Setting the Stage for Series

Posted on January 18th, 2013
This article is featured in the The Ultimate Sermon Series Issue (Feb/Mar/Apr 2013) issue of Circuit Rider

I come from a long line of furniture rearrangers. My earliest memories are of my mom and her mom sitting in my grandmother’s living room (actually a remodeled one-room schoolhouse) talking through all the possibilities a furnished room could offer. They were always mentally arranging and rearranging things, and then they would share their ideas with each other . . .

“We could put the piano on that south wall, Marian.”

“But where would we put Great-grandma’s hutch?”

“Well it could move around to the wall over next to the window. . .”

On and on they would go. I’d listen intently and try to picture each move they described right along with them. What that gentle banter taught me early on was that things can be re-arranged. They can change. Despite our limited financial resources, we’re not stuck here with the “same ol’ same-ol’.” We can make the very same room look totally different every single week if we want to. I truly love the concept that we can change our environment to suit the needs of the occasion.

Imagine my dismay when I first stepped inside a traditional church building and found all the furniture in the sanctuary bolted to the floor! That particular church configuration spoke volumes to my spirit. It said, “We’re committed to never changing; we must keep things exactly as they are week after week, year after year.”

Thankfully, worshipping communities inhabiting even the most traditionally furnished church buildings are discovering new ways to use old spaces. Whether it’s removing some fixtures from the platform, placing media screens in tasteful locations, or adding candles or other sources of warm, ambient light, there is always a way to breathe new life into the worship space.

Design Matters

Meaningful, authentic worship is best expressed in pictures and stories in the organic context of where real people live. Intentional design of the worship space is simply creating a fresh environment where the story, message and theme of any given weekend message can best be expressed and lived out.

At Ginghamsburg Church, this process is achieved by our “Makeover Design Team” after the worship team determines the overall concept. The worship team meets seasonally to envision upcoming message series—four to six weeks of messages that together generate a significant dialog on any given subject. Each series “theme” will then be fleshed out as a picture—a screen graphic that will exude a certain stylized vibe, a color scheme, look, and emotion.

As that graphic art evolves, it becomes the hub of our creative work and a template to anchor the series and give order to our individual worship pieces. As the lead stage designer, I gather a core of our makeover team to collaborate and dream together about all the possibilities our worship environment could present – focusing particularly on the stage design. Allow me to take you through the various steps of this informal and artistic process.

The Creative Process

In the spring of 2012 our Makeover Design Team set out to design a stage that would provide an engaging backdrop for our seven-week series on the Holy Spirit. Dan Bracken, our graphic artist, landed on a simple look, using the symbolism of doves flying through the words “The Holy Spirit.”

Dan’s careful addition of a light ray and a mysterious, mostly-black color scheme afforded me a beautifully limited color palate to dream around. I’d been inspired by a recent trip to Columbus, Ohio, where I’d noted a storefront display at my favorite ideation destination, Anthropologie. Their shop window design consisted of an artistic arrangement of what most of us would consider trash – smashed aluminum cans – but it was beautiful. I knew I wanted to use that idea and I knew that we would need a LOT of cans. Clean cans.

We wound up incorporating a backdrop wall covering of “weed cloth” (purchased in rolls from the landscaping department at Lowe’s or Menards) to give us our dramatic backdrop. Following a sketch I provided, the team hammered hundreds of smashed cans to the wall using small nail brads. One thousand can lids (secured from our local Pepsi dealer) rounded out the design. Finally, ketchup bottles filled with paint allowed the team to “throw” painted accents over the lids, enhancing the feeling of movement.

We lit the stage walls with our standard, floor-mounted LEDs. IKEA paper pendant lights were hung from a suspended PVC grid and arranged in such a way as to mimic doves in flight across the stage.

Total cost for materials and lights came in at $225. Our church family loved this design. They especially loved that we recycled ordinary objects to create an extraordinary design.

Isn’t God Enough?

Right now I’m pretty sure I hear someone saying, “Isn’t God enough? Why do we need all this ‘stuff’ to create environment?” (Trust me, some weeks I’ve been tempted to ask that myself!) The truth is that while God may be temporarily “invisible” to us, God’s creation is all around us—and visual design reflects the glory of God. God has gifted us with an unending palette of color and an incredible montage of humanity. In these elements we catch glimpses of God’s character. We only have to look around our world to be reminded that our God is a God of amazing variety—a master designer. Why not celebrate that richness in worship?

All of creation sings the glory of God. Each weekend we simply attempt to portray one small part of God’s character. As human beings made in God’s image, we use God’s palette of color to brighten dark lives. We imitate God’s creative initiative toward humankind as we present the gospel using metaphors, parables, and real-life stories. In this we follow the example of Jesus, who often spoke in metaphors and frequently used visual imagery to describe timeless truth. “I will make you fishers of men,” Jesus said (Matthew 4:19). “You are the salt of the earth” (Matthew 5:13). Styling the stage is simply our attempt to bring God’s imagery to life, to provide our faith communities a place inside the story where we can be in the moment with God.

Creating Spaces

As you begin to recreate your own worship space, identify several places where key “anchor displays” could be arranged. It is often unnecessary to redecorate an entire worship area, especially one that already has breathtakingly beautiful stained-glass windows or other unique architectural statements. In traditional spaces, I’ve found it best to focus on two or three key locations where visual displays would enhance the message. Start by focusing on the area originally created for an altar-type arrangement—your chancel, stage, or platform. Your visual display becomes a modern-day altar, a place where we can be reminded of God’s presence and power.

In our environment we often create two anchor displays, one on either end of the large stage, and sometimes a smaller version closer to the center. This allows more people in the room to see and experience the display. Overall balance is important, so we look at the different “pieces” we’ll have on the stage each weekend and allow what is happening with people to dictate décor placement. The band is usually fairly stationary, but we may have other people or props that require space in the stage area. Additional musicians, interview sets, a drama or a dance, a table with communion elements, and even stacks of Bibles we give out once a year to our third-graders all require dedicated space. Each weekend’s unique elements require us to constantly rethink our placement, always creating a fresh picture of worship. I love this challenge—“all-new day, all-new chances!” It’s like getting a new worship space every single weekend, fifty-two times a year.

When talking about true life change, folks tend to speak about a message they

heard or an experience they had. I want to believe that it is possible for all of us to have powerful God experiences. While worship designers cannot make that happen in the context of our weekly worship celebrations, we can certainly prepare the places where God can powerfully show up. Through the use of video, music, graphic and visual arts, and last but definitely not least, creative environments, we can awaken the senses back to focus on God in worship. Then once we’ve prepared we can step back and allow the Holy Spirit to do God’s best work in the lives of those present.

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