Looking for Revival: Using Imagery to Improve Online Evangelism

Author’s Note: The following is an excerpt from the book 2017 Perspectives on Communications: A Reference for Communicators in the Episcopal Church in Vermont, an anthology that I recently had the honor of compiling and editing. While this chapter was originally constructed for Episcopal parish communicators within the limited geographic scope of Vermont, it is my hope that readers in other dioceses and perhaps even denominations might find the insights useful in their own practices of organizational leadership and online evangelism.

Introduction

The Episcopal Church is changing. That’s a fact. There has been a 19-percent dip in active membership from 2005-2015 and a 26.6-percent drop in average Sunday attendance (ASA) over the same period (Episcopal Church Office of Research, 2017a). At year-end 2015, the New England Province reported the sharpest decline in ASA among domestic regions, down some 5.4-percent from the preceding year (Episcopal Church Office of Research, 2017b). Some say that the Church is dying, that it is only a shell of what it was just 10 years ago. Other say that the Church is distilling, that it is more authentic now than it has ever been. Call me an optimist, but I think it’s the latter.

Another study published in 2015 says that “more than 81 percent of Americans say they identify with a specific religion or denomination; 78 percent say religion is a very or fairly important part of their lives; 57 percent believe that religion is able to solve today’s problems” (McCauley, 2015). While those numbers may be demonstrably lower in Vermont, they indicate that the Church is hardly irrelevant nationwide. People just need something different from God/church/religion than they did a decade ago.

Conventional wisdom has it that if we become better evangelists—an historically scary proposition for Episcopalians—then people will come (back). After all, it seems to be working for the Megachurches, a class of Protestant congregations that each attract at least 2,000 worshipers— some as many as 30,000—per service. Over a five-year span, the Megachurches have grown by more than 26-percent on a platform of “evangelism, personal spiritual practices and living out their faith in everyday life,” according to a 2015 report published by Leadership Network and Hartford Institute for Religion Research. The report goes on to say, “The membership of megachurches is significantly younger and more racially diverse than smaller congregations as well” (Thumma & Bird, 2015, p. 3). Contrary to popular belief, the Episcopal Church is also quite adept at evangelism, spiritual practices, and living out our faith. These are, after all, ingrained our baptismal covenant.

Presiding Bishop Michael Curry says, “You know, I don’t think evangelism has a direct impact on either increasing the membership of a church or decreasing it…But I do believe that when we really do what we’re supposed to be doing in terms of evangelism, other people might be interested” (Dallas, 2017).

Narrowing the scope to our Diocese, this begs the question: What should Vermont communicators be doing differently or better in terms of evangelism? First let’s take an inventory of our assets. Our Diocese is about local mission. It’s about going out into the world to demonstrate love and reconciliation. Our congregations advocate for a variety of social, economic, and environmental justice issues, in addition to providing worship, outreach, and pastoral care. As a result, we have many beautiful stories to share.

Our challenge in the digital age is to tell our stories effectively online. Most of our congregations have an online presence—either a website or Facebook page—which means we have viable communications vehicles. That’s a great start. As communicators, we are skilled wordsmiths. That’s half the battle. Now we must become equally as adept at using imagery to convey the Good News. Consider these research findings:

  • An estimated 84 percent of communications will be visual by 2018.
  • An estimated 79 percent of internet traffic will be video content by 2018.
  • Posts [in social media] that include images produce 650 percent higher engagement than text-only posts. (Kim, 2015)

There are many things in life we cannot control. Whether people fill the pews on Sundays is one of them. What we can influence, however, is how we visualize the Church internally, and how we frame it externally. In this chapter, we’ll discuss the roles of framing, visualization, and priming in online evangelism, and we’ll explore how the practice of intentional looking can equip Vermont communicators to spark a revival.

Framing

In classical oratory, the term rhetoric is used to describe persuasive language. When it comes to dealing with online imagery, the term visual rhetoric seems appropriate here. In the world of advertising, to construe images as a form of rhetoric is to imbue them with certain qualities, chiefly the ability to represent “concepts, abstractions, actions, metaphors, and modifiers” (Scott, 1994, p. 253). This means we must take care not to limit our critique of imagery to its utility or aesthetics. Put another way, when we manage our online content we must avoid settling on images simply because of their attractiveness or ability to fill an empty space. We must consider how images can be used to manage meaning. This is where the idea of framing comes into play.

