This isn’t the first time I’ve been asked “How can I do ministry with my photography?”. In fact I think it’s something that many Christian photographers think through at various levels. I would love to just post a quick paragraph with the answer. But I don’t think it’s a quick answer. So buckle up for a little bit of depth into my thoughts on the subject.
Here’s a paraphrased version of an email I received yesterday:
Like you, I’m a photographer. I enjoy it and have done several paid gigs, but I’m not looking to make it a full-time pursuit at this point. I love the Lord. He is my supreme desire and even when sinfully I put other things before Him. I “want to want” Him to be my sole desire. I know you seek to honor the Lord in all you do, so I’m hoping you might be able to share some wisdom that you may have gleaned.
The other day I built a shelf to house all of my photography gear. As I was putting my gear away, it struck me how much stuff I actually have. Like you, I shoot with the Canon 1D, have multiple 2.8, “L” series, and prime lenses.
I’m somewhat struggling a little with knowing just how to honor God with all of this equipment. It is my desire that whatever I do, whether eat or drink or take photographs, that it brings glory to God.
I tend to be a bit of an extremist and balance doesn’t come easy for me. I know the answer isn’t “Ok, your a Christian photographer, so you can only use a cheap point-and-shoot”. But I also don’t want to covet gear.
I guess I’m just looking for any insight that you’ve gained which really helped you to do your photography as unto the Lord to honor Him.
Maybe answering this question would make a good post on your blog. I’m sure others could be wondering the same things as well.
First of all let me say I think there are a lot of ways in a lot of different areas of life that you can use photography for ministry. However, for the sake of brevity in this post I’ll just focus on photography within the local church. First I would like to address how it could be a hinderance, followed by some really practical ways it can be used for effective ministry. As time permits in the future maybe I can address some other areas.
When I first started out doing photos for my church, it was just me and a point and shoot camera taking lots of photos at all the events, retreats, and my friends. After every event I picked out all my favorite images, put them on a CD and gave them to the church website people. Sometimes the images got put online and sometimes they didn’t. Sometimes they got put in slideshows and sometimes they didn’t. It’s been ten years since then, and very few people remember any of the photos. A few of them got used for a 40 year anniversary timeline for our pastor. And occasionally it’s fun to look back and reminisce about old times. I even remember one person telling me he found the church website and saw some of the photos and it made him want to come check it out as he was looking for a church. Ten years ago when I went on retreats I would spend most of my time taking photos of everything that was happening. I was somewhat involved in the retreat, but very distracted.
On a completely different level, at one point during my college career I decided to make a point to meet as many new visitors as possible on Sundays and make them feel welcome. I went out of my way to find people who looked like they didn’t fit or were new and introduced myself. I tried to be their friend, remember their name, and even took a few of them out to coffee. Ten years later many of those people still come up and remind me how I was the first person to really reach out to them and make them feel welcome at church and help them get plugged into the body. Now when I go on retreats I won’t bring my camera. I will really try to spend time getting to know people, talking about their spiritual lives, and ministering to their soul.
In all of the above cases my motive was to serve Christ and the church. But when it comes down to it, people’s hearts and the GOSPEL are what really matters. To my shame I think there were points in my earlier life where I was just taking photos to feel like I was “serving” and use it as an excuse to avoid the real ministry. The more difficult ministry of sharing the gospel and caring for people’s souls. Yes photography or any other skill can be used to the glory of God. But as you look at your time I think it’s incredibly important to evaluate where you can be the MOST effective, and spend more time doing ministry which will last through eternity. It’s just a guess, but I think caring for someone when they are in grief, or sharing the gospel with an unbeliever will last a lot longer in the eternal realm than some cool photos of Bible study retreat.
All that said, I think there are some effective ways you can use photography for ministry. However, some of those ways probably aren’t the most fun type of photography. In fact, effectively using your photo skills for ministry can sometimes just be tedious and boring. As you evaluate how to use your skills a good general rule of thumb is to ask yourself: is this a NEED which will help spread the gospel, or am I just trying to create a need so I can pigeon hole my desire to take photos into it? (Stop here and rethink that last sentence until it makes sense)
On a practical level, here are a few needs I have found at my church to use photography. The list isn’t exhaustive but it’s a start:
Missionaries- Most missionary families need good updated photos of their families almost every year to update their prayer cards, missions letters and websites. This is an easy and effective way to help them.
Address Book- Many ministries will have a church address book. It’s nice to have photos of everyone to match the name. But if you do it I would make sure to take on the work of organizing when you take the photos as well as categorizing and naming all the files appropriately. Don’t create a nightmare for the secretary by handing her a disk of unnamed unedited files in huge resolution to sort out and format.
Pastors- At larger churches it’s nice to have good uniform photos of the pastors and other leadership for the website so people can match a name with a face.
Families- Many families would love to have photos of their kids. But they can’t afford to buy a camera or to get professional ones taken. It can be a great opportunity to show them you care and develop a real friendship.
Church Events- Like a mentioned above I often think taking photos at various events can be more hinderance than help. But our church uses a number of photos I have taken from church events for wall posters, slideshows in the visitor center, and various brochures. Just make sure to sort, rename, and edit all the photos before you turn them over. Most secretaries don’t know how, and don’t have time to use Photoshop.
Conferences- For conferences I do live photo coverage and post images on the website a couple times a day during the conference. I get lots of emails thanking me from people who couldn’t attend. It adds another dimension to the live video/audio stream. They will also use the photos for the conference website and other promotional material they send out throughout the year. The key is to make sure there is a need. If your church doesn’t have a website for the conference, and doesn’t send out brochures than there isn’t much point.
Missions Trips- I’ve also done a lot of photos on missions trips. But I think the key to making that an effective ministry is to ask the missionaries what they need photos of. What do the need for their newsletter/blog/website? Make sure to get photos of everything they need, and then pick the best few, edit and categorize them, and mail them a disk ASAP. Missionaries are super busy and don’t have time, energy, or the knowledge base to sort and post process the 17,000 photos you took while you were there.
I go to a very large church and personally know more than a dozen professional and amateur photographers. Some of them for whatever reason don’t ever take a single photo for the church. That could be because they are too focused on other ministry, or it could be because they don’t care to minister. Others take photos of anything and everything, but they don’t format them, or they never give them to the church, or they even distract people from other things more important. However, there is a group of a good number who have multiple ministries, and one of those is taking the time to do some of the above with excellence. I think that is real ministry.
For me, part of becoming a full time photographer was that I would always have professional equipment to do ministry with. But there is a place for excellence as an amateur as well. I know two people in particular at our church who didn’t buy the most expensive cameras or lenses out there. But they bought equipment nice enough to create some great images. I see both of them striving in the sometimes tedious areas they picked serving with consistency and excellence through their photography.
I hope that answers your question Ben. Please feel free to leave comments if anyone has any other thoughts on the subject and I will be sure to reply. Also please forward this on to anyone else who you think might be interested in the subject.