Photography in Worship: Picturing God’s counterstory, building community

Get ideas from other congregations for using local photography and other images in church worship. A feature story exploring some of the many possibilities for visuals in worship.

In a recent adult Sunday school class, Jerry Tupper showed “White Angel Breadline,” a photograph taken by Dorothea Lange during the Depression. “What does this picture say about prayer?” he asked members of Plymouth Congregational Church in Chillicothe, Illinois.

They pondered a bit. “The cup makes me think of communion,” one observed, sparking a short conversation about what communion means.

“Look at the hats. Isn’t it interesting,” another said, “that the man in the foreground, the one clasping his hands, has definitely had the worst in life. The other men, who appear to have a background of substantial income, have all turned their backs on him.”

Yet another class member spoke up: “And do we turn our backs on the have-nots of society?”

Tupper recalls that one person after another chimed in, including a man who rarely says much but began telling how he experienced the Depression. The class ended, as always, with a group prayer.

“We always pray differently when we get those visual things, because we build our prayers on our conversations and what we’re observing. The same thing happens when we use photographs in worship. People see things that allow us to go beyond what I might have intended, things that, I think, God is speaking to,” the pastor says.

Like other pastors and worship leaders, Tupper finds that when worshipers understand that God is visual, then more people feel welcome in worship. Everyone receives new images of how they fit within the story of faith.

God is visual

Congregations sometimes decide to add visual elements to worship because they want to appeal to youth. Tupper says that’s the wrong motivation.

“I don’t want to just show a bunch of visuals and hear people say, ‘Wow! That’s neat!’ There’s got to be intentionality in why we do what we do in worship. We have to be clear why we’re doing it theologically. I’ve tried to have us think in leadership settings about how God really is a very visual God,” he says.

He reflects with parishioners about what God did at the burning bush and pillar of fire. They look at images in the Psalms about visual ways of experiencing God. Discussing the story of Peter on Cornelius’ roof reveals how dreaming about unclean animals helped Peter understand something new about God. Tupper explains that this “wonderful account” led Jerusalem Christians to “healing, or at least, acceptance” of Gentile Christians and Paul’s outreach to Gentiles.

Once people get that using visuals in worship can be “of God,” they “get glued when we use photographs in worship. Periodically somebody in the congregation will email a picture that struck them in some way,” Tupper says.

When Tupper wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on using photography in worship, his advisor was Michael Bausch, who wrote Silver Screen, Sacred Story: Using Multimedia in Worship. Bausch teaches seminary courses in using arts and multimedia in worship. He is pastor of Summit Congregational United Church of Christ in Dubuque, Iowa.

“As a rule of thumb when using visual illustrations, use more imagery than words on a slide,” Bausch advises.

In the last month of his 19-year pastorate at Union-Congregational Church of Waupun, Wisconsin, Bausch preached from Mark 6:6b-12, on the authority that equips Christians for ministry. He projected photos of a snail in motion, with the phrase “Sometimes you have to stick your neck out.” He encouraged the church to keep taking risks, as Jesus did, and reminded them that adding worship services and hiring a parish nurse and ordained Christian education director had helped them grow.

Everybody welcome

Making room for many people to take, find, or present photos—and picturing local people and scenes—models God’s welcoming love.

“Churches are great at enlisting the auditory and musical people. To invite the photographers and visual or film buffs is to invite in a whole new community of gifts,” Bausch says. In Silver Screen, Sacred Story he outlines a process of enlisting multimedia teams and says the process works with photography teams too.

“Recently at Summit Church I had three different people step forward, in a church of around 80, to take photographs of church events. The confirmation class puts them into PowerPoint each Sunday morning to make a visual presentation of announcements and news in the life of the church,” he says.

Jerry Tupper involves all ages at Plymouth UCC. “I don’t do children’s messages. Instead we have children help with the offering, communion, or other ways so they feel part of what’s going on,” he says. He invites camera buffs to take pictures of congregational members in worship and service projects. He also asks people to find public domain photos online when he needs a thematic image to feed conversations that connect faith and life.

Offering new images

“The largest demographic in our congregation is people over 60. We struggle so much, as people, with acceptance and love, thinking, ‘Do we accomplish anything of value in God’s eyes?’ I often use music along with photographs that come out of our church setting—so people begin to realize that they’re part of what the music emphasizes,” Tupper says.

