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Visualizing Worship: Sparking conversations about worship and life

Two ideas borrowed from visual sociology researchers—photo elicitation and photovoice—are helping Christians and congregations picture their lived experiences with God.

What do photos of a bedroom or a beach or bananas have to do with worship and the Christian life? Quite a lot, once you talk with the photographers, according to Roman Williams, who teaches sociology at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

“Photographs offer ways to draw people into conversations about worship. Think about selfies, Flickr, Facebook and Instagram. Probably more people bring cellphones with cameras to church than bring Bibles to church,” Williams said in his “Visualizing Worship” workshop at the 2014 Calvin Symposium on Worship.

Sociologists study human groups and cultures to discover links between individual and societal beliefs and behaviors.  Visual sociologists use imagery and visual data in their research. As a visual sociologist of religion, Williams researches through visuals how ordinary people experience worship and faith in everyday life. “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,” he told symposium participants.

Like ministries around the world, you can use photographs to see where God is working, create community-based change and talk with fellow Christians about practicing your faith.

Cameras and questions

In his workshop, Williams talked first about photo elicitation, in which you ask someone to take pictures that answer an open-ended question like, “What encourages or inhibits worship?” or “Where is God at work?” Then you meet to talk about the pictures. The images spark memories and draw out thoughts that often remain buried in conversations based on words alone.

As a co-investigator on Nancy Ammerman’s Spiritual Narratives in Everyday Life project, Williams handed out disposable cameras and asked people to photograph the places, possessions and activities most important to them. He got the pictures developed. When he met later at people’s homes to discuss the photographs, he listened for the presence or absence of religion and spirituality in their lives.

One woman said, “Here’s my bedroom. It’s a place where I can go to be by myself with God.” The photo included an icon she painted. Another woman shot landmarks along the daily seaside route where she walks her collie. She said, “This is where I recite Psalm 100 every day. This is where I always say the Apostles’ Creed.”

Williams still marvels over an evangelical international student who took a photo in his Harvard University biology lab. “It showed a trinket, a little ceramic scroll with the words, ‘Lord, open my eyes that I may see wondrous things.’ Without putting a camera in his hands, I would never have known how this trinket is for him a signifier of Christian identity, of being a person of the Book, in a place that is rather hostile to religion,” he says.

Worship coordinator Jeanne Motley brought the photo elicitation idea home from the worship symposium to First Presbyterian Church in Montrose, Colorado. “Our youth leader did a ‘Knowing God’ series where the 30 kids had a week to take photos with their phones of places where they had felt or encountered God. They posted the photos with comments on their closed Facebook group,” she says. Their photos showed parents, children, a cave, a lake, mountains and more. One teen wrote, “This is the bird feeder I see every morning as I listen for God.”

Photographs that change people

Williams said that photovoice is the best way to get church members talking together about community strengths and weaknesses. Their collective awareness promotes dialogue that leads to action. The voice part of photovoice stands for Voicing Our Individual [and] Collective Experience.

Photovoice uses photos, videos and captions supplied by people whose perspective is often marginalized or ignored. Lutheran Services of Iowa used photovoice in an ESL (English as a Second Language) class so refugees from Bhutan and Myanmar (Burma) could picture their sadness, fear and hope. The 2005 documentary Born into Brothels used images shot by children of sex workers in India. “It shows the power of photovoice. For me as a dad, it is heart wrenching to see, but it’s raised awareness and hope that we can work to end human trafficking,” Williams said in his workshop.

In a sermon on Jesus feeding the five thousand, Steve Poos-Benson asked two “Hunger Through My Lens” photographers to speak as photos rotated on a screen. Poos-Benson is pastor of Columbine United Church near Denver, Colorado. For its “Hunger Through My Lens” project, the nonprofit Hunger Free Colorado invited 15 women to photograph how hunger directly impacts them.

Caroline Pooler, who spoke during the Columbine sermon, showed two photos—an abundance of slightly green bananas for 56 cents a pound at a suburban supermarket…and three small bunches of over-ripe bananas for 85 cents a pound in an urban bodega. “I lived a normal middle-class life until I lost my job. The expensive bananas are in a neighborhood where lots of seniors have no cars, and the nearest grocery is five miles away,” she said.

Poos-Benson compared the disciples’ not-enough fear with Jesus’ confidence in sharing what we have. He ended his sermon with these words: “Nobody should be hungry at God’s table.” Columbine United formed a Faith and Forks group to discover why one in four Coloradans is hungry. The congregation also accepted Feeding America’s SNAP Challenge to eat all meals for a week from a limited budget—about $1.50 a meal for people who depend on SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program).

Truly worth a thousand words

“A photo is only worth a thousand words if you ask them specifically about it. Photos are shorthand generalizations of experience,” Williams said in his workshop. Conversation starters like, “Tell me about the last time you were there,” help photographers reflect. “The heavy lifting is to tie these photo conversations to theology. Do this with enough people and you can find common themes to connect their stories to God’s story,” he added.

Students in St. Mary’s Catholic Campus Ministry combined photos, captions and scripture in their photovoice project at Stephen F. Austin University in Nacogdoches, Texas. Familiar sites and specific Bible passages now remind them of each other’s visual answers to questions like, “As a person of faith, what do you value in your landscape and why?” A pampas grass clump on campus reminded one student that God sometimes speaks in whispers, as to Elijah in 1 Kings 19:11-13.

Talking with photovoice participants yields valuable insights, as Steven G. Trefz discovered in his doctor of ministry thesis, “‘Picturing’ Lay Ministry: Photovoice and Participatory Group Spiritual Gifts Assessment.” Before spending a day together, he asked rural laypeople for photos of where God’s ministry happens. He was surprised to see so many pictures of people, small groups and artifacts outside the church.

“I see now how I based my expectations from a ‘clergy’ perspective where the bulk of the perceived ministry work occurs at church,” he wrote. Seeing and hearing how and where laypeople use their spiritual gifts made him rethink what it means to be a pastor and do ministry. Trefz now works in lay servant ministry for the United Methodist Conference of the Dakotas in Mitchell, South Dakota.



Don’t miss this story’s companion conversation with Roman Williams and companion story about how to do a photo elicitation or photovoice project in your church or context.

Explore these resources:

Watch brief videos of photovoice projects with refugees in Iowa, hungry women in Colorado and Catholic college students in Texas.

One woman in Roman Williams’ worship symposium workshop said she liked how photo elicitation and photovoice can “get Christians out of their heads and beyond church walls.” If you have trouble picturing God at work in your setting, then consider gathering a group to read and discuss The New Parish: How Neighborhood Churches Are Transforming Mission, Discipleship and Community by Paul Sparks, Tim Soerens, and Dwight J. Friesen.


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 use photography to spark conversations about worship.

  • How might you use photos to discover which ordinary objects and places your worshipers see as “charged with the grandeur of God” (Gerard Manley Hopkins)? What questions might invite visual answers about where God’s Spirit is at work?
  • In which worship element or church setting can you imagine using photo elicitation or photovoice?
  • Sit in silence with others while you ask God which important issues your church doesn’t talk about. Share your insights. Brainstorm how you could do visual research to address this.