractive person staring into the camera, as many congregations do, viewers may be unconsciously reminded of advertisements. Do we want to encourage people to view congregations and the Christian life as consumer items? Is connection with the consumer culture a necessary evil, or can such connections be minimized when we use images?

When I did the research for my PhD in communication, I interviewed people who produced websites for congregations. One website designer said that he and the pastor decided not to have any photos of people on their website because they viewed pictures of people as too proscriptive. Instead, they used photos that they viewed as metaphors for the life of faith. They wanted their photos to help people ask questions and think deeply and creatively.

One of the photos on their website was a bridge going off into the distance. It was a beautiful, evocative picture, which might communicate that the church functions as a bridge for people, connecting their life here and now with the direction God is leading them, or it could represent Jesus’ grace that bridges the gap between humans and God.

I’m not sure if I agree that all photos of people are too proscriptive, but I do admire the conscious reflection by that pastor and website producer on the way they wanted to use photos to convey the values of their congregation. Their careful consideration demonstrates the kind of reflection that is necessary for congregational leaders today. We must do all we can to try to avoid evoking the consumer culture.

Images are polyvalent
The third major challenge in the use of images comes from the fact that an image can mean different things to different viewers. That bridge, extending into the distance over a large body of water, conveyed to me the beauty of God’s invitation to us in Christ. However, it might be scary to someone who almost drowned as a child. It might remind someone else of a hideous road trip they experienced at a difficult time in their life. It might seem silly or irrelevant to someone else.

John, the Gospel writer, calls Jesus “the Word” (John 1:1), and Christians have long embraced the primacy of words to communicate the truth about the Word. As we consider how to use images wisely, the role of words that act as an anchor to images remains significant. This doesn’t mean that images will automatically be used strategically if they have a caption, but for Christians, words do matter. The ways words and images work together must be considered.

I’m delighted that more Protestant congregations are embracing the visual arts in a variety of forms, with congregational arts groups planning all manner of events, displays and installations. I’m glad that Christians are learning to use images devotionally, whether in the form of praying with icons or reflecting on a Rembrandt painting of a Biblical scene. I believe that congregations are on the right track when they consider how to use their projection screens for images in addition to (or instead of) words to songs and bulleted lists to complement sermons. I love seeing photos of everyday congregational life on websites, which gives potential visitors a glimpse of the congregation.

Many scholars believe that visual literacy is a key skill for the twenty-first century, and I want to encourage congregational leaders to study this new kind of literacy. Visual literacy includes learning about the way images work in a variety of ways and settings. For Christians, it will also include biblical and theological reflection on the way images can contribute to worship, discipleship, prayer, and outreach.