At the end of one sermon, he used local photos with Libby Roderick’s “How Could Anybody Say,” as sung by Shaina Noll. “It struck such a note that I’ve been requested to redo the song at our annual meeting and other times,” Tupper says. Seeing photos of members, whether bringing gifts to be blessed at the communion table, singing, or packing Church World Service boxes, reminds worshipers that you don’t need to be mayor or a community leader to have worth in God’s eyes.

“I remember one man who told me, ‘Jerry, when I see these pictures, I realize I’ve got to get more involved in the life of the church,’ ” he adds.

In Silver Screen, Sacred Story, Michael Bausch quotes theologian Walter Brueggemann, who says “the purpose of preaching and worship is transformation…. the slow, steady process of inviting each other into a counterstory about God, world, neighbor, and self.” The story of faith, acted out in worship and enlivened by “new models, images and pictures of how the pieces of life fit together,” helps worshipers change. For Bausch, photographs and media technologies help “tell the old, old story.”

Easing into Using Photography in Worship

A few years ago, Jerry Tupper got a Saturday afternoon phone call from two members of Plymouth Congregational Church in Chillicothe, Illinois. “They said, ‘Jerry, what were the websites you said we could go to?’ I was floored. Here these ladies in their 80s were on the computer together, trying to find pictures they could relate to. And I thought, “This is wonderful.”

Tupper began using photos in worship at least forty years ago, long before many Protestant churches did. He has ministered at Congregational, Congregational Baptist, American Baptist, and Disciples of Christ congregations. He now uses photography about three Sundays a month at Plymouth Congregational.

“I’ve introduced it gradually so they transition into being comfortable with visuals in worship. People have generally come along okay,” he says. In each church he began by showing pictures of people on the prayer list before the congregational prayer. He’d use a photo or two of a church program during announcements. Over time he’d project a loop with music as a preparation for worship or show images during a song or sermon. Tupper also includes photography in his adult classes.

He and other pastors and worship leaders find that using photos for specific reasons, especially local images, leads worshipers to new insights.

“Specific, concrete reasons”

“I think a photo works well when you intend to be specific and concrete,” says Steven Koster, English language minister for Back to God Ministries International.

When praying for a person—a particular missionary, politician, soldier in deployment, or student away at college—a photo “helps God’s people remember them as people in need of the Holy Spirit’s guidance,” he says.

Showing photos or brief videos or slideshows during the offering helps people understand more about the youth group trip, orphanage, or international ministry they’re giving to.

“Yet another time I use photos is in preaching, when I want to root biblical stories in a historical context. So when talking about Jesus calming the storm, I might show a map, or a landscape of the Sea of Galilee, or a photo of a common fishing boat discovered through archeology. Those were real people in a real boat in a real storm. A photo helps make that concrete,” Koster explains.

He encourages worship artists to “crop, zoom, blur, and rotate images to achieve your liturgical goal. If falling water would work better than a wide shot of Niagara Falls, but all you have is a vacation snapshot, feel free to edit the image to suit your congregation’s need,” he says.

Local images build community

“If a picture says a thousand words, then a picture is a valuable tool in communication,” says Jeff Meyers, pastor of First Union Church in Cedarville, Michigan. He uses photographs of or taken by people in the congregation and lets a few well-chosen images speak.

Choosing five pictures to show during announcement, say of the quilt-making ministry or elementary youth program, “helps members place a face with a name and builds community,” he says.

Meyers often projects a single image during the congregational prayer. He once told of a friend who complained he couldn’t see fall colors because his home was surrounded by evergreens. Then Meyers showed a photograph of the friend’s house, taken above from a camera on a kite. Trees in radiant color filled the whole frame except for the house and its single circle of evergreens.

“Do you ever complain about God’s plan for your life? Maybe we just need to get another perspective to see all the color he has created around you,” he said, inviting worshipers to focus their prayers on seeing God’s bigger plan for their lives.

At an early June wedding, he asked someone to take several father and son pictures, which he used to illustrate a Father’s Day sermon. “The pictures helped communicate visually that a son is in the image of his earthly father just as we are created in the image of our heavenly father. They built community by celebrating on Sunday morning the recent church wedding and reinforced the intergenerational nature of our church family,” Meyers says.