Regardless of our functional title—communications minister, administrator, newsletter editor—communicators play an essential leadership role in that we “determine the meaning of a subject,” “judge its character and significance,” and share that viewpoint with others, a process known as framing (Fairhurst, 1996, p.3). In the same way that a photographer frames a picture, “when we choose to highlight some aspect of our subject over others, we make it more noticeable, more meaningful, and more memorable to others” (p. 4).

In order to harness the power of framing, we must first have a clear sense of our congregation’s vision, ministries, values, and goals. This typically comes through our ongoing engagement in church affairs. Additionally, we must develop a sense for selecting images that communicate effectively. This is typically not a natural gift, but rather the product of training in the cognitive effects of imagery and the interpretation of their hidden messages.

Visualization

There’s a well-known aphorism that says, “You are what you think.” Those familiar with the Book of Proverbs may recognize the saying from this bible passage:

Do not eat the bread of a selfish man,
Or desire his delicacies;
For as he thinks within himself, so he is.
He says to you, “Eat and drink!”
But his heart is not with you.
(Proverbs 23:7 NASB, emphasis mine)

In its original context, this scripture is a warning against desiring for oneself the spoils of an unjust person in power. Nothing good ever comes of it. The part that transfixes us, however, is the source of the miser’s sad estate: His own thoughts.

The idea that humankind can control its destiny by thinking it into being has intrigued us for millennia. If such a power can be wielded for evil, then why not for good? Entire books have been written on this topic by those attesting to the benefits of mental imagery. Some claim that visualization can improve health, wealth, relationships, and overall quality of life (Allen, 1992; Byrne, 2006; Haanel, 2011). Visualization is also serious business in professional sports and has been integrated into Olympic training for many years (Clarey, 2014).

“Among other things, imagery has been used to alter immune and cardiovascular function and enhance relaxation,” writes leading creativity researcher Ruth Richards (2007). And, as it turns out, there is empirical evidence that mental imagery affects us regardless whether we are consciously engaged in the practice of visualization.

When we look at something in our visual field, photons excite the optic nerve and the image neurologically enters our brain. Because of this, we see the “real world” and a work of art in the same physiological way. The same neurons and optic nerve respond inside our brains. This internal response accounts for the success of visualization, a process whereby images are called up internally “in the mind’s eye” to influence our life in the external world. (Zausner, 2007, p.85)

With this in mind, we might take more seriously Paul’s advice to the Philippians:

…whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things. (Philippians 4:8 NASB)

And his guidance to the Romans:

And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:2 NASB)

The moral of this story is to mind our thoughts. As communicators, the images we publish not only reflect us, they become us, which is why we must take care not to limit our real or mental imagery to the Church we have been (past) and the Church we are (present). We must also project the Church we aspire to be (future).   

Although much of the popular literature on visualization waxes a bit metaphysical, the concept has tremendous, practical merit in the context of visual rhetoric. Because of the neurological link between imagery and the real world, we tend to adjust our everyday living—sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously—to manifest our imaginations. For example, the bachelor who visualizes a future spouse may make conscious changes to his hairstyle and wardrobe to appear more attractive, and he may make unconscious changes to his personality and demeanor that a particular man or woman finds alluring.

Likewise, a congregation that visualizes a vibrant social justice ministry might make conscious changes, like participating in gatherings of Vermont Interfaith Action, and unconscious changes, like increasing their empathy for marginalized communities. Individually as well as organizationally, it’s the unconscious changes that have the most impact because they give impetus to an authentic, enduring transformation from the inside out.

The secret to visualization is time and repetition. The more frequently an individual is exposed to an image, the more efficacious that image becomes. For this reason, professional athletes and others who engage in intentional visualization set aside occasions to meditate on real or mental imagery. Similarly, communicators, staffers, and congregants who routinely access the parish website and social media channels become beneficiaries (or victims) of repeated exposure.

Priming

While casual visitors to the parish website might not be subject to the accumulative effects of visualization, imagery can still have a profound impact after just a single visit, as a result of a psychological phenomenon known as priming.

