How to Use Visual Illustration in the Church

How to Use Visual Illustration in the Church

September 20, 2017 by

If you asked the average church attendee what visuals in the church are, they’d probably mention announcement slides, worship backgrounds, sermon series, bulletins, or the logo. These visuals are great, but another type goes beyond mere branding and helps with understanding: illustration. Such visuals are harder to find today, but if we’re serious about helping people learn and share the good news of Jesus, we can’t ignore them.

Are We Reaching People Effectively?

Throughout the New Testament, Jesus used parables and simple stories to explain complex concepts. It was a brilliant move—Jesus’ crowds contained mostly illiterate people who lived in a culture with a strong oral tradition. That meant the crowds knew how to listen and re-tell stories.

Visuals can help people receive the good news of Jesus.

Today’s culture differs. Oral traditions are minimal. We’re flooded with ads, marketing, content, and images on a daily basis, so much so that we tend to tune it all out. We usually aren’t great listeners, either. But we are incredibly literate when it comes to visuals. In fact, a study conducted by MIT neuroscientists in 2014 found the brain could recognize and identify images seen for as little as 13 milliseconds.

The Numbers Don’t Lie

The MIT numbers might seem shocking, but other surveys and reports support the findings.

  • 65% of the population describes themselves as visual learners.
  • When information is presented verbally and visually, the retention rate after three days is six times greater than if it were presented only verbally.
  • Visual content is three times more likely to get shared on social media than any other type of content.

If you manage social media at your church or study the affects of sermon-related visuals on church attendees, you probably have qualitative proof to support the above numbers. If not, the numbers should still demonstrate just how important good visuals are to human learning, understanding, and recall. As church communicators, we can’t overlook that fact. Visuals can help people receive the good news of Jesus.

What Can the Church Do?

Fixing a church’s visual learning problem isn’t as easy as slapping some pictures on the screens. Studies show that visuals aren’t well received when they clearly employ stock photos, aren’t directly related to the content being shared, or are stretched or pixelated in some way.

We have to up our visual game with creative, unique, original visual experiences.

Some thought needs to be involved—for better or for worse, parishioners’ constant exposure to world-class marketing makes them much more sophisticated consumers of visual media. That means we, as church communicators, have to up our visual game with creative, unique, original visual experiences that capture people’s attention and imagination.

One of the best methods for doing that? Illustration. As a general communication tool but especially as a teaching tool, illustration affects everyone, not just children or artists. Illustrations transcend culture, age, gender, spoken language, and just about every other difference.

How Do We Incorporate Illustration in the Church? 

No singular answer for incorporating illustration into the church exists because every church is different. Learning what illustrations work takes time, experimentation, communication, and community involvement.

The best way to start, however, is to ask your church community what they need. You can also go to your church communicator peers for ideas, support, and feedback. And, when you start to create illustrations, share them! Your art could communicate an idea or help a person take a next step in their life as a Christ-follower.

The second step to getting started requires revisiting old material. Many evangelists are familiar with illustrations such as “Who’s on the throne?” or “Two cliffs.” These tools work because they help people visualize their own depravity and need for God. Start with those existing materials and build from there. And, if using other people’s resources, make sure to ask for permission and give credit!

Next, explore! There are many methods, styles, and tools you can use to create illustrations, such as sketchnotes, graphic recording, whiteboards, flipcharts, iPads, and whiteboard style videos. When in doubt, type in “(concept) illustration” in a search engine. You’ll see tons and tons of possibilities.

Practical steps to incorporate visual learning and illustrations into your church:

  • Get your pastor drawing on Sundays! In an ideal scenario, you want the person giving the sermon to present their ideas visually. But if your pastor is open to visuals but not to doing it themselves, have another person create the illustrations and place them in the Sunday slides ahead of time. BONUS! Get the congregation to draw illustrations or sketchnotes during the sermon for verbal, visual, and kinetic learning.
  • Simplify complex topics with illustrations. Some biblical concepts can be hard to convey with words, but an illustration can be grasped instantly. (3-in-1 trinity of God, anyone?)
  • Less text, more images. If your sermon slides are walls of text, find ways to reduce the words and increase the illustrations. You can even create a set of icons to help people identify specific things in the text, like a promise, sin, prophecy, or command.
  • Use the talent within your congregation. Identify people in your church who would love to help implement visual learning. Does someone in your congregation draw or take sketchnotes? Ask them (or hire them!) to use their images and share them with the church. If no one in your church draws but there is interest to learn, bring in an expert to teach a workshop. Then you’ll have a whole group within your church visualizing the sermon every week.

Illustration Best Practices:

  • Make sure your illustrations are clear and legible to everyone. Label each part of the illustration for added clarity.
  • Illustrations should be easy for others to replicate. Don’t make it so complicated that people can’t remember all the parts.
  • You don’t need to be Michelangelo. Stick figures can be incredibly effective. With illustrations, you want to go for memorable instead of masterpieces—recognizable rather than realism.
  • If you’re not sure where to start, ask three questions. What is the problem? What are the solutions? What is the ideal outcome?

Visual learning is effective for almost everyone, and it’s particularly useful in the church. There is no greater message that humanity needs to understand, learn about, and share than the message of Jesus Christ, and illustration is a great way to share it.


Ready to include more visuals in your church communication but need some graphic design help? Our Courageous Storytellers Membership Site has graphic design resources to get you started. Join now!

Image: (Creative Commons)
Post By:

Emily Carlton

Emily Carlton is a freelance illustrator and designer living in Nashville, Tenn., where she helps individuals, churches, and businesses visualize their messages through illustration. When she’s not working with her own clients, you can find her traveling and drawing for The Sketch Effect, a visual communication solutions company based in Atlanta.
Read more posts by | Want to write for us?

Comments are closed.