Each summer Cedarville Union celebrates believers’ baptisms with an intergenerational picnic and baptismal service at a state park on Lake Huron. Meyers has used still photos from that event while preaching on what baptism means. Attendance at the summer baptism celebration has grown. “We believe the reason is because people who weren’t there ‘saw’ the joy of our worship at the state park and wanted to be part of it the next year,” he says.

Expect new insights

Asking worshipers to provide photos from their own lives is a great way to encourage new insights.

Before a “Loving our Neighbor” sermon series at Grace Community Christian Reformed Church in Oaklawn, Illinois, worship coordinator Diane Ritzema asked for photos that illustrated the neighbor theme. Members brought in more than 60 pictures of people they’d met on mission trips as well as people they know around the world, in the congregation, or near their homes.

“We compiled these onto four large pieces of black butcher paper and hung them in the foyer with the title ‘Who is My Neighbor?’ Since then songs such as ‘Jesu, Jesu,’ ‘The Servant Song,’ ‘Mighty to Save,’ and ‘God of the City’ have taken on new meaning,” Ritzema says.

During a series on family as explored through the story of Joseph, Ritzema requested family portraits to display in the sanctuary. “We used one during a time of confession to tell about a hurtful thing that had happened just prior to the family picture being taken. We talked about how we hide behind smiles and formal clothes on a daily basis—when we really need to bare our souls to God in confession,” she says.

Photographs and videos can powerfully pull us into someone else’s experience. They can also overwhelm and “inoculate us against truth and reality,” according to Karl Mueller, a pastor who is now executive director of Visionledd USA, a global HIV/AIDS ministry.

Mueller used photography to challenge City of Grace Church in Mesa, Arizona, to get involved in AIDS ministry in Malawi. “We combined photos with white crosses placed around the church property. Each cross represented 30,000 people who had died that year. What people began to experience outdoors was reinforced with more photos in the lobby and a worship service that included a video and powerful message,” he says.

Learn More

You can use photography in worship even if your sanctuary doesn’t have a permanent screen. Jerry Tupper has used photos printed as a bulletin insert, shown photos blown up to 8-by-10-inch-size, displayed pictures on computer monitors scattered around the worship space, and set up a portable screen. You can also display pictures in the worship space, lobby, or outdoors.

Book Jerry Tupper to present on using photographs to illustrate scripture, enhance worship, teach Christian beliefs and practice, and guide people in spiritual growth. He offered a three-day workshop (p. 18) at Pilgrim Park Camp and Conference Center in Princeton, Illinois.

Explore the public domain photography sites that Jerry Tupper uses when he doesn’t have a local photograph to fit a liturgical theme or need.

Book Michael Bausch to present on using multimedia arts and technology in worship. Gather a group to read Silver Screen, Sacred Story by Michael Bausch. He teaches online courses for pastors (through Pacific School of Religion) and will do one on social media and communications theology from July 5-August 13, 2010.

Steven Koster’s blog has several series of liturgical slide sequences (scroll down on right sidebar). The slides were made by Jubilee Fellowship Christian Reformed Church in St. Catharines, Ontario, and are free for you to use or adapt.

Use visual worship ideas from Dean Heetderks’ “Come and See” columns inReformed Worship.

Check out all the visual arts in worship resources on the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship site.

Browse related stories on digital storytelling, getting started with liturgical media arts, and projected images in worship.

Start a Discussion

Talk about using photography in worship.

  • Recall a past worship service that still sticks with you. Was there a visual, physical, or other multisensory element in that service that has helped you change how you understand or live your faith?
  • How, when, and why does your church use photography in worship? If you don’t use it, why not? Which ideas in the stories above might work in your setting?
  • In what ways might photography make people feel welcome and included—or not—in your worship services?
  • What does theologian Walter Brueggemann mean when he talks about worship as “inviting each other into a counterstory about God, world, neighbor, and self”? What is the story that worship counters—and how important are images in offering this alternative?

Share Your Wisdom

What is the best way you’ve found to involve people of different ages in using photography in worship?

  • Did you find a book, workshop, or other resource that helped your congregation start using or use more visuals in worship?
  • What timeline or system has worked best to help you take, find, process, and use photography in worship?
  • Will you share a photography idea that worked especially well during a specific part of the service, such as communion or the sending, or in a liturgical season, such as Epiphany or Easter and Pentecost?

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