Priming is a nonconscious form of human memory concerned with perceptual identification of words and objects. It refers to activating particular representations or associations in memory just before carrying out an action or task. For example, a person who sees the word “yellow” will be slightly faster to recognize the word “banana.” This happens because yellow and banana are closely associated in memory. Additionally, priming can also refer to a technique in psychology used to train a person’s memory in both positive and negative ways. (Psychology Today, 2017)

If you’ve ever played a word association game at a party, you have some experience with priming. A game facilitator holds up a flashcard containing a word or image, and a player blurts out the first word that comes to his or her mind. Here’s the key: Priming does not just describe the activation of associations in memory, it also describes the formation of associations.

Author Malcolm Gladwell (2007) discusses several experimental and practical applications of priming in his book, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. In one such example, researchers showed that when African Americans were asked to identify their race on a graduate school entrance exam questionnaire, “that simple act was sufficient to prime them with all the negative stereotypes associated with African Americans and academic achievement— and the number of items they got right was cut in half” (Kindle Locations 648-649). While that anecdote could easily divert us into discussions of implicit bias, institutional racism, and violations of dignity, the takeaway here is that priming is remarkably powerful. And we experience priming effects during everyday activities like watching television, reading books, and surfing the Web.

In a 2002 study of websites, researchers revealed that using visual imagery as a means of priming consumers can measurably affect their product choices (Mandel & Johnson, 2002). Marketers use this kind of information to their advantage. Church communicators should, too. Ask yourself: What memories, experiences, feelings do you want seekers and newcomers to associate with your parish brand? Factor that into your image selection process.

Looking

The Internet is full of images. It’s virtually impossible not to see them. However, it is possible not to look. That is because seeing and looking are not the same. As visual culture scholars Marita Sturken and Lisa Cartwright (2001) explain:

Seeing is something that we do somewhat arbitrarily as we go about our daily lives. Looking is an activity that involves a greater sense of purpose and direction…We engage in practices of looking to communicate, to influence and be influenced. (p. 10)

There is a tried-and-true method for learning how to look at imagery that has been taught to medical students, marketing professionals, and doctors of philosophy in the context of making sense out of chaotic situations. With a little finessing, it can work for church communicators in the context of developing a visual rhetoric. Essentially, looking with intentionality involves creating an artificial separation between inductive, deductive, and abductive logic, the mental processes that tend to occur simultaneously when we encounter an image superficially (Mitra, Hsieh, & Buswick, 2010). We can use a hypothetical issue to demonstrate how this process works:

Problem. Sammie Jenkins is redesigning the St. Swithun’s website and is seeking a featured image for the homepage. She has narrowed it down to three choices that she finds aesthetically pleasing and has begun the harder work of looking with intentionality. See Appendix A.

Inductive Logic. In this first step, Sammie jots down the absolute characteristics of each image—only what she can see. She refrains from any editorial commentary or attempts to draw conclusions. See Appendix B.

Deductive Logic. In this second step, Sammie freely makes inferences about what each image could possibly mean based on its absolute characteristics. She also writes down the thoughts and feelings the images evoke. See Appendix C.

Abductive Logic. In this final step, Sammie asks herself several questions. Firstly, who is the audience for her homepage? Secondly, what purpose(s) does the website serve? Thirdly, what are the mission, vision, and values of her congregation? Having answered these questions, which of the three images (if any) is best suited for the homepage? See Appendix D.

In our example, Sammie comes to realize that although she has fabulous photographs of the building exterior and Sunday service—two typical choices for a church website—an image of congregants marching in the Palm Sunday parade conveys the message of “sent community” that is central to St. Swithun’s approach to local mission. She reserves the building photo for the “Directions” page and the service photo for the “Service Schedule” page. See Appendix E.

Some may argue that the parade photo presents its own set of problems. For a start, the fact that the some of the marchers are looking into the camera breaks what theatre directors call “the fourth wall”—the conceptual barrier between the viewer and the scene. As a result, the photo may appear planned or somewhat contrived. In the spirit of looking with intentionality, such an argument certainly merits consideration. With this in mind, Sammie shared her draft website with a focus group of parishioners and community partners to gain a fuller sense of the photo’s effect on the local audience.

Visual communications are dynamic, contextual, and culturally defined. Simply put, what works in Burlington does not necessary work in Brattleboro. Looking with intentionality helps us to clarify the breadth of “audience”—civic, regional, or statewide—and determine which desired outcomes and aspects of culture should most influence our messaging.

