Tuesday, December 31, 2013

A New Year's Resolution for the Episcopal Church: No More Photos of Buildings

Go to a lot of Episcopal Church web sites, and chances are the first thing you'll see is a picture of the exterior of the church building. Or maybe the interior, empty. Or the sign, which will probably say something about welcoming. The trouble is that none of these images communicate useful information about why our communities are special and worth checking out. Here are four reasons to quit with the pictures of buildings already, and four more productive things to do instead.

4 Reasons Not to Take Photos of Buildings

1) No one cares. Unless you’re Washington National Cathedral or St. John the Divine, your building may be pretty, but it’s not pretty enough that you should lead with its image. Your building is important to you because it’s the site of countless communions, baptisms, funerals, weddings: events that have made a difference in your life. Your affection for your building is a side effect of your participation in a worshipping community, not the other way around.

This historic photo of the Episcopal Church of All Saints in Indianapolis is beautiful but it doesn't tell you anything about the church community.

2) It reinforces the wrong narrative. The popular narrative about the Episcopal Church these days is that we’re a grand old church in decline. When we post exterior shots of our edifices or interior shots of empty pews, we’re implicitly telling visitors to our web sites and Facebook pages that that’s all we’ve got. There are plenty of growing Episcopal churches out there that have other things they can be taking pictures of. Even if your church isn’t growing today, there is some spark of resurrection power that keeps you and your fellow parishioners coming back. Show that.

3) It takes courage to go into a church. Believe Out Loud recently published an article about the courage it can take for an LGBT person to walk into a church. That’s true, but it’s actually too narrow a view. In an increasingly unchurched culture, where Christianity has a sometimes deservedly shoddy reputation, think about what it takes for any person who has never been part of a church community, or who hasn’t been part of one for a while, to come inside. A picture of your beautifully dressed altar or sign out front communicates nothing about whether this is a safe space.

4) It misses the point of Jesus. In John’s Gospel, right after driving the money changers out of the Temple, Jesus says “Destroy this Temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” (John 2:19). John goes on to state explicitly that Jesus is referring to his own body when he says this. Our focus then, is not to be on the buildings where God is worshipped, but on God. Our buildings are places where we gather in community to orient our lives together around Jesus. But if we’re focusing on the buildings, we are fixating on what “will be thrown down” (Mark 13:2), not the raising up that’s happening in our lives.

4 Things to Do Instead

1) Focus on people. People coming into a church want to have a sense of who they’ll meet when they’re there, who they’ll be praying and breaking bread with. It’s fine to have posed shots of your clergy and staff, but have pictures of people in worship, fellowship, and service. Show what being a part of your community is like.

2) Focus on faces. Shots of the back of people’s heads are nearly as common in church photography as empty buildings, and just as off-putting. There’s a reason you don’t see many depictions of the backside of the cross - it doesn’t communicate useful information. I suppose back of the head shots say something about the age of your congregation, but that’s about it.

3) Use close-ups. It’s ok to include long shots in the mix, but closer shots of people laughing or praying or serving together will have a lot more details and a lot more interest. When you’re taking team pictures at a Habitat build or CROP Walk, remember that you don’t have to include people’s entire bodies in the picture. Cut ‘em off at the waist so we can see faces.

4) Everyone in your congregation can participate. Most people in your congregation probably have a camera in their purse or pocket. Harness that. Churches can establish new social norms and give permission to use them. Not every church will or should arrive at the same standards (be thoughtful about photos of children, for instance), but most every church should be able to come up with something. Then, encourage people to post the pictures to your church’s Facebook page or Flickr account where your communications team (you’ve got one of those, right?) can curate them.

Maybe you’ve got a great building. Maybe you don’t. Either way, stop taking pictures of it. In 2014, resolve to show the light and joy of your community gathered in Christ’s love. Check out the links below for a little inspiration.

Web sites:
St. Paul’s - Seattle, WA

A Year of More - All Saints - Indianapolis, IN

Thanks to Carolyn Clement (@singingcarolyn) and Mark Alves (@markalves) for insights that contributed to this article.

Updated 1/1/2014 to add link to The Episcopal Church in South Carolina's excellent 2013 photo album.