I was asked to look at and critique a church website. Before I could give any useful advice or comments, I asked the person who asked me to look at the website,"What is your purpose in creating the site?"
Websites can serve many purposes from outreach to disciple-making. Each purpose takes time and few churches have time to do all of them. Because of that I didn't want to critique the site unfairly. The person who asked me to critique the site said that they wanted primarily to attract and inform unchurched people about the church.
I clicked on the site and on the home page was one of the large format of scrolling picture boxes across the top. The images displayed were of a young woman being helped out of the water of a hot tub, a close up of her smiling with a wet t-shirt clinging tightly to her; then a shot of her as she is hugged by a couple of guys.
I didn't know whether to laugh or cry before I commented on the website.
How images that are meaningful to us, may be confusing to others
I live in S. California and this was the location of the church. I know churches around here baptize folks in hot tubs. I know her attire was typical of a newly churched, California girl. I knew the guys hugging her were pastors welcoming her into the family of the church. Yeah, we are the land of fruits and nuts.
But not everybody knows what I know, as an insider into California church culture. There was no caption, no explanation on the home page of what was going on. I said to my young friend who asked me to look at the site, "A picture of a sexy woman in a tight t-shirt getting out of a hot tub and being hugged by guys might be viewed by a web visitor, who knows nothing about church, as just weird or they might think hot tub parties are what you do at church. Many people have no idea that a baptism in a hot tub in S. California is not anything unusual, most likely they may not even know what a baptism is, what it means, or why we do them."
My friend groaned....and realized that the church had a lot more work to do on the site.
The challenge of images
Lots more can be said about websites construction, but the important lesson here has to do with one of the most incredibly stupid statements ever made and that is, "A picture is worth a thousand words."
Maybe. But as I always remind people, without a caption or explanation, the question is always "Which thousand?"
To compound the confusion of these images, in the case of this website, my friend told me that the baptism really meant a lot to the webmaster who put it up there. It was his friend's baptism; someone he had prayed for years. He knew what was going on, and the images did bring back perhaps a thousand thoughts and memories of that joyous occasion, but without a caption or explanation, his happy memories really couldn't be shared with anyone else and could be confusing and distasteful.
Some lessons to be learned in communicating with images, on your website or in print
- Just because something is meaningful to you, does not mean an image of it will automatically mean the same thing to someone viewing it.
- You MUST either caption, or put into context through a sidebar, an explanation what is going on in your images.
- Be especially careful if an image has a double meaning, e.g. if an image might mean something completely different in the secular culture than what it means in church. The example in this instance was a girl in a wet t-shirt coming out of a hot tub: one meaning in the church; a completely different meaning in the secular culture.
- No image has an innate meaning obvious to everyone. No image. You tell people what to see in an image or slide show of images.
- If you don't tell people what to see, they will unconsciously make up their own meaning or story--and often the result may be a thousand wrong words.
- Though this is unfortunate in any communication, it is especially sad when we are illustrating one of the most important sacraments of the church. The images can have a powerful teaching component to them, but that is lost without words along with the image.
Mistakes like this really aren't funny
Examples like this one are ultimately not really funny situations. We represent a holy God. I had a hard time writing about this because I didn't want to be either outraged or flippant. Part of me wanted to either laugh or ask, "How could you not see the potential problem here?" but neither approach would be helpful. We all do the best we can and most often with the best of intentions.
But good intentions or not, we need to always pray that we see our communications through the eyes of those that do not know the context, including the visual vocabulary of those of us who go to church. Getting a second opinion of people outside the church is always a good idea; being open to comments and criticism is essential.
Final advice, some tips on the message communicated with images:
- Don't be lazy when you choose images for your website or illustrations for print projects.
- Don't assume that "a picture is worth a thousand words" when you need to use words to explain what meaning you want people to get from it.
- Take time to read the tags on images if you do a search for them or are scrolling through selections. The tags help you understand how many people would view the image.
- Be sure that you don't choose something with a questionable meaning--this doesn't mean only immoral or inappropriate, but don't choose something confusing.
- If the image isn't clear, use a caption.
- Use a caption when possible in all pictures you use with articles.
- Get a second opinion of people outside the church, if they are your primary audience.
- Be open to comments and criticism.
- Pray for wisdom and insight in choice, use, and caption writing.
- Laugh at yourself, forgive yourself because no matter how hard you try, we'll all fall in love with an image that means everything to us and totally confuses our audience.