5 ways to use visual learning in Christian formation

I wanted to follow up on our fun interview with Charlie Baber about using comics in youth group with some other ideas on incorporating visuals in Christian formation. But first, a couple of thoughts on why.

  • Visual images reduce barriers. When we say, “Read this book,” we instantly establish barriers to those who cannot (or cannot yet) read or those with learning disabilities. (And, yes, I note the irony of writing this.)
  • Visual images are available for all ages. Visuals are intergenerational. Older people and children may see very different things, but they can all have the same reference point.
  • Visual learning is part of our Christian heritage. Iconography, stained glass windows, religious art – all of this is part of our tradition. Why would we not want to include that in our education and understanding?
  • People learn visually. Let me put it this way:
Visual Learning

So what are some ways to use visuals in Christian formation, beyond showing a video and talking about it? Here’s some thoughts I had, but I am no expert, and I would love your input as well.

  1. Ask people to express their Biblical interpretation visually, rather than verbally. What if you offered a Bible study and instead of going around to get people’s interpretation through talking about it, you asked instead for people to draw their interpretation? (In Session 5 of CnC, A Mad Dash Through a Good Book, it might be a good idea to use this as a way to help youth summarize the book of the Bible they have read.)
  2. Draw on art as a starting point for discussion. I recently learned of The Minimum Bible, which tries to express each book of the Bible through one graphic visual representation. (The image up there is the artist Joseph Novak’s interpretation of the Acts of the Apostles.) Textweek.com also offers an Art Index to help you get started. And then, as Charlie mentioned, comics and graphic novels are another great resource.
  3. Create a congregational art or photo gallery on themes or seasons, no words required. What if instead of a booklet of written Lenten reflections, you invited people to submit an image or piece of art that conveyed something to them. What if you had a bulletin board on a theme like grace or forgiveness, and asked people to post the images that expressed that to them, creating a collage?
  4. Encourage doodling. Some studies indicate that doodling helps people to concentrate. Whether it be during a sermon or a Sunday School class, consider having clipboards and paper or scratch pads available for people – and let them know you don’t expect them to write notes; you just expect them to doodle.
  5. Invite someone to teach people how to express themselves visually or read visual art. We don’t need to do all the teaching. If we think having people be visually literate is important, why not include that in our formation program? Visit a museum, if there’s an exhibit that can help us explore the connection between art and faith. For example, each year the Oakland Museum of California has a special exhibit of Dias de los Muertos ofrendas that is a great starting place to explore many aspects of faith. And I was profoundly affected by an exhibit of the art of Stanley Spencer I saw many years ago. Here’s his painting The Crucifixion (1958):
The Crucifixion Stanley Spencer

The power and impact of images is another reason to include visuals in your formation program. You never know what will stick with people. But chances are good that a single image can have a profound effect on people at a deep and fundamental level that they may never be able to explain. And God can work there, as I know God has worked on me. Through art, through images, God can open people up to something beyond their rational understanding, and if we truly want to understand God, that is where we need to go.