When it comes to promoting and remembering messages, visual images are almost always the most powerful. Research has shown over and over and over again that nearly every human being is a visual learner–we learn faster, we remember more, and we process messages with more clarity when images are attached to messages.
However, if you choose to use an image in a communication piece that isn’t relevant to your message, be aware: people will most likely remember the image more than they will the message you intended to share.
The concept of using images to convey messages is especially interesting when we look at the visuals Christian churches choose to display on their websites. Are they choosing appropriate visuals that will help their intended audiences understand the messages they are trying to convey about their church? Are they, essentially, “branding” their message in ways that reflect what they truly hope people will remember about their church?
Images on church websites tend to capture a variety of messages some of which are to be expected: doctrinal points; topics of importance; humanitarian and service work; global outreach and preaching. But other images may be less appealing, when we consider promoting and communicating religion: selling products; advertising paid conventions; promoting leadership; announcing less-than-positive news stories, and so forth.
Below, I captured the images from the homepages of the websites of the 20 largest Christian denominations in order of church membership. (See a similar article I published in 2013). To be consistent, I grabbed the first ten images, from top to bottom, that were visible on the homepage only. Some churches had fewer than ten images, so I pulled only what they had available.
How does your church stack up when it comes to promoting the message you hope it will? Is there anything you would change if you could?
Caveat: these images were captured from each of the respective churches’ official church website on July 12, 2017. Images on websites change frequently, even daily, so visual messaging will obviously change. But this article gives a sense for where churches may (intentionally or not) be putting their emphasis on their websites. The images, at the very least, indicate what people are likely to remember about a church after visiting the website.
#1: Catholic Church | Catholic.org
The Catholic church’s American website, which isn’t actually the Vatican’s website, has a heavy visual emphasis on current events, news, and opinions within the church. News of all sorts, even those stories that aren’t necessarily positive–such as scandals and stories about sex robots–make their way to the home page. The church also promotes merchandise such as books and bibles, as well as images of church leadership (including the Pope) participating in events.
#2: Southern Baptist Convention | SBC.net
The Southern Baptist Convention has a heavy visual emphasis on upcoming events, promoting conferences for leadership and other members. There are also images of leadership and some action photos of practicing religion (baptism). One might infer from looking at these images that the primary audience for the website is church leadership, not necessarily those interested in learning more about the church itself.
#3: United Methodist Church | UMC.org
The United Methodist Church has a diversity of visual emphases, with images of historical sites, religion in action (praying, preaching, and reading the bible), global outreach, and humanitarian service. It may be inferred that the audience for this website may include current membership, but also those interested in learning more about what the church does and the impact they are having. The images of people seem to be reaching out to visitors mostly in their adult years.
#4: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormon) | LDS.org
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormon Church) has a variety of visual emphases, with focus on doctrinal principals (family and endurance, following Jesus Christ), events, inspirational messages, humanitarian work, and global outreach. It may be inferred from the visuals on this website, that the church’s intended audience is both current membership and those looking to learn more about the church. The images of people seem to reach out age groups ranging from teenager to upper-middle-aged.
#5: Church of God in Christ | COGIC.org
The Church of God in Christ seems to have a split visual emphasis, with some focus on upcoming events, fundraising, and global and community impact. The visuals seem to be reaching out to people interested in knowing more about what the church is currently involved in. The images of people seem to be reaching out to middle-aged adults.
#6: National Baptist Convention | nationalbaptist.com
The National Baptist Convention has a heavy visual emphasis on upcoming events (conventions and programs) and profitable ventures (college degrees). There is some focus on doctrinal principles (women move for Christ) as well as religion in action (choir singing) and church leadership. The audience for this website seems to concern mostly current membership and the visuals reach out to ages ranging from teenager to old age.
#7: Evangelical Lutheran Church in America | ELCA.org
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has a heavy visual emphasis on living the religion, with action shots in multiple locations. There is some added emphasis to the church in the news as well as promoting leadership. The images seem to e reaching out to people in their upper teens or young adult years to middle-aged adults.
#8: National Baptist Convention of America, Inc. | NBCAINC.com
The National Baptist Convention of America’s website has one of the least visually diverse visuals, with almost all of their emphasis being placed upcoming events and the selling and downloading of products. It’s difficult to say if the intended audience is primarily for leadership (which it seems to be) or for a more general public or for current membership.
#9: Assemblies Of God | AG.org
Assemblies of God’s website has a heavy visual emphasis on religion in action (attending church/events) and global outreach. The style and faces in the photos seem to be reaching out to a younger, Millennial generation of visitors along with teenagers.
#10: Presbyterian Church | PCUSA.org
The Presbyterian Church has a variety of visual emphases with a highlighted focus on a particular congregation, some religion in action, and some upcoming church events. It’s unclear who the intended audience may be, but the visuals seem to lean towards current membership with no particular age.
#11: African Methodist Episcopal | ame-church.com
The African Methodist Episcopal has a heavy visual emphasis on church leadership and their work. There is one image of help in Haiti, but the visuals have very little emphasis on religion in action, doctrine, faith-promotion, or upcoming events.
#12: National Missionary Baptist Convention | NMBCA.org
The National Missionary Baptist Convention has the least developed website of all the churches and, similarly, the fewest images. The three images that can be found on the website promote an upcoming event, church leadership, and the church logo (other churches also had logos, but I only included this one here because there was really nothing else to look at.)
#13: Lutheran Church Missouri Synod | LCMS.org
The Lutheran Church Missouri Synod has a variety of visual emphases, with some imagery on religion in action, som on upcoming events, and some on global outreach. The visuals seem to be reaching out to adults in a range of ages.
#14: Episcopal Church | episcopalchurch.org
The Episcopal Church’s website only had five images, but there is some visual emphasis on religion in action (interacting with preacher) and church leadership. It’s not really clear from the imagery what the intended message is or who the audience may be.
#15: Pentecostal Assemblies of the World, Inc. | PAWINC.org
The Pentecostal Assemblies of the World has a unique diversity of images with most of the emphasis on leadership and upcoming events. Interestingly, this website also draws attention to a scam alert, which appeared to be notifying current membership of a circulating scam, but nothing related to religion or the church.
#16: Churches of Christ | church-of-christ.org
The Churches of Christ website has an interesting mix of images, with some religion in action (reading bibles and getting baptized) but also in promoting custom mobile apps (this appears to be an ad for congregation leaders). There are also some inspirational messages. The website appears to be appealing to younger and middle-aged adults.
#17: Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America | goarch.org
The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America has a diverse range of visual imagery, with some focus on their new buildings of worship, some religion in action (bible study group), doctrinal principles (fatherhood), as well as images of antiquity balanced with more modern imagery. The style and images of the photographs seem to appeal to all ages, from children to adults, though there seems to be an emphasis towards younger adults.
#18: African Methodist Epsicopal Zion | AMEZ.org
The African Methodist Episcopal Zion church’s website has a heavy visual emphasis on upcoming events. As a part of the event promotion, leadership is highlighted.
#19: American Baptist Churches USA | ABC-USA.org
The American Baptist Churches USA website is almost entirely focused on upcoming events and summits, though some imagery points to religion in action (group prayer) and service. The audience for this website, based on the visuals, appears to be geared toward younger adults.
#20: Jehovah’s Witnesses | JW.org
The Jehovah’s Witness website has a heavy visual emphasis on religion in action (especially preaching the gospel), but simultaneously emphasizing global outreach and reading scriptures. Other doctrinal points are emphasized. The website seems to appeal to families and younger age groups, with a cartoon for small children.