Seeing God’s Presence in All Things: Embracing Visual Social Media in Ministry

Ask me about my favorite social media platform and I freely admit that Twitter is my drug of preference. For nearly six years Twitter has been my go-to social media platform for content as well as great conversations about faith.

People are surprised when I recommend opting out of using this tool, but then I explain that Twitter is not for everyone. (You’ll find a more detailed explanation in my chapter about learning styles in my new book, The Social Media Gospel.)

Indeed, when given the opportunity, I always make a big deal about underscoring the importance of knowing why you want to use social media and then choosing the right tool. One size does not fit all and yet the next big thing that’s already here — visual social media – may have me rethinking that a bit. These digital platforms are not only easy to use but seem to have near-universal appeal.

I’m smitten with visual social media and not just because I was a visual artist long before I became a working writer and sociologist. I’m especially enthusiastic about how visual social media can be used to soothe the soul and lift the spirit for seekers as well as those who already identify with a religious tradition. These platforms invite users to engage with the world in non-cognitive ways, something I believe is essential for spiritual growth.

I believe our relationships are enhanced when we get a glimpse of how others see the world around them, especially when they self-identify as people of faith.  My best sociological guess is that people, including those who typically reject social media, are flocking to visual platforms because these tools tap into a deeper and more primal way to communicate: with images.

Visual social media?

This is the term for digital platforms that allow users to post images – art, photography, video. They’re social because viewers may leave and respond to comments. They’re social because comments lead to conversations; conversations leads to relationships; relationships lead to community. And this seems to be true for platforms where comments may be as simple as tapping a <3 to convey “Like.”

The current roster of these social media tools includes: Instagram, Pinterest, Snapchat, and Vine, all of which rolled out between 2010 and 2011. (Snapchat, already extremely popular among tweens and other digital natives, has yet to attract an older audience.)

To this list I should probably add Vimeo and YouTube, launched in 2004 and 2005 respectively. And I may as well include Tumblr, the blogging platform which debuted in 2007 because its ease-of-use has generated a culture of highly visual posts with photographs and animated GIFs (i.e., a Graphic Interchange Format files).

Over the years, I’ve watched how images have transformed social media platforms that were anchored in text. For example, 15 years ago it was highly unusual to find blog posts with images. Adding images to narrative is now essential for bloggers who want to attract and engage readers. Plus, in the past two years it has become common to post an image with a simple caption; no lengthy narrative necessary.

I’ve seen this shift to visual content emerge on Facebook. By 2011, the steady stream of kid and pet pictures had turned into a tsunami of photo albums, picture memes, and Instagram posts. These days, the majority of Facebook content is visual and Facebook researchers report that “photo albums, pictures, and videos get 180%, 120%, and 100% more engagement respectively.”

Meanwhile, over on Twitter where you’d think 140-character snippets would be short enough to sustain reader attention, images have become important. Researchers at LTU technologies report that 36% of links shared on Twitter include images and 9% include videos.

For those of you keeping score at home, please note that Facebook bought Instagram in April 2012 and Twitter acquired Vine six months later. No surprise that Fast Company reported the rise of visual marketing as “the breakout trend for 2012.”  We’re coming up to the end of 2013 and those involved with digital ministry are just now beginning to embrace visual social media. During a recent Twitter-based #ChSocM (church social media) chat, participants were asked what they were most excited about using to support their work. Heading the list: Instagram and Vine.

In the world of church, this has to be some kind of land-speed record.  (You do know this joke: “We’re the Church, we’ll get back to you in 500 years.”)

In part, I think this relatively swift adoption is because we who preach the social media gospel realize that we need to make haste to adapt online technology, especially if we want to be at all accessible (or attractive) to Digital Natives.

But I also think we’re embracing these tools with unprecedented swiftness because we know how images help us see God’s presence in all things. We know that art and architecture has been a venerable gateway to the divine. We know that art, in all its forms, including unfairly trivialized crafts, is a way to express what cannot easily be put into words.

Art can be as transformational for curators as it is for those who create it and visual social media invites us to be both. Come take a peek at what I’m curating and creating on Pinterest and Instagram.

For more on using social media in ministry, visit the Patheos Book Club here. 

Meredith Gould, PhD, is a digital strategist with well over a decade of hands-on experience with communications at all levels of church across denominations. She’s the author of eight books about faith and everyday life. 

Dr. Gould is the founder and lead moderator of the weekly ecumenical Twitter-based chat about church social media (#chsocm), serves on the External Advisory Board for the Mayo Clinic Center for Social Media, and is nationally known for her passionate advocacy of using these tools wisely and well for ministry. Learn more at her website: www.meredithgould.com.

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  • Regina Heater

    I find myself at a crossroads with this. I (mostly) love curating visual content. Love Tumblr, esp. the animated GIFs. I love Pinterest. I don’t love Instagram. Haven’t even downloaded Vine (and haven’t liked most Vine videos I’ve seen… too visually jarring for me.) I can’t figure out if this is because I’m disinclined to attach myself to yet another social network, finding that I can barely keep up with the ones I’m already on… or if it’s because my learning style leans toward reading/words and so all the pretty pictures overwhelm me. It’s probably a combination of both.

    • Meredith Gould

      As you know, Regina, I love Pinterest. Happy place! I wasn’t especially interested in Instagram at first, but that has changed. I find it has reawakened/enlivened my ability to see what’s around me.

      For example, last month instead of being peeved that I was stuck at the supermarket, I shifted into “Wow, what’s around to shoot?” mode. That led to shooting what I titled, “Displaced Onion” and “Jailed Strawberries.” World illuminated in a new way.

      I don’t leave many comments nor do I receive many via Instagram or Pinterest but I know that I feel like get a glimpse into someone’s view of the world when I see what they’ve pinned or pictures they’ve taken. I go even further (surprise!) to notice which filters they use on Instagram and have a few theories about who choose what and why.

      Vine? Yes, jarring because of the technology. I recorded and posted only one Vine video, “My Sacred Beating Heart.” I have yet to get Instagram video to work on my Android phone — just as well!

      As for the social networking aspects, with a few exceptions (e.g., U.S Interior) I follow on Pinterest and Instagram who I already follow on Twitter and Facebook. I’m claiming this is strategic: getting to know people better through what they see.

      And of course my constant advice is this: do not use social media if it sucks energy. Ask: does doing this enhance my spiritual life or does it undermine it?