Visual Illustrations for Teaching, Preaching, Presenting, and Beyond

Over at the ever-useful CMS website, Emily Carlton observes:

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

Carlton is spot on. We indeed live in a visual culture. And this isn’t a bad thing, necessarily–it’s an opportunity. We can ask, as teachers, preachers, and communicators interested in forming missionary disciples, how do we ensure our ways of communicating resonate in our visual culture? 

Bergsma illustration via

Earlier this year, at the Notre Dame Preaching Conference: Alyce McKenzie offered this lecture on the topic. And, I think one of the finest modern examples, is John Bergsma‘s use of stick-figures to unpack the Bible…check it out here and here. Bergsma’s illustrations are memorable, simple, and impactful–I’ve used them with preschoolers, elementary school children, and adult seminary students–all with great results! 🙂

Do you have any great examples or best practices in visual illustration? Share in the Comments!


Theology Teacher Problems [as Gift]

This is why designing theology curricula and syllabi is hard. 🙂

When wading around in matters liturgical, one has in fact stepped into the headwaters of a river (lex orandi) which can be followed downstream into any number of channels (lex credendi). Liturgical theology involves ecclesiology, because the Church is the people that this ritual creates; and ecclesiology involves Christology since that is whose body the Church is; and this requires triadology for an ontological Christology and soteriology for a functional Christology; and redemption outlines a doctrine of sin, which assumes knowledge of what it means to stand aright, which is a doctrine of creation. (David Fagerberg, On Liturgical Asceticism, “Century List” #27).


Happy evaluating and planning this summer and beyond!

Lifelong Learning & Technology: Implications for Faith Formation

The Pew Research Center recently published an interesting new study on how Americans utilize technology as a part of lifelong learning. While the study looked at all subjects of interest (i.e. from hobbies, to work, to new skills), we in ministry can apply many of the findings to our own design, planning, and conduct of lifelong faith formation opportunities for adults in our parishes.

Some key lessons for ministry:

The harvest is plenty! Almost 3/4 of adults consider themselves “lifelong learners.” Thus, if the adults in our midst care about their relationship with Jesus (this foundation has to come first–all too often we push learning before conversion), the vast majority will want to learn more.

Multiple [and virtual] locations matter. “By an 81% to 52% margin” adult learners are “more likely to cite a locale such as a high school, place of worship or library as the site at which personal learning takes place than they are to cite the internet.” Now, don’t use this as a reason to immediately discount online-learning–52% used the internet. That’s a lot.


Benefits align with parish life. Check out the benefits adults report from lifelong learning (see chart to the right). From a discipleship perspective, I see human formation, community formation for volunteer ministry service, and more all happening here. And, the adult learners consider these benefits, not a burden we’re heaping on them. Consider–are adults participating in lifelong faith formation experiencing these broad benefits?

Margins exist. The study found that, “As a rule, those adults with more education, household incomes and internet-connecting technologies are more likely to be participants in today’s educational ecosystem and to use information technology to navigate the world.” And, the same often goes for faith formation in parish life (or through diocese or regional centers). While faith formation for a life of discipleship certainly has an “educational” component and should use sound pedagogy–an overemphasis on intellectual formation can be a huge turn-off, and even an insurmountable barrier, to those with lower literacy levels and negative associations with “classrooms” and “schools.” Jesus desires that all come to know Him and the eternal life offered to us (starting now) as disciples–we must ensure that adult faith formation can fit the needs of those in our communities, especially those on the educational-margins.

New methods of learning are not widely known. This part mostly applies to deacon and lay ministry formation (facilitated by dioceses or other regional/national agencies). Distance learning, MOOCs (Massively Open Online Courses), and Digital Badges are largely unknowns. We don’t leverage them well or in the nuanced ways to enhance formation (rather than merely substitute for F2F (face-to-face) learning). Currently models of formation are based on centralized institutional models, rather than competency models tailored for adult students and ministries with diverse needs. We have a huge opportunity to improve here and ultimately provide better formation for ministry that’s more economical and valuable for the ministries that need it the most.

Your thoughts? Anything else in the study with significant implications for adult faith formation?

Review: “Room 24: Adventures of a New Evangelist”

Katie Prejean‘s new book Room 24: Adventures of a New Evangelist (Ave Maria Press, 2016) is a quick and easy delight to read that communicates the Church’s wisdom on the essence and spirituality of evangelization in a humorous and personal way.

What it’s not: This book is not about ministry leadership, planning, strategy, vision, or even best practices. So what is it then? This book is about you. The evangelist.

