What Are “Visuals in the Church?”
If you were to ask your average church attendee what “visuals in the church” are, they’d probably mention announcement slides, worship motion backgrounds, series branding, bulletins, or maybe even the logo. These are great to have in your church, but there is another class of church visuals that goes beyond branding and helps with understanding. These visuals are harder to find today, but if we are really serious about helping people understand, learn, and share the good news of Jesus, we can’t ignore the value of bringing visual learning into the church.
Are We Reaching People Effectively?
Throughout the New Testament, Jesus taught His followers in parables and simple stories to help them understand complex concepts intuitively. This was a brilliant way to communicate (He was God, after all!) because the crowds were mostly illiterate people living in a culture with strong oral tradition. The crowds knew how to listen, and they knew how to re-tell stories.
Today’s culture is obviously very different. Oral traditions are minimal, and we’re flooded with ads, marketing, content, and images on a daily basis. In a noisy culture where we’re bombarded with information, our new normal is to tune it all out. Most people today aren’t good at listening and have trouble focusing for long periods of time, but they’re incredibly literate when it comes to visuals. In fact, MIT neuroscientists found that the brain could recognize and identify images seen for as little as 13 milliseconds.
The Numbers Don’t Lie
Even though the MIT numbers might seem shocking, they really shouldn’t be. Consider this:
- 65% of the population describes themselves as visual learners.
- When information is presented verbally AND visually, the retention rate after three days is six times greater than if it were presented only verbally.
- Visual content is three times more likely to get shared on social media than any other type of content.
Hopefully by now you’re beginning to understand just how important good visuals are to human learning and understanding, especially to those in your church. Regardless of what your service looks like, you as a church communicator should always be on the lookout for ways to help the people in attendance receive the good news of Jesus. The visual literacy in your church is higher than you might have known, and it’s time to communicate like it.
What Can the Church Do?
Unfortunately, fixing your church’s visual learning problem isn’t as easy as slapping some pictures on your screens on Sunday morning. Studies show that visuals aren’t well received when they are clearly stock photos, not directly related to the content being shared, or stretched/pixelated in some way. There needs to be some thought involved — for better or for worse, your parishioners’ constant exposure to world-class marketing has made them much more sophisticated consumers of visual media (Thanks a lot, Apple.) As church communicators, we have to up our visual game, and that means providing creative, unique, original visual experiences that capture people’s attention AND their imagination. And the best method for doing that is illustration.
As a general communication tool but especially as a teaching tool, illustration is effective for everyone, not just children or artists. It is the human language that transcends culture, age, gender, spoken language, and just about every other difference you can think of. We were designed by God to be visual, and illustration is a great way to communicate to anyone.
How Do We Incorporate Illustration in the Church?
There is no singular answer for incorporating illustration into your church, because every church is different. It will take time, experimentation, communication and community. The best way to start, however, is to simply ask your church community what they need. You can also go to your church communicator peers for ideas, support, and feedback on your initiatives. When you start to create illustrations, share them! Who knows … maybe one day you’ll become the go-to thought leader for sermon illustrations!
As you’re ramping up your use of illustrations, why not make it easy for yourself and start with existing illustrations? Many evangelists are familiar with illustrations such as “Who’s on the throne?” or “Two cliffs.” These are powerful tools that help non-believers begin visualizing their own depravity and need for God. Start with what already exists and build from there.
Now that you’ve decided illustration is for you, there are tons of possibilities to explore! There are many methods, styles and tools you can use, such as sketchnotes, graphic recording, whiteboards, flipcharts, iPads, and whiteboard style videos. When in doubt, type in “(concept) illustration” in a search engine. Get ideas from what is already out there and then borrow and build on them to create your own. If you aren’t sure where to start, use resources that others are creating and sharing. For example, look into “The Bible Project,” A nonprofit that creates visual resources that help show how the Bible is one unified story that leads to Jesus. Just be sure to ask for permission and give credit when you use others’ resources!
Practical steps to incorporate visual learning and illustrations into your church:
- Get your pastor drawing on Sundays! It’s ideal when the same person presenting verbally can also present visually. You can use paper flip charts, whiteboards, or an iPad with live video feed. If your pastor is open to visuals but not open to doing it themselves, you can always have another person create the illustrations and place them in the Sunday slides ahead of time. BONUS! Get the congregation to draw the illustrations together with the pastor for verbal, visual AND kinetic learning.
- Simplify complex topics with illustrations. Sometimes biblical concepts can be hard to convey with words, but an illustration can be grasped instantly. (3-in-1 trinity of God, anyone?) Whiteboard videos make for excellent explanation tools.
- Less text, more images. Are your sermon slides walls of text? Find ways to reduce the amount of words and increase illustrations. You can even create a set of icons to help people identify specific things in the text, like a promise, sin, a prophecy or a command.
- Utilize the talent within your congregation. Identify people in your church who would love to help implement visual learning. Does someone in your congregation draw or take Sketchnotes? Ask them (or hire them!) to use their images and share them with the church. If no one in your church draws but there is interest to learn, bring in an expert to teach a workshop. Then you’ll have a whole group within your church visualizing the sermon every week.
Illustration Best Practices:
- Make sure your illustrations are clear and legible to everyone. Label each part of the illustration for added clarity.
- Illustrations should be easy for others to replicate. Don’t make it so complicated that people can’t remember all of the parts.
- You don’t need to be Michelangelo. Stick figures can be incredibly effective. With illustrations, you want to go for memorable instead of masterpieces — recognizable rather than realism.
- If you’re not sure where to start, ask these questions: What is the problem? What are the solutions? What is the ideal outcome?
Visual learning is effective for almost everyone, and it’s particularly useful in the church. There is no greater message that humanity needs to understand, learn about, and share than the message of Jesus Christ, and illustration is a great way to share the gospel message.
Bradford, William C., Reaching the Visual Learner: Teaching Property Through Art (September 1, 2011). The Law Teacher Vol. 11, 2004. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=587201