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Digital Icons or Concrete Words


Technology has given us tools to communicate our message beyond our wildest dreams, especially in our ability to communicate with images. As a result of this, channels of communication have sprung up (Instagram, Snapchat, Pinterest, YouTube) that are primarily image-based. In the past (though this will be hard for younger church communicators to imagine) a quality image cost hundreds of dollars to buy and sometimes hundreds more to reproduce it in a quality church communication. It obviously isn’t that way anymore. Hundreds of thousands of images are free to use in any way we want (here’s a link to 21 Free Image Sites if you don’t have enough).

We know that in general (and it’s very general — there are always exceptions: ask any age person with a serious Pinterest addiction) that younger generations tend to like the more image-based channels; older generations are more text-based.

No matter what tools we use to create our message, no matter what channels we use to share it, the one thing that never changes is our core content. Our content, permeated with the truth of the entire Bible and culminating with a call to salvation and discipleship in Jesus, must be the anchor and ultimate purpose of our communication ministry. It takes many pieces in many forms to completely share that message, but we need to keep that in mind.

The obvious question then is: What is the best way to communicate our content?

Here is one of the greatest challenges, controversies and problems confronting church communicators today: the mistaken priority use of images over carefully crafted words to communicate our content. It doesn’t matter what technology channel we use, the issue of the communication value of words vs. images is the same.

Images can hit us with emotion and delight, but their actual message can be harder to pin down. Just because images are cheap, easy and fun to use today doesn’t mean they on their own get our message across.

Words are the primary carriers of content, of clear propositional truth. Words, however, are difficult to wrangle into meaning. It takes work, thought, planning and editing with words to even approximate clear communication.

No picture, in and of itself, communicates anything. Every person brings their emotions, history, background, prejudices and loves to any image. Those barnacles of personal history are ever-present with any and every image you use and they define the content, which may be very different from what you intended it to be

Here is one example of how this works: Picture the American flag.

What do you feel? For many of you reading this, you feel pride, patriotism, mom and apple pie.

But not everyone will feel that way.

• What if your son or husband, best friend or boyfriend, was killed in a recent war and the last time you saw the American flag was as it draped the coffin, was reverently folded and handed to the family?

• What if your family is from the Middle East and you have a relative in an American prison?

• What if you are an expat who moved to Canada during the Vietnam War?

• What if you are Canadian (as some of my dearest friends are) and are slightly irritated with the U.S. even though you are unfailingly polite about it?

No picture has a universally shared and understood meaning.

This is true beyond polarizing images like the American flag. Even in an extended family, the pictures of a birthday party for a 3-year-old posted on Facebook may mean to various people:

• What a cute child my daughter is — I love her so much!

• She looks just like her grandma — good genes do get passed on.

• What a spoiled brat that kid is — that much money spent on a 3-year-old is wrong.

• What a waste of food — people who come to the soup kitchen wouldn’t think the cake fight was funny.

• I’m afraid I’ll never share a picture like that — I just had an early miscarriage.

Because you don’t and can’t know the personal, visceral responses to images, images are not the best carriers of meaning if you want to convey the content of eternal truth.

Words aren’t perfect carriers of communication, but they are better than images.

Obviously, our words can be misunderstood, but they do narrow the options of response because they contain in themselves the message we want to communicate. If we make the statement “God is love,” our audience might define love in different ways, but the word “love” narrows our description of God in contrast to the statement “God is hate.” If we then go on to add the words of 1 Corinthians 13, where the Bible defines love in concrete actions, we define the meaning even more. If we add stories about how God expressed his love in the book of Hosea and his ultimate love in the death of Jesus, we illustrate the meaning of “God is love.” We can do all these things through words.

The more precise, polished and perfected our words, the more likely they will clarify the meaning of the message. Our audience can believe or not, accept or not, but our words should help them understand clearly the message they are accepting or rejecting.

Using words and creating content that communicates the message we want it to is incredibly difficult. In an excellent article by Michael Wolff, What ad biz needs are writers, he talks about the shift away from words in advertising and why, in spite of the technological wonders now available to project images, advertising seems to be less and less effective. To summarize his argument, he repeats a comment between Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple, and the head of his advertising agency, Jay Chiat.

“Pictures,” Jobs once told Chiat, “are easy. Words are hard.”

Hard or not, for church communicators, our content must contain clear and carefully chosen words if we want to be understood.

Does this mean we can’t use images?

Of course not — but effective church communication realizes that image must always be in a secondary role. Images touch, often powerfully touch, our emotions. Our emotions help us remember and take action. That emotion, however, if we want to use it for the kingdom of God, must be guided in its content.

Words tell us what to see in an image. That’s why the captions or text that goes with an image are so important — they aren’t simply unnecessary words — they form a feedback loop with the image and strengthen the message of both. We see a picture — the caption tells us what to see and what is important in it — the picture then reinforces the message of the words. If done well, this creates a powerful feedback loop of meaning between the image and the words. (To illustrate what this means, please go to this post that shows the effective use of words and images both in print and video: Why words and images need each other — the feedback loop of meaning.)

We’ve been entrusted with “the words of eternal life.

“Remember that when many were deserting Jesus and he asked the disciples if they were also going to leave that Peter responded, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God” (John 6: 68-69).

It isn’t too fine a point to emphasize that Peter said Jesus had the words of eternal life. Not miracles, or prayers, or songs, though all were part of his ministry, but the words. His words are the primary tool Jesus left us with to communicate his message. The channels we use will continue to change. Many of you reading this have experienced the shift from typewriters to iPads, and who knows what tool we will use in the coming years. But regardless of the tool, regardless of the channel, the value of words remains.

It’s our job to learn to craft them well so our words will communicate clearly the words of eternal life to a distracted, deceived and dying world.

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Yvon Prehn is the primary content creator www.effectivechurchcom.com, a website that serves and equips church communicators to help them be successful in the incredible work they do in introducing people to Jesus and helping their churches grow in numbers and their people as disciples. The site does this by providing strategy to give them a biblical foundation and motivation and practical skills training to make them more effective church communicators.