Visual Arts Bring Life to Worship

May 15th, 2011
Image from Lakeview Church, via Flickr. © Jordon. Used under Creative Commons license.

“Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words.” St. Francis of Assisi, author of this saying, was a master at proclaiming the gospel in creative ways. The creator of the living nativity, St. Francis made the good news of the birth of Jesus accessible to the people of his time through the use of worship visuals. The living nativity has helped viewers throughout the centuries encounter the Holy. A swaddled child in the midst of donkeys, sheep, and cattle touches something inside us, connecting us with mystery and wonder. Though we may not recall the words to the gospel birth narrative, we remember our first experience with the living nativity: the earthy aroma, the loud cries of animals and baby, the soft browns of the cow’s winter coat, the plush textures of the lamb’s fur, and the felt emotions as the Gospel became tangible before our very eyes.

The visual arts used in worship bring the gospel to life. They bid us to make the biblical story our own story by engaging our God-given imagination. They invite our response in much the same way a good piece of art or a spectacular sunset evokes a felt response in the viewer. Beautiful, liturgical art kindles in our hearts a remembrance of the connection between beauty and God. It inspires within us a sense of awe, something our modern society has lost.

Worship visuals and liturgical art do not refer to simply “decorating” the sanctuary to make it attractive, though the sanctuary may indeed look stunningly beautiful when the visuals are installed. Liturgical art is art as proclamation, prayer, and praise. Its purpose is not to strive for beauty, though beauty may indeed be a byproduct. Neither does it aim to produce a “wow” experience that appeals to the crowd. Much like preaching, liturgical art strives to be faithful to Scripture. Using symbols, colors and textures instead of words, worship visuals interpret the good news. They are a means of “preaching the gospel at all times.”

As a liturgical artist and ordained elder in the United Methodist Church, my process for creating worship visuals begins like the creation of a good sermon. After several readings of the text and careful exegesis, I wait for revelation. Using the prayer form, lectio divina or praying the Scriptures, I listen for God’s word. I listen for the meaning of the text for the contemporary worshipping community. I listen for inspiration. Including others in the listening and waiting makes the end results richer. Just as a lectionary study group energizes an individual’s preaching, collaborating with others in creating liturgical art inspires the process. Group study and prayer with the preacher, church musicians and worship teams enhance the creation of visual arts used in worship.

When the message of the text has been identified, the next step involves searching for metaphors or similes needed to visually interpret the message. Jesus masterfully used these means of comparison when he spoke in parables about the Kingdom of God: “The kingdom of God is like…” a mustard seed, leaven, the pearl of great price, and a net full of fish. Metaphors make the unseen visible and accessible, just like the ancient rabbinical tradition of Midrash: telling stories about Scripture in order to experience the fullness of God’s Word. When Jesus told parables he participated in Midrash by breaking open the meaning of the Scripture for his listeners. Visual metaphors accomplish the same thing.

The end result from the collaborative process of creating worship visuals often surprises even the seasoned artist. If the artist and others involved in the process have been faithful listeners, the results are usually greater than expected. The worship visuals take on a life of their own, as if the Spirit of the Great Creator has molded them into what they were intended to be all along: A visual manifestation of the dynamic Word of God.

I’ve been fortunate on occasion to observe how others respond to liturgical art produced from the above collaborative process. Following one particular worship service, a young man slowly approached the altar, and stood very still for a few moments as if drinking in the visual proclamation of the gospel. Several minutes passed before it became evident something was awakening in him. He raised his arms above his head, extending his open hands into the air as if he were going to shout, alleluia. Instead, he stood there in silence, lost in wonder and praise. Linear time vanished and God’s time, real time, expanded into the silence of the blessed moment.

When used in the service of the sacred, the visual arts stir within us an awareness of the Holy. They function as icons, opening windows to God, connecting us to the sacred imbued in all of life, and helping us claim our part in it. Worship visuals are no longer a luxury; they are a necessity. We live in a world that is increasingly hungry for encounters with God. Liturgical art provides pathways for these encounters that are often too deep for words.

For some Protestant Christians there remains a reluctance to use images in worship. This hesitance may be an unexamined carry-over from the Reformation when images in churches were destroyed because they were associated with the corruption of the ecclesial orders. Spartan surroundings in worship became the norm in order to disassociate with the indulgences of sixteenth century Roman Catholicism. Yet, even in austere sanctuaries there remained images––a cross, the bible on an altar, and the pulpit. We cannot get away from images.

Images speak more loudly than words, especially in our media-savvy culture where we are surrounded by computer screens, HDTV, movies, and advertising. Images have the power to influence us because our brains are wired to process our experiences as images first, and secondly, as words. Images are our primary way of processing our lives. They shape us and transform us. Madison Avenue knows this well, exploiting this truth to sell products. Ask young teens what they want to look like and most likely, they will point to images in the media.

Our culture lauds images of excess, greed, and status. None of these images can help us grow toward freedom and wholeness, into our very best self. Neither do they help us to become more forgiving, more loving, or more Christ-like. Our culture’s images do not invite us to become Kingdom builders; they entice us to become consumers. The question is not, “will you be shaped by images?” The question is “by which images do you want to shaped?” In the twenty-first century church, the visual arts have the power to “preach the gospel at all times.” They can proclaim Christ to a world in need of healing in ways that words cannot convey. Carefully crafted worship images enhance the spoken word, opening a window to experience the divine Creator––who speaks to us through visual metaphors.

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