In addressing the spirituality of evangelization and the person of the evangelist in an approachable way, Prejean fills a huge void.

Here’s the reality–while there are many today who have swum in the waters of evangelizations nearly our entire lives and/or gobble up the massive number of Church documents describing evangelization (there are simply too many great ones to name since the Second Vatican Council!), there are a lot of Catholics in the pews, in volunteer roles, and even in pastoral ministry who aren’t quite sure about this “evangelization” stuff. It sounds “new” to them (even though it’s not). Evangelization comes across like a meaningless buzzword. They readily admit, when asked in a safe and supportive setting, that they don’t understand it, don’t know what it means, and don’t really own it or “feel” like it’s for them.


In Room 24, Prejean takes her first-person experiences during her first year (or so) of teaching high school theology and focuses each on revealing different aspects of our Catholic theology of evangelization. She keeps it short. Though she’s theologically well-versed, she leaves out all the complicated magisterial document citations. If you’ve been wanting to learn about evangelization, but get turned off by the length and writing style of Church documents, this book could be for you. It’s like sitting down in a coffee shop and listening to a friend tell funny stories. And then walking away realizing you learned something. Learned a lot. And, probably want to go pray about it.

The book is entirely written using examples from teaching high school theology in a Catholic school. That being said–I think the lessons on the spirituality of evangelization are broadly applicable, and I’ll be teasing out some of those in future blog posts.

Recommendations? In conclusion, this book is short enough (at 138 pages) that it wouldn’t be a waste of anyone’s time to read it. If you know evangelization, this book is a good window into the spiritual lives of teens and an enjoyable reminder of why we do what we do–that you’re not alone out there! If you’re less comfortable with “evangelization” and have been hearing it more and more but just don’t want to feel “out of the know” while learning theology–this is a fantastic book to pick up. Read it to be encouraged and go deeper into touching what it means to be an evangelist of the Good News of Jesus Christ.

Disclosure: Ave Maria Press provided me a free copy of this book for the purpose of review; opinions expressed are my own.

Christian Education ≠ Academic Rigor + Disciplined Behavior

From Brian Douglas at First Things, a timely caution relevant to all Christian educators, administrators, families [not just those involved in “Classical” education] as we embark on this new academic year:

“The second temptation is to believe that academic rigor plus disciplined behavior equals a good education. It is easy for a classical Christian school to become known more for its uniforms, homework expectations, strictness, and the like, than for its gracious, loving environment. Yet we ought not treat education like a simple input-output situation, in which the right learning environment can program our students to be Christians. While students do need high expectations for their work and conduct, focusing on order becomes hazardous when it overtakes the joy of experiencing God’s grace. When this happens, students may learn to jump through the hoops, obey the rules, do the right things, but they do not learn to love God and others. That is moralism, the worst enemy of true Christianity.

Creating a truly gracious classroom is much harder than creating an orderly classroom. It is a challenge that requires spiritual preparation far beyond classroom management techniques. But the only Christian education is a thoroughly gracious education. It sounds so basic, but it remains true: Without God’s grace, we can only produce narcissists who are more focused on their own successes and failures than on the eternal reality of God’s love for his people.”

The part of Douglas’ warning that rings truest for me is observing many Catholic Christian schools tout academic success (on tests, high school or college admissions, etc.) without comparable marketing attention given to the school as a disciple-making environment, etc.

A second highly relevant point is his caution against mere moralism. Growing up in a predominantly Catholic part of the United States, Catholic schools seemed to be synonymous with training kids/teens to have sound moral behavior (without a specific mention of the empowerment of the Holy Spirit necessary to even undertake a more holy, more moral life as a disciple of Jesus Christ!).

What are the marks of a Christian school that is truly a ministry of Christian education, and not simply just another school choice in your area? Have you seen well-established Christian Catholic schools evolve to become more focused on disciple-making? Or, is it the “start ups” (aka the newer Christian institutions) who are able to project this vision more clearly?

