More Americans went to church yesterday, Mother’s Day, than any other day in the past year besides Christmas and Easter. And thanks to church photo booths, more families than ever have the pics to prove it.
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.
While churches pay more attention to branding, aesthetics, and engagement, particularly in contemporary non-denominational and seeker-sensitive contexts, Christians are caught between the instinct to capture meaningful moments in stylish church settings and caution over leveraging their faith for likes.
Like hundreds of other congregations, Piedmont Chapel in High Point, North Carolina, has used photo backdrops for special services since its launch in 2014, inviting attendees to smile beside a Christmas tree, hold signs with its Easter logo, and have their kids pose with costumed characters.
“We’re always looking to provide value to peoples’ lives,” said Kendall Conner, the church’s creative pastor and a graphic designer. “To those who are uneasy about providing a photo op at church… I’d encourage them to look at the togetherness that they can bring. Families that may not take a photo together all year long may get their chance at your church.”
Churches direct attendees to take their own selfies; station a volunteer there to capture a picture for you; or have a professional photographer who will post or print the photos. Signs may suggest tagging the church’s social media handle or using a designated hashtag for the event.
Their marketing and communications staff usually oversee the look of a backdrop for a particular occasion, while the teams tasked with administering “weekend experience” work on the logistics of where to set them up, choosing somewhere that would be convenient and well-lit, explained Veturis, who now serves as director of digital engagement at Bayside Church in Northern California.
For over a decade, American churches have embraced social media as an evangelism tool, as they’ve done with other communication technologies over the years. But unlike earlier formats, social media is personal and in-the-moment, turning each churchgoer into a potential outlet for broadcasting a selfie with the sermon series logo or a clip from the worship set.
“For our churches, social media has given our members a larger platform than ever to share the things that they care about—their faith and their family,” said Conner. “If our church is able to reach more people through members sharing their Sunday experience through Instagram or Facebook, we encourage it. In fact, we have had many new guests attend our church simply because they heard about us on social media.”
But church leaders must also consider the new impulses of the social media age, both in how they use the platforms and how they enable others to do so.
“The photo is part of the celebration, a display of the church’s importance in the life of a believer, and at the same time, it can be a display of our piety, so that we expect to be admired for our religious observance,” said Trevin Wax, author of This is Our Time. “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?”
Kuller Callaway, assistant professor of theology and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary, noted aspects of the church photo booth trend worth celebrating. When Christians are drawn to Instagram, it can reflect their desire as image-bearers to be image-makers, he said, and he’s seen firsthand how his own church has benefited from sharp design and a marketer’s eye in the worship setting.
“When we use Instagram to advertise not just, ‘Here’s what it looks like to be at our church and to be a part of our community,’ but, ‘Here’s what it feels like.’ That’s something you can’t just talk about,” the former pastor said.
“But, you have to pause and go, ‘At what point has that co-opted our message? At what point has that become the actual goal—the likes or impressions or whatever—and is that the measure we’re using to determine whether it’s ‘successful’? That’s one of the dangers, we mistake impressions for real, embodied incarnation of the gospel.”
Others shared concerns about how a dependence on technology can favor disembodiment and commodification of worship “as but another location in which one can take a selfie.”
“The spirit of the age is always a side effect of the dominant technology of the age,” said Wheaton University communication professor Read Schuchardt. “The digital media world produces a two-fold paradox: 1) it empties American churches … by universalizing and personalizing the gnostic heresy through 12 hours of disembodied media ingestion per day, and 2) simultaneously leaves the remnant faithful in need of the only cultural validation that is left, which is a social media post.”
Schuchardt doesn’t think churches need to completely abandon photo setups, but he does recommend caution around the approach: “There is nothing wrong with Instagram booths in churches. But woe to the media team leader who thinks this will cause the church to grow, or be a reason for outsiders to want to attend, rather than not attend, any particular church.”
But advocates for social media savvy church outreach see their efforts not as a gimmick but as a chance to meet believers in the digital spaces where they already live out their faith. More than half of practicing Christian millennials post Bible verses to their social media channels monthly or more, according to Barna Research. Other Barna surveys have found churchgoing women are as likely as women on average to use Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, and often are more optimistic about their potential as a tool for connection and spiritual encouragement.
As Instagram has become more brand-driven in recent years, younger generations of Christians are simultaneously drawn to and critical of the picture-perfect curation seen on their social media feeds, whether snapshots of smiling families posed in front of trendy, well-designed backdrop or flat lay photos of their devotionals paired with a morning coffee.
Writer and seminarian Abigail Dodds last month challenged Christian women to not let their social media cynicism lead them to abandon Instagram. She urged believers to intentionally strategize to reflect Christ on the platform—rather than cede it to secular or pseudo-Christian voices.
When asked about the tension between witnessing and showing off, she told CT:
Motives are key here. We have to lay our hearts before the Lord and honestly ask if we’re trying to be the mascot for some tribe or what some have called the “super-peer” among a group of women.
When we’re trying to make a name for ourselves, we can be sure that what we’re doing is seeking glory for ourselves and using God as a means to that end… But when we seek to make Christ’s name known and our name a lost footnote, the tenor of our sharing leaves both ourselves and our hearers more desirous of him and his goodness, not ourselves, or a brand, or even a particular lifestyle.
Of course, the church marketers behind the lobby photo booths recognize the pressures of Instagram as well as anyone—“we live in a time when people are consumed with self-image and self-perception,” Veturis said—but, from a branding perspective, if attendees are going to pull their phones out anyway, why not direct them to a nice space to do it?
“Media walls simply create space and encourage people to get together to capture the moment, something Gen X and Y have grown up doing and is a deep-seeded part of their everyday lives,” she said. “Why wouldn’t we want to encourage them to continue sharing, but more so to share what God is doing in their lives at your church?”