Conclusion

Thelma Golden (2009), director and chief curator of the Studio Museum in Harlem, says that visual art is “not always just simply about aesthetic innovation,” it represents how “we define and redefine culture.” In Vermont, there was a time when images of candlelit sanctuaries and stained glass windows filled most people with a sense of awe and legacy. Images of vested clergy were generally associated with ethics and divinity. In certain contexts, they still do…but culture has changed, and so must our representations. As more of our congregations strive to meet the demand for online communications, we must pay careful attention to our visual rhetoric lest we miss valuable opportunities to connect with a new generation of seekers.

Even if we can’t convince people to go to church, we can at least prime them to share in God’s loving, liberating, life-giving mission, while visualizing it more clearly for ourselves. And I think Jesus would agree that sharing the Good News is a much bigger priority for communicators than filling the pews.

References

Allen, J. (1992). As a man thinketh. New York, NY: Fall River Press.

Byrne, R. (2006). The secret. Hillsboro, OR: Beyond Words Publishing.

Clarey, C. (2014, February 22). Olympians use imagery as mental training. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/23/sports/olympics/olympians-use-imagery-as-mental-training.html

Dallas, K. (2017, April 1). Q&A: Why evangelism shouldn’t just be about increasing church attendance. Retrieved April 1, 2017, from http://www.deseretnews.com/article/865676894/QA-Why-evangelism-shouldnt-just-be-about-increasing-church-attendance.html?pg=all

Haanel, C. F. (2011). The master key system. Wilkes-Barre, PA: Kallisti Publishing.

Harris, M. L. (2016). Building exterior [Photograph].

Harris, M. L. (2017). Palm Sunday parade [Photograph].

Keenan, T. (n.d.). Child performers in front of a congregation [Photograph]. Retrieved from http//lightstock.com

Kim, L. (2015, November 23). 16 eye-popping statistics you need to know about visual content marketing. Retrieved May 26, 2017, from https://www.inc.com/larry-kim/visual-content-marketing-16-eye-popping-statistics-you-need-to-know.html

Episcopal Church Office of Research. (2017). Episcopal domestic fast fact trends: 2011-2015. The Episcopal Church. Retrieved from http://www.episcopalchurch.org/files/domestic_fast_facts_trends_2011-2015.pdf

Episcopal Church Office of Research. (2017). Statistical totals for the Episcopal Church by province and diocese: 2014-2015. The Episcopal Church. Retrieved from http://www.episcopalchurch.org/files/tec_membership_and_attendance_totals_by_province_and_diocese_2014-2015.pdf

Fairhurst, G. T., & Sarr, R. A. (1996). Framing: Seizing leadership moments in everyday conversations. In The art of framing: Managing the language of leadership (pp. 1–22). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Gladwell, M. (2007). Blink: The power of thinking without thinking [Kindle edition]. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company.

Golden, T. (2009, February). Thelma Golden: How art gives shape to cultural change [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/thelma_golden_how_art_gives_shape_to_cultural_change

Mandel, N., & Johnson, E. J. (2002). When web pages influence choice: Effects of visual primes on experts and novices. Journal of Consumer Research, 29(2), 235–245. https://doi.org/10.1086/341573

McCauley, M. B. (2015). Why religion still matters. Christian Science Monitor. Retrieved from http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Society/2015/1011/Why-religion-still-matters

Mitra, A. M., Hsieh, Y., & Buswick, T. (2010). Learning how to look: developing leadership through intentional observation. Journal of Business Strategy, 31(4), 77–84. https://doi.org/10.1108/02756661011055212

Psychology Today. (2017). Priming. Retrieved May 27, 2017, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/basics/priming

Richards, R. (2007). Everyday creativity: Our hidden potential. In R. Richards (Ed.), Everyday creativity and new views of human nature: Psychological, social, and spiritual perspectives (pp. 25–53). Washington, DC, US: American Psychological Association. https://doi.org/10.1037/11595-001

Scott, L. M. (1994). Images in advertising: The need for a theory of visual rhetoric. Journal of Consumer Research, 21(2), 252–273.