Why Study God? Theology, Books, Personal Conversion, and Self-Understanding

I taught my first undergraduate theology course this past fall. Near the end of the semester, a student noted that while teaching, I always seemed to be mentioning books or theologians 🙂 Guilty as charged. I have found reading theology to be a formative experience in my life of faith and can’t help but share my favorite quotes, lines, and ideas. This student, who was relatively new to the formal study of theology wanted to know what books I’d recommend. What a great question! What are the books that have truly impacted my relationship with God? Books that were not merely enlightening at an informational level or great for some exam or paper–but books that spoke to my heart and faith life. Here’s my list. I emphasize that this is my list to make the point that I think part of the joy of reading and studying theology is finding others–theologians from another era or another continent–who speak your language, your dialect or sing in your vocal range (to use a different metaphor) when it comes to their own understanding and articulation of the faith. All of us undergo conversion out of our unique experiences, our individual struggles of faith. While we share the same beliefs (in the grand scheme of things), we don’t always come to those truths through the same paths. We face different struggles of doubt, disagreement, and discouragement. Reading works of theology gives each of us a chance to hear our own stories through the observations and reflections of others–and as we hear Christian truths in others’ words, we may come to better understand our own beliefs in communion with the Church and how we reached those critical assents of faith. Okay, so here’s the start of my list (from my early 20s): Romano Guardini’s The Spirit of the Liturgy (1930) I first heard a quote from this book mentioned at my secular undergraduate college in a 400-level Natural Resources course taught by Prof. Richard Baer. Prof. Baer (who has a truly unique educational and ministerial background) then went on to summarize the main points of Guardini’s chapter “The Playfulness of the Liturgy.” For the first time, through the ideas of Guardini, I understood why I’d (for the previous 5 years) attended both Catholic Mass and weekly services at a fundamentalist Baptist church. Though doctrinally I identified more as Baptist at that time, I found an outlet and expression for that faith in Mass. Inspired to read Guardini on my own, I discovered that my liturgical spirituality did make sense 🙂 even though it would be many years before I fully assented doctrinally to the Catholic faith. In short, “The Playfulness of the Liturgy” helped my 20-year-old self discover why I worshiped at Mass. C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, Mere Christianity, and The Great Divorce I picked up The Screwtape Letters from a big box bookstore a few years after I’d graduated college. I’m not sure why I picked it up. I remember reading parts of the Chronicles of Narnia as a kid and not liking the books. But, C.S. Lewis had certainly become a popular author for young adult Christians in the U.S. in the 2000s, so I suppose I figured I should give him a try. Once I started reading the book, I couldn’t put it down. It was just so true. Such an insightful portrayal of human existence. From Lewis, I found the words to talk about sin and understand it in my own life. I went on to read Mere Christianity and The Great Divorce. I can honestly say, I recall being extremely disappointed by The Great Divorce the first time through–it just didn’t make sense. But, for some reason I was compelled to read it again, and after that second read…bingo…I had an entrance point, a way into understanding the Catholic teaching of salvation (+eternal life, purification, damnation, etc.). Another example of finding a theologian who could explain truths to me in a dialect I could understand. Then in my late 20s, I started graduate school and formally studying theology for the first time [I’d never attended a Catholic/Christian school before]. Now, formally studying theology in school is a little different. You don’t get to choose all of the books you read (but don’t worry, they can still have a deep impact!). A recent discussion surrounding review of the University of Notre Dame’s undergraduate curriculum has spurred an outpouring of reflection on the role of theology in the university and in the believer’s life of faith. In this same theme, “Oblation: Liturgy and Life” recently republished an article by Prof. John Cavadini, “Why Study God?: The Role of Theology at a Catholic University”. Cavadini writes:

As students come to understand the sophistication of the Catholic theological tradition, I find that their sympathy for it increases. They see riches where before they saw only old, irrelevant texts. They come to appreciate that there were difficult challenges in the church long before our own time, controversies much more heated than some of those we observe today. They discover a beauty they had not expected, a variety where previously they had assumed there would be only uniformity. They find out that Scripture is not as “primitive” as they had thought. They learn that, while not reducible to reason, faith has its own logic. They learn to distinguish between what is reasonable and what is provable. They learn some of the basic doctrines of the Catholic faith, not as doors that close off all questioning, but as openings to lifelong reflection on the ultimately ineffable mystery of God’s love, which is the ultimate referent of all doctrine. It is the formation of an intellectual life continually engaged with this mystery that is the principle benefit of theology as a field of study.

