On Church Photo Booths and Instagram Posts

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At Christianity Today, Kate Shellnutt reports on a new phenomenon—the rise of the church photo booths that make it easy for attendees on special occasions to take a picture and share it through social media. She writes:

In recent years, Instagram-friendly congregations have offered themed photo backdrops for attendees to mark special occasions. For Mother’s Day, Christians across the country posed in their church lobbies beneath floral garlands and colorful bunting, holding signs with messages like “We Heart Mom,” then posted and tagged their snapshots on social media.

These photo setups took off at local churches with the rise of smartphones and selfies over the past five years, according to church social media expert Haley Veturis. She first started using branded photo backdrops—resembling the “step and repeat” banners used on red carpets—at a conference in 2012, then went on to incorporate them into special events at Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church, one of the biggest megachurches in the country.

In the report, Kate quotes a number of observers (including me), weighing in on some of the benefits and drawbacks of this new practice. Below, I want to offer some additional context for the response I gave her. I also want to encourage pastors and church leaders to consider the way a “media ecology” affects our religious practice and mindset.

Impulse to Broadcast

One of the points I make in This Is Our Time is that the social media era has stirred up within us an impulse to become broadcasters—to immediately share whatever experience we deem worthy. The impulse to capture and broadcast is something that has spread to anyone with a smartphone. The combination of social media interaction and video capturing capability on a device that is close by at all times has led us to see and experience events as opportunities for broadcasting. We don’t just admire a sunset or enjoy a beautiful moment with the family; we’re inclined to share it through our broadcasting capabilities. This impulse is present in a worship service also.

Kate asks the right question when she considers the effect of that impulse on how we approach a worship service. On one level, it’s a natural human response. When we experience something glorious, we feel a strong inclination to share it and to invite others into the same experience, even if it’s only a taste. Experiencing God in worship—through song or sacrament or sermon—is something we long to share, to invite others into.

On another level, though, this natural inclination can be easily subverted by self-righteousness. Is my broadcasting a genuine invitation for others to step into this moment of joy and awe, or is it a display of my own experience and encounter with God? Is this invitation or display? Or both?

Who Knows the Heart?

The big question for me is this: Who knows your heart well enough to distinguish the righteous inclination to spread the joy of God’s people from the self-righteous inclination to appear a certain way before others? The trumpets may have sounded beautiful when the Pharisees practiced piety, but Jesus told us to beware of showiness.

Kate’s report explores the uneasiness of church leaders in wondering whether sharing a photo from the church lobby is simply another way of being a witness or if it distracts from or commodifies our participation. My guess is that, like many recent social media practices, it’s both. The photo is part of the celebration, a display of the church’s importance in the life of a believer; at the same time, it can be a display of our piety, so that we expect to be admired for our religious observance. This isn’t an either-or. It’s a both-and, I’m afraid. Who can truly discern all the tangled motivations in our hearts?

Bigger Challenge for Church Leaders

The more important question is this: How can pastors help guide their congregations around a propensity to look to Instagram or other platforms affirmation, community, distraction? How does the church speak into this?

The temptation for pastors is to accept these new practices without much thought. After all, it’s good “branding” for the church when members share their observance all over social media. I am not saying this practice is wrong, only that church leaders may have self-interested reasons for adopting it or encouraging it uncritically.

Whether or not a church chooses to make it easy for this kind of display, pastors need to be speaking to the heart motivations behind all of our displays on social media, not just an occasional photo in the church lobby.

  • What is happening in the heart that leads us to pursue a certain kind of persona online?
  • Where do we get this desire to know and be known?
  • How does it affect us? How does it change us?

We can talk about photos in the church lobby, but the transformations that have happened in the digital era are bigger than this, and it’s our job as pastors and church leaders to help people apply biblical wisdom in more than just this area.

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