Sturken, M., & Cartwright, L. (2001). Practices of looking: An introduction to visual culture. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Thumma, S., & Bird, W. (2015). Recent shifts in America’s largest Protestant churches: Megachurches 2015 report. Leadership Network/Hartford Institute for Religion Research. Retrieved from http://hirr.hartsem.edu/megachurch/2015_Megachurches_Report.pdf

Zausner, T. (2007). Artist and audience: Everyday creativity and visual art. In R. Richards (Ed.), Everyday creativity and new views of human nature: Psychological, social, and spiritual perspectives (pp. 75–89). Washington, DC, US: American Psychological Association. https://doi.org/10.1037/11595-003


Appendix A

Website Photo Options for St. Swithun’s Episcopal Church

A1

Option A: Building Exterior
Harris, M. L. (2016). Original photography.

A2

Option B: Palm Sunday Parade
Harris, M. L. (2017). Original photography.

A3

Option C: Sunday Service
Keenan, T. (n.d.) Child performers in front of a congregation.
Royalty free license from Lightstock.com.


Appendix B

Inductive Logic Worksheet

Appendix B


Appendix C

Deductive Logic Summaries

Option A

This image could be interpreted either as serenity or loneliness. If I were a first-time visitor viewing it on the homepage of the website, I would get a sense that the building is particularly significant, and that the traditional white structure with a steeple is how our congregation defines church. But I might want to know what goes on inside. What makes the people of St. Swithun’s tick? What’s our connection with the rest of the town? The photo also connotes a sense of environmental stewardship (with the carefully manicured grounds). The setting is an idyllic representation of Vermont that testifies to a tradition of simplistic beauty.

Option B

This image feels like a celebration. A first-time viewer with a curiosity about religion might interpret this as a joyful, unified gathering that is unashamed of its faith. However, a first-time viewer who is skeptical of organized religion might see this as the church imposing its beliefs on the wider community. Although everyone is looking at the camera, there is an air of spontaneity to the image that makes it feel authentic, as if this is how the people of St. Swithun’s always are. The fact that the church building is not visible, but houses are, suggests that St. Swithun’s to some degree represents the community and its values.

Option C

This image is a visual counterargument to the claims that church membership is declining. Although our attendance has dropped somewhat in the past five years, it is clear from this image that our congregation is vibrant, diverse, involved. Placing children in the forefront of the image—although they are not facing the camera—implies that we value grooming future Episcopalians. While this could be a positive message for parents who want their children to have a religious upbringing, it could be construed negatively for parents who are new to the Church and may be concerned with indoctrination. There is a certain sense of “gathered community” here, which may not mesh with St. Swithun’s “sent community” message.


Appendix D

Abductive Logic Questionnaire

Who is the audience for the St. Swithun’s homepage?

The primary audience for the St. Swithun’s homepage includes men and women ages 18+ in the immediate town, as well as those within a 30-mile radius. Our audience is a rural population in a predominately white community of roughly 13,000 inhabitants. We recently received a small population of Syrian refugees. Most local residents are outspoken advocates for social justice although they seem ambivalent toward the Church in general.

What purpose(s) does the website serve?

The purpose of the St. Swithun’s website is to provide a professional-looking online portal that gives visitors a sense of our mission, vision, and values and extends a sense of welcome. Since most local resident are ambivalent toward church, it will be necessary to convey that the church is not only a congregation that gathers within a building, but it is also a collection of individuals in the community who share a common faith.

What are the mission, vision, and values of the St. Swithun’s congregation?

Our mission is “to share in God’s loving, liberating, life-giving mission in the world.” Our vision is “A Love That Knows No Bounds.”

Our core values are:

Sent Community:  We gather to meet Jesus in Word and Sacrament each week, and we are sent into the day-to-day living of our lives as His followers.

Local Mission: We are called to join in God’s mission, which is already underway in the world and works through people of all faith traditions.

Justice: We strive for social, economic, and environmental justice through prayer and non-violent resistance of unjust systems.

Inclusion: All are welcome. We celebrate the diversity of God’s creation.

Which of the three images (if any) is best suited for the homepage?

Image B seems to do the best job of hitting our mission, vision, and most of our values. The street parade exemplifies “A Love That Knows No Bounds,” and the makeup of the marchers is an authentic representation of age and gender diversity in our community. Marching peacefully also sends a message that we are not afraid to engage in non-violent resistance, which may resonate with non-church goers.


Appendix E

St. Swithun’s Website (Selected Pages)

E1

Homepage

E2

Service Schedule

E3

Directions

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