Yes! It kind of goes without saying that as a graduate M.Div. student in the lay ministry formation program I came back to school (like my classmates) with a high degree of affinity and sympathy for the Catholic intellectual tradition. But, even for those pursuing a ministry track, there is always more to discover.While I was “converted” through a reading of the Catechism in my mid-20s and think the CCC is a wonderful gift in the Church, there are doctrines that cry out for more reflection, more analysis. As a student, when you find a theologian who speaks “in your language” and helps you to see the richness of our tradition and “ineffable mystery of God’s love,” this is when a book becomes a means of personal conversion. Thinking back to graduate school then, I’d say the the theologians who most had this impact on me were Irenaeus, Yves Congar O.P., Louis Bouyer C.O., and Aidan Kavanagh O.S.B. Parts of Irenaeus’ Against Heresies read like a powerful sermon that had me affirming, “Amen! Amen!” silently in my head. The centrality of redemption and salvation was striking. Earlier in my life, I’d experienced Catholicism without a clear message of salvation in Jesus Christ–Irenaeus’ writings assured me that the kerygma was at the heart of the early church. Yves Congar’s I Believe in the Holy Spirit and The Meaning of Tradition and Louis Bouyer’s The Word, Church and Sacraments in Protestantism and Catholicism and The Church of God: Body of Christ and Temple of the Spirit all gave me a language for understanding (and loving) Catholic ecclesiology. What the Church is. What Tradition is. How the Church remains Church. I’d assented to the Catholic faith in my mid-20s as an act of faith. I believed as an act of yielding to the Holy Spirit. It was hard, but brought great joy and fruit. It was something I believed to be true–but I didn’t have the words to say why. Congar and Bouyer supplied the words to bring light to, yet not contain or subdue, the widest and most awe-inspiring truth of the Holy Spirit making and sustaining the Church. Finally, Aidan Kavanagh’s The Shape of Baptism: The Rite of Christian Initiation. Now at first this might seem like an oddly specific topic/book to be on a list of theological reading that formed my faith–especially since I’d never participated in the RCIA as a catechumen or sponsor. However, as someone who did not explicitly respond to the full offer of grace in my own infant baptism until many many years later, I’d always had a nagging wonder about baptism. What was this sacrament (and my childhood initiation through Eucharist and Confirmation) really about? Discovering Kavanagh’s writing on the sacraments of initiation was for me an experience of, as Cavadini described, “discover[ing] a beauty they had not expected, a variety where previously they had assumed there would be only uniformity.” Thanks to my students from the fall for prompting me to really sit down and think about theologians that formed my faith–books with resonance beyond the classroom. I’d of course recommend these books to anyone! (I love recommending books, haha 😉 ). But, I think part of the beauty of studying theology is the discovery of just the right voices that speak to your own unique background, questions, and struggles–so I think everyone’s list will look a bit different. The important thing is to keep your eyes and ears open to the wonderful potential for theology to (gasp!) actually provide insights into our deepest questions of faith.

Memphis Teacher Residency: An Example of Church Partnership for Scale and Social Impact

As virtual participation in this year’s Catholic Social Ministry Gathering, we’ve talked about transformative scale and opportunities for partnership and social impact in social ministry. Today I saw a creative example of churches supporting the public sphere through a creative and entrepreneurial extension of education ministry.

Check out this article on the Memphis Teacher Residency (MTR). MTR has much in common with Teach for America, and even more so with the ministries of the Notre Dame Alliance for Catholic Education and Providence Alliance for Catholic Teachers.

The main difference worth highlighting is that the MTR uniquely partners those explicitly motivated by a call to distinct Christian witness with public education–this is an excellent example of the different structures of education we in Catholic ministry/parishes ought to be considering during our own annual, Catholic Schools Weeks (that in my opinion, fail to live up to their full potential).

Here’s an example of how something like MTR could help a local parish move to a larger scale or greater degree of social impact:

“MTR only goes into neighborhoods where there are already community development programs with which we can partner, because education is only one piece of the puzzle,” Jemison said. “If a neighborhood has a great school but poor housing, no health care, no healthy food, no jobs, no transportation, that great school isn’t going to make that much of a difference,” he said. “That is why it has to happen in the larger community-development context.”

While a parish might not have an especially large number of young adults (I’m guessing the primary source of MTR teachers), a parish might have existing modes of delivering food assistance, health care advocacy, etc. A parish might have an old convent that could be used to house teacher-residents. A parish might have members with fund development experience who could use their expertise and gifts to generate the scholarships for teachers. A parish might have the extra land to start a community garden. The possibilities are endless. The key take-away is that impact matters. Yes, there’s authentic faithfulness and Gospel witness in starting small (say, an annual August “backpack drive” of school supplies for a local public school). But, we must also be attentive to times when the Holy Spirit is leading us to take bolder, more audacious steps as we live out our mission of reaching all nations with the Gospel, starting in the overlooked places right in our own cities or regions.