How to Use Photos to Spark Worship Conversations

Whether you want to go simple or elaborate with these photo ideas, you can follow three steps to get people talking about worship and faithful living.


You could feel the energy as people glimpsed possibilities in “Visualizing Worship,” a workshop led by Roman Williams at the 2014 Calvin Symposium on Worship. Williams, who teaches sociology at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, explained how to use photography and video to spark conversations about worship and faithful living. The key lies in understanding that people are the experts on themselves, so you ask them to take the pictures.

One person said, “I work in worship renewal in Japan. I often ask, ‘What do you celebrate in your church?’ Usually they answer in words, but I love the idea of doing it with photos.” Another remarked, “I’ve been a worship leader for years. I can’t tell what’s going on in our young people’s hearts from looking at their faces.” But she thought that asking youth to photograph what gives them hope or joy might provide a way in.

Williams agreed. “When I ask people to take photos, they focus on what’s important to them. They come to me with answers to questions I’d never think to ask.”

Williams broke down the process into three easy steps that you can follow in your church or context. Prepare so you know what you’re asking people to photograph and why. Gather people to explain the visual research project. Engage people in talking about the imagery.

Prepare

Williams described two visual sociology methods. For photo elicitation, you ask someone to take pictures that answer an open-ended question like, “What encourages or inhibits worship?” or “Where is God present or absent?” Then you meet to talk about the pictures. For photovoice, you ask group members to picture community strengths and weaknesses. The group meets to discuss, select and caption imagery for public display. This exercise raises awareness, prompts dialogue and leads to action, including figuring out how to reach policy makers.

Whether you choose photo elicitation or photovoice depends on what you want to learn. Are you seeking insight into lived experience of faith…links between church worship and the rest of life…sorrows and concerns that need to be mentioned in worship…how your group can more fully love neighbors and love creation?

Photo elicitation works well when you want to know what people experience as sacred space or what drives them to (or makes them question) the act of prayer. Photovoice is community-based participatory research. Its goal is to learn from people whose perspective is often ignored. A women’s group at Mount Peace Baptist Church in Raleigh, North Carolina did a photovoice project to learn about childhood obesity in their community.

Decide who you’ll share photos and stories with and how you’ll use them. “Maybe, because of the crazy busy times we live in, you’ll get lots of photos of showers and cars. Maybe everyone is singing their hearts out in the shower or car because it’s their only time to have devotions with God. That’s important for pastors to know,” Williams said.

Who will you involve? Especially if you’re doing a photovoice project, you’ll want to cooperate with other groups and organizations so that your photos and stories get wide coverage. Mt. Druitt Indigenous Church near Sydney, Australia partnered with community counseling and development organizations to do a photovoice project with the church’s Celebrate Recovery group.

Gather

Now that you know who will take photos or video, gather them to explain the exercise. Maybe everyone in your group has a camera, VCR or a phone with a camera. If not, then issue disposable cameras or lend out better cameras. Explain the process and timeline for getting images printed or uploaded. Choose your next meeting time.

At the next meeting, you’ll discuss images or footage. In visual sociology research, photo elicitation most often involves one-on-one conversations between the researcher and photographer. However, you can do this as a group. When the First Presbyterian youth group in Montrose, Colorado, photographed where they experienced God, they uploaded pictures and comments to their closed Facebook group. They discussed their photos when they met again.

Especially meeting for photovoice projects, Williams suggested asking people to submit their photos ahead of time so they can be shown on a screen. “Start by having people share their images in groups of twos or threes, which prepares them for sharing with the larger group,” he said.

Ask photographers to explain not only what’s visible in the photo but what it means. What’s the story behind the story? What’s happening? Who or what is missing? How does it relate to our lives? Why does this strength or concern exist—and what should we do about it? It also helps to ask whether there’s something else the person would have liked to photograph.

Photo elicitation projects are usually completed in two meetings. Photovoice projects take longer. You might need another round of photography so you can tell a better story to the people whose minds you want to change. As a group, you’ll want to choose which photos to enlarge and how to caption them so viewers get a sense of their meaning.

Engage

“A photo is only worth a thousand words if you ask them specifically about it. Photos are shorthand generalizations of experience. You’re not just showing photos. You want to draw people into a conversation,” Williams said in his workshop. Photos can start conversations whether you show them on your church website, in your church building, in worship or in public venues.

Jeanne Motley, worship coordinator at Montrose First Pres, hopes her congregation will do another project that displays photos on a bulletin board “or in ‘big church.’” You might use images and brief captions before congregational prayer or during the children’s message, confession, singing, offering, sermon or sending.

Photovoice projects may lead to worship changes. When the Mount Peace Baptist group researched child obesity, they visually documented that their neighborhood lacked stores with fresh produce and safe places to play and exercise. The congregation believes that God cares about physical as well as spiritual health, so they began WorkOut Worship (WOW) every third Sunday. Worshipers wear comfortable clothes and shoes, the music ministry chooses songs with movement, the service includes a health message and about half the worshipers stay to walk laps together around the parking lot. Mount Peace also launched Faithful Families classes to help people eat smarter and move more.

Many churches use photovoice to inspire members to care for their bodies as God intends. African American Baptist churches in North Carolina and Korean Presbyterian churches in Seattle began talking about smoking after their youth documented how tobacco harms their lives and communities. They showed that their neighborhoods have more tobacco billboards than richer, whiter neighborhoods do. Their photovoice projects were displayed in community forums, cultural centers and shopping malls.

Besides using photovoice to highlight strengths among people recovering from addictions, Mt. Druitt Indigenous Church did another project with the local public school. Aboriginal children felt ashamed of their neighborhood and isolated from other students. Then they met famous Aboriginal artists and shared their photographs in a local newspaper, a published booklet and during a school assembly. Their experience—of feeling more connected and contributing to the community—inspired administrators to organize a school pride photovoice project for all students. 

Links

LEARN MORE

Don’t miss this story’s companion conversation with Roman Williams and companion story about visualizing worship.

Watch this Sacred Places online video about a photo elicitation project with churches in Nacogdoches, Texas.

Download free checklists and manuals for designing photovoice projects from Alberta Rural Development Network, Hunger Free Colorado or University of South Carolina

Explore photovoice projects around the world. Learn more about church photovoice projects with Aboriginal people in Australia; African American youth in North Carolina (Picture Me Tobacco Free); and Korean youth in Seattle (Tobacco-Free Churches).

Mount Peace Baptist Church in Raleigh, North Carolina, uses this Faithful Families planning guide.

START A DISCUSSION

Feel free to print and distribute these stories at your staff, worship, church education or youth meeting. These questions will help people think about how to plan a visual research project to spark worship conversations and change.

  • What first steps could you take to explore a photo elicitation or photovoice project in your setting?
  • Which groups in your church or community would you like to learn from? How might discussing their photos or videos deepen the sharing?
  • Which biblical images mean the most to you—even if you can’t exactly use words